I had a front-row seat to how childhood was changing when I was a senior university administrator from 1998 to 2012. I worried about kids raised on a leash. Every year there were more and more. What was once unusual to us about Millennial behavior seemed to have become common with the oldest of the Gen Z generation. Then came the shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, and I began to see another side of this new generation that humbles me.
My colleagues and I were Boomers and Gen Xers when the first set of Millennials enrolled on campus back in the late 1990s, and we snickered about the parents who felt the need to be involved in the day-to-day lives of their sons and daughters.
As the years passed, and the number of students with highly attentive parents grew and grew, we reminded each other that we wouldn't have tolerated our parents' being all up in our business, let alone allowed them to register us for class or raise grading concerns with our professors. Shaking my head with colleagues, I worried on my students' behalf: Why do they need all this help? Why don't they hunger for their own independence? If they can't fend for themselves in a university environment, how will they fend in the real world? To us, it seemed students were on a leash held by their parents; our students found it all perfectly normal.
I'm aware that complaining about the younger generation is the perennial harbinger of old age. Yet we have clear evidence that our newest generation—Generation Z—is taking an even slower path to adulthood than Millennials did. The researcher Jean Twenge writes, for example, that Gen Z'ers are both less likely to leave the house without a parent and to be at home without a parent. This means they are kept safe and sound at all times, which on its face sounds like a good thing. Twenge adds that, when it comes to behaviors like driving, drinking, or being sexually active, Gen Z'ers are staving it all off until later, which translates to an 18-year-old Gen Z'er behaving more like a 14-year-old Millennial, Gen X'er, or Boomer, and a 13-year-old Gen Z'er behaving as we might have done at 10.
We can applaud decisions among Gen Z's not to engage in risky behaviors. Yet in failing to do anything without a parent by their side, I worry that they risk remaining childlike, naïve, unskilled, unaware, and lacking in agency. At some point, I am all but certain, that will become a problem for them, and for society. When will they learn to be adults?
For someone who writes about these issues and is a parent of two teenagers, these thoughts are perpetually in my head these days. So the student response to the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland last February caught me rather off guard. A month after the massacre, here were teenagers planning to take to the streets and rally in city parks nationwide, defying administrative scolding and threats of suspension. Of course, plenty of students did not participate, and others offered a milquetoast gesture—such as commemorating the victims in a manner that their school administration had pre-approved.
But plenty of other kids said that they might have to break a few rules in order to effect real change. Those kids were going off-leash. My own daughter Avery was one of them.
Ten days later, I sat riveted before the television broadcast of the "March for Our Lives" gun control rally, spearheaded by the Parkland kids. There on a grand stage in our nation's capital was a gathering of children and young adults talking about the uniquely American problem of rampant gun violence. The indelible performance of the day came from Emma Gonzalez, then 18, a Parkland survivor who took the microphone, spoke for a few minutes, then presided over four minutes of silence, to remind everyone how long the shooter had been active at her high school. In those moments of dead air across all radio and television broadcasts throughout the land, many of the rest of us gaped in awe. That was the moment when we saw what Generation Z was capable of. And the rest of us had never felt more impotent.
There was more: a humility and inclusivity unparalleled in prior generations. Said one organizer: "We recognize that Parkland received more attention because of its affluence. But we share this stage today and forever with those communities who have always stared down the barrel of a gun." The organizers invited kids from urban areas in Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles. And they asked Sandy Hook to represent. Most striking to me was 11-year-old Naomi Wadler of Virginia, whose emphatic plea about the overlooked gun deaths of black girls and women sent me running to Facebook. "Prepare to have your mind blown," I posted to my followers. "I want to be her when I grow up." I knew that the kids on stage that day represented a change in who matters in America. I liked what I heard. I loved who I saw.
So where does that leave me vis-à-vis today's young people and how they'll fare as adults? I scan their brief history: Born after Columbine and 9/11. Digital natives. Much more accepting of ethnic and cultural differences. Enduring the new norm of school lockdowns and active shooter drills. Distressed about the viability of the planet. Everything has changed. Their childhood is nothing like mine was. Using traditional measurements to critique them feels like solipsism.
Instead of criticizing them for failing to measure up, maybe it’s on us to accept that both despite us, and because of us, this generation is very different from any set of humans we've ever known. Maybe being born on a planet facing potentially cataclysmic climate change instills a voice that will not be silenced. Maybe when elders seem incapable of ending senseless violence, the young learn that they can only count on each other. Maybe being thrust ill-equipped into the real world with all its challenges forces a human to sink or swim. Maybe Charles Darwin is smiling. Maybe precisely because of their environment they’re not wimps but warriors who will be capable of saving themselves. Maybe, then, we should be interested in how they’ve adapted to this changed world, and in how to join them.
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.
Understanding Generation Z was made possible by Stanford University's Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences (CASBS) and its director, Margaret Levi, who hosted the iGen Project. Further support came from the Knight Foundation.
See more in this series:
Are Gen Z'ers That Different From Gen X'ers?
Generational analysis can be enlightening—but it can also be facile and sensationalistic. Read more
Generation Z Is Far More Nuanced About Tech Than Its Predecessors
Take some time to talk with the young adults in your life about recent technological changes. Their responses may surprise you. Read more
Gen Z's Message to Parents: 'Put Your Phone Down.'
In our conversations with young people, it's become clear that technology abuse is rampant—among their parents. Read more
Parents' Phone Use Is Taking a Toll on Their Children's Development
I'm hopeful that the next generation of children, after watching us be fools for our devices, may decide it's not worth it. Read more