In the autumn of 2016, two things happened that shocked me. First, we had one of the most divisive elections in United States history. Second, I realized that I would soon turn 21. So I did what legions of Americans have done historically when we've gotten confused: I hit the road. One sweltering summer morning in 2017, I left Washington, D.C., in a gray Prius on a drive that would take me 6,000 miles, through 24 states. Throughout the trip, I interviewed 21-year-olds about their own future and the future of the U.S.
I sat with entrepreneurs in Illinois, a Sudanese refugee with a young son in Vermont, and construction workers in Pennsylvania. I spoke with a Dreamer in Little Rock and a cattle rancher in Aliceville, Alabama. In Indian Head, Maryland, I interviewed the 21-year-old mayor. While I was at the town hall, I interviewed the mayor's intern, also 21.
I heard amazing stories about love, death, fear, and hope. (And I only got one parking ticket.) But once I delved into hours of interview tape, I made three discoveries that I think define Generation Z.
The Optimism Gap
One of the first questions I asked was: When you think about the future of America, what is the first word that comes to mind?
I heard: "Scary." "Dumpster fire." "Destruction." Tomás from Vermont just sighed and said, "Oh, honey." A few people were optimistic, saying words like "hope" and "unity." But responses to this question were overwhelmingly pessimistic about politics, the economy, climate change, and other problems.
Next, I asked 21-year-olds: When you think about your own future, what is the first word that comes to mind?
The tone changed. "Hopeful." "Love." "Determined." Yulkendy, from Massachusetts, said "legacy," and explained, "I wake up every day in mind that I want to build a legacy." Caitlyn from West Virginia said "truck," because she was excited to buy a Ford F-150. Although some people said "uncertain" and "fear," a college student in Chicago summed it up: "Optimism.... My friends make fun of me for the amount of self-confidence I have."
This is an example of what the journalist David Whitman calls "the optimism gap." People are optimistic about their own lives, but as they zoom out to consider the country as a whole, this optimism transforms into pessimism.
In order to understand Generation Z, we must be aware of this optimism gap.
I next asked 21-year-olds: What is your greatest fear? I assumed that people—especially young people—would express a fear of change.
But over and over, 21-year-olds told me just the opposite. They said things like, "My biggest fear is that things just keep going on as they are."
The same word came up repeatedly: "I want to see things less stagnant," and "Success is ... not being stagnant," and "I would hope to never see people stay stagnant."
I call this attitude "stagnaphobia." And it makes sense that Gen Z would experience such a thing, when you look at everything that's happened in the past 21 years. America has experienced: a presidential election that ended in a tie, a terrorist attack on home soil, two wars, a near-depression, the explosion of social media, the legalization of same-sex marriage, and the country's first African-American president. When 21-year-olds were born, there was no Facebook, no Snapchat, no Twitter, no Lyft, no Wikipedia, no iPhones.
This was my second discovery: To Gen Z, stagnancy is scarier than change.
Making a Mark
I ended my interviews by asking: What would make a meaningful life for you?
If you look at the national media, you might think that young people are navel-gazing narcissists hiding away in their safe spaces. I didn't expect to hear Gen Z'ers admit this directly, but I did expect to hear about aspirations toward wealth, comfort, or happiness.
Instead, one phrase arose in interview after interview. Rhys from California said his greatest fear is "death without leaving a mark on the world." Chase from Pennsylvania said he wants to "leave a mark on other people," and Erin from Michigan said she wants to "make a mark on someone" before she leaves.
Making a mark means different things to different people. For some, making a mark is big. They want to "inspire and create for others." For others, making a mark is small: "having a couple of really close friends," per one person I talked with.
Madeline from Illinois identified this very tension. She said: "I was taught and dreamed as a kid to help like 100,000 people. But that's not nearly as important as making the lives of the people who are five feet away from me better." This was my third discovery: Most members of Gen Z desperately want to make a mark—they are just trying to figure out the right scale.
Closing the Gap
When I began my travels, my one word for the future of the country was, "Yikes." I expected to find a divided country full of pessimism. But over the course of the summer, I spent my time five feet away from optimistic, hard-working young people. Through conversation after conversation, my optimism gap shrunk. By the end, my own one-word answer became "hopeful."
I think the solution to the optimism gap lies in curiosity and conversations. So if you'd like to close your own optimism gap—and possibly learn about stagnaphobia or making a mark—have a conversation with a young person about what is important to them. One 21-year-old told me he wished that people would acknowledge that "I care.... My opinions matter and I care."
The rest of us simply have to listen.
Understanding Gen Z, a collaboration between Pacific Standard and Stanford's Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, investigates the historical context and social science research that helps explain the next generation. Join our newsletter to see new stories, and let us know your thoughts on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.
See more in this series:
Instead of Generational Conflict, Let's Have Intergenerational Partnership
A coalition between generations could just be the missing piece of infrastructure that our social movements need. Read more
How Generation Z, as the Multicultural Vanguard, Can Safeguard the Future of America
If older Americans can learn from the more enlightened racial attitudes among Generation Z, then the country can look forward to a bright future. Read more
Why Generation Z Is Embracing Feminism
Younger feminists demonstrate a fresh confidence in the power of activism, particularly via social media. Read more
The Future Is Non-Binary, and Teens Are Leading the Way
Teenage girls are challenging the meaning and the traditional constraints of gender in ways I couldn't have imagined—but many boys are still trying to fit into a gender structure that has historically benefited them. Read more