Everything vs. Gen Z

March 15, 2022

Sociology Professor Pamela Aronson, who’s spoken to media outlets like BBC, Salon and Vox about the pandemic’s effect on the transition to adulthood, shares research and advice on how more established adults can help Generation Z create pathways to success.

A young woman looks at her phone with a confused look on her face, while illustrations of her parents loom in the background with speech bubbles indicating how their life was easier at her age.
Graphic by Violet Dashi

There are comparative images circulating around social media. They look something like this: A soldier is on one side and, on the other, there’s a young person holding a cell phone. “My grandfather at 20: A war veteran, married with a kid on the way. Me at 20: Feeling like a big boy because I just made my first doctor’s appointment.”

Another uses the Me vs. My Parents meme. It says, “My parents at age 25: ‘We should start saving for retirement.’ Me at age 25: ‘If I go to sleep now, I won’t have to buy food’.” One with a bit more levity shows the parents thinking about getting married at 25 compared to the Me at age 25 saying, “I love Bulbasaur.”

Professor Pam Aronson

Sociology Professor Pamela Aronson’s research focuses on the transition to adulthood. She said that Generation Z (individuals born after 1996) are aware of the differences between themselves and previous generations and they often go to the Internet to vent these frustrations and concerns through humor and sarcasm.

Aronson said there’s much more going on behind the scenes of seemingly clear cut generational responsibility differences — namely difficulty paying for postsecondary education, the lack of entry-level employment opportunities that could support a family, difficulty obtaining home ownership, and a shift in social norms to develop oneself personally and professionally prior to committed partnerships. She said these challenges have existed for some time — but the pandemic has made things much worse. That’s in addition to Gen Z already experiencing news of mass shootings, deportations, the opioid crisis and rising suicide rates.

Aronson, who’s spoken to media outlets like BBCSalon and Vox about the pandemic’s effect on the transition to adulthood, shares what her research has shown when it comes to Generation Z’s coming of age and gives advice on how more established adults help this generation create pathways to success.

The pandemic experience is a defining characteristic of the Gen Z identity. Here’s how young people have been affected — and continue to be.

Established adults with developed careers may not understand why learning or working from home during the pandemic led to depression and anxiety among teenagers and early 20-somethings.

“Older adults have had time to establish themselves, so remote work or school was only a part of their lives. But it encompassed much more for Gen Z,” said Aronson, who has Gen Z-aged children. “Young people use school or entry-level workspaces to learn how to interact with others. At a time in life when identity, friendships and romance are very important developmentally, they were forced to abruptly end their social lives. They are at an age where they are developing interests, their identity and networks — and were isolated. That’s a big deal.”

The insecurity and uncertainty of the pandemic has had an impact on young adults’ lives too. A study of U.S. post-high school students during the early stage of the pandemic found substantial food insecurity, housing insecurity and anxiety. On the job front, large numbers of Gen Z lost their employment. Aronson, who has looked at this delayed transition to adulthood phenomenon at the global level, said the International Labour Organization estimates that more than one in six young people lost their jobs during the pandemic, and those with jobs had their hours reduced by nearly 25%. “Despite the supposed labor shortage, many recent college graduates are struggling to find a career path in their fields of study. The labor shortage is disproportionately in service jobs, not professional ones,” she said.

Even education was interrupted when it became a health risk. Aronson said remote instruction put many underserved students in the U.S. at a disadvantage because they didn’t have the resources, like computers or Internet access, yet needed to continue with educational programs. Due to getting further behind their peers, Aronson said it’s likely that these youth will lower their educational aspirations, have increasing difficulty completing school and vocational certification programs, and/or drop out. 

“We don’t know yet how the pandemic and its associated economic uncertainties will impact young people, although we know that it is likely to be lasting.”

Memes, sarcasm and dark humor are other Gen Z defining characteristics.

To better understand Gen Z on their terms, Aronson researched memes on social media sites. Her recent publication “Zoom Memes for Self-Quaranteens: Generational Humor, Identity, and Conflict During the Pandemic” analyzed memes posted on popular online social groups established during the pandemic. 

Aronson, along with UM-Dearborn student researcher Islam Jaffal, found that three themes emerged: pandemic humor, generational identity humor and generational conflict humor. Posts emphasized commonly understood references to issues like online learning, productivity and mental health.

“Memes about the pandemic include sub-themes of a coming apocalypse, adults who deny the seriousness of COVID-19, and a more general expression of negative feelings — particularly anger and fear — through humor,” she said.

She said some posts emphasized hostility and mistrust with the older generations because young people felt abandoned by older adults and those in power who have been unable to provide adequate leadership through the pandemic.

“Essentially, young adults are depicting the failure of institutions to protect and nurture them during this time of incredible crisis and distress.”

At a critical period in their lives, history is coming down on them — they need resources and opportunities.

Collective trauma humor may be a defining feature, but Aronson wants parents, teachers and future employers to understand that what they are experiencing is not a laughing matter. Young people who are coming of age at such an unprecedented, uncertain and turbulent time are likely to be shaped by it and need support, she said.

“People who came of age during the Great Depression often continued to hoard food or be concerned about having enough even when they became financially secure. And Millennials, many of whom came of age during the Great Recession, are still impacted by that in terms of every life sphere. Studies of the Great Recession reveal persisting difficulties in terms of wages, career opportunities, wealth accumulation and home ownership. Experiences you have when coming of age often stick with you throughout life.”

With the changes that have taken place over the past two years, mental health issues among young people have drastically risen. Aronson said a lack of understanding, compassion and resources don’t help. “I think we need to turn this problem on its head — Gen Z is not at fault here. Society is not providing enough support to young adults during this critical period of life.”

If possible, parents and family can help navigate resources like education and employment. “Be patient, give them your time to listen, and help them access forms of support when available.”

To build a bridge for education, Aronson said more resources are needed for postsecondary education. In some countries, higher education is tuition-free. In many others, like the United States, Great Britain and Japan, college tuition can be a formidable expenditure for most families. That’s why it’s important for higher education institutions to create financial aid programs like Go Blue Guarantee and STEM Scholars.

As for social norms, Aronson said it's important to recognize there may be classroom or workplace faux pas because Gen Z have often viewed educational and office spaces from the outside. She suggests setting upmentor programs and making classroom or workplace expectations clear. Companies may also consider developing long-term training on both hard skills like technical knowledge and soft skills like teamwork.

And Aronson hopes that employers understand there will be resume gaps because many young people had reduced opportunities to complete internships or get professional entry-level jobs.

“Gen Z is at an intersection between history and biography —  they are at a critical period in their lives and history is coming down on them in a dramatic way,” Aronson said. “Gen Z hasn’t had the opportunities of other generations at the same point in time. I hope we remember to give our young people a chance.”

Article by Sarah Tuxbury.