SALT LAKE CITY — They're smart and getting smarter, expected to be the best-educated generation in America.
They're also more diverse, more tolerant and more tech-savvy. That's an early assessment of Generation Z, the generation following millennials, based on a recent analysis of surveys of young people by Pew Research Center.
Pew found Generation Z overall looks very like millennials — that is, more liberal than previous generations when it comes to many political and social issues. They are both more likely to agree that humans cause climate change, blacks are treated less fairly than whites and government should be more "activist" and work harder to solve problems.
Gen Z Democrats are "nearly consistent" with older generations of Democrats when it comes to key issues, but Gen Z Republicans do break ranks some from their same-party elders. Gen Z Republicans are more apt than other Republicans to say blacks are treated less fairly than whites (43 percent, compared to 30 percent of millennials and close to 20 percent of Gen X), for example.
Comparing generations is as old as time, as is generational one-upmanship. Socrates called out the youth of Athens “for lack of discipline and resistance to established norms" — 2,500 years ago, said Tim Chambless, political science associate professor/adjunct at the University of Utah and an instructor for OSHER Learning Institute.
Chambless doesn't use surveys to compare generations; he's been watching them in his college classrooms for more than 40 years. The latest group, Gen Z, he said, are "computer-literate, more accepting of diversity — race, gender, religion, ethnicity, sexual identity — and free from the memory of wars. Therefore, arguably, they are unafraid of differences and change."
Young people are also still learning.
"They are still young and their views might not be fully formed, so it's too early to say what this means for the future political landscape and how their views might change over time," said Nikki Graf, research associate with Pew's Social and Demographic Trends team and one of the new report's authors. “But these surveys help us get a window into their views, and they provide some clues about where this generation might be headed.
"We know generations are also shaped by outside forces such as world events, which could change their views as well," Graf added.
Figuring out life
Conventional wisdom says youths tend to be more liberal than their parents, becoming more conservative as they age. Study results aren't clear on whether that's always true. But the Pew report does say Generation Z is "moving toward adulthood with a liberal set of attitudes and an openness to emerging social trends."
The report compared five generations: The Silent Generation, baby boomers, Generation X, millennials and Gen Z. The generation coming up behind Gen Z, by the way, is already being referred to by some as Generation Alpha.
Among the findings:
- Generation Z and millennial respondents were more apt than their elders to support interracial and same-sex marriage.
- About a third of Gen Z said they personally know someone who uses gender-neutral pronouns, compared to a fourth of millennials. Among previous generations, the numbers are much lower: Gen X at 16 percent, boomers at 12 percent and silents at 7 percent.
- Gen Z respondents were also the most likely to think information forms should offer more choices than "man" or "woman" to designate gender (Gen Z, 59 percent; millennials, 50 percent, and fewer than 40 percent for previous generations).
- Fewer than a third approve of Donald Trump's presidency, compared with more than half of "silents," and think government should do more to solve problems (70 percent of Gen Z and 64 percent of millennials, compared with half or fewer for previous generations).
- More than 60 percent of millennials and Gen Z think "increasing racial/ethnic diversity is good for society."
- Just over 60 percent of the two youngest generations also approve of NFL players kneeling during the national anthem to protest. Less than 30 percent of the silent generation agree.
The survey also found areas of accord. "When it comes to the merits of having more women running for political office, majorities across generations say this is a good thing for the country. Majorities in each generation also say that, on balance, legal immigrants have had positive impact on the U.S.," the report said.
The line separating generations can vary as researchers choose different start dates to analyze a new generation. Pew says the last millennials were born in 1996, so Gen Zers were between ages 13-21 when the surveys were conducted in 2018.
Gen Z and politics
Gen Z Republicans especially stand apart for some views. Gen Z Republicans are “much more likely than Republicans in older generations to say government should do more to solve problems. They are less likely than their older counterparts to attribute the earth's warming temperatures to natural patterns, as opposed to human activity," the report said. Of Republicans, just 18 percent of Gen Zers blame natural patterns (30 percent of millennials, 36 percent of the Gen Xers and around 40 percent of both boomers and silents in the GOP).
Gen Z’s Kloie Pellegrini, 17 and a senior at Westlake High School in Saratoga Springs, isn't sure she buys that. While she said she's been insulated from many issues so that she hasn't engaged much with politics, she is figuring out what she thinks about hot potatoes like climate change. She doesn't know how much of what she's heard is accurate, but leans away from the idea that human activity has caused great harm.
"So much of what we are taught is at school where a lot of our teachers have their biases. I don't think I'm ready yet to make my own decision" about some political issues, she said.
Politics means significantly more to Moses Taeoalii, 21, a student at Brigham Young University, who said he and his peers are "trying to be really involved. People talk about politics a lot. I think sometimes, though, our views get skewed because of the people we listen to."
While he discusses politics with pals, he isn’t anxious to stomp on other people's views publicly. So he doesn't take a side on climate change either. But like Pellegrini, he worries about how thoroughly people look at issues objectively before making up their minds.
Pew found Gen Z less worried than others about how strongly social media impacts their opinions. Fewer than 39 percent of Gen Z think it's bad that people get their news from social media, compared to half of the other generations. Taeoalii is in the minority: He's concerned that social media slants views, so people may "miss what is really going on. I think the problem is that too many people are picking a side and they're not trying to get a whole view of the situation. So they're just pointing fingers at other people and they don't really know the other person's side, which I'm not a huge fan of."
He limits his own use of social media and recently dumped Twitter because of negativity there. On Instagram, he follows entrepreneurial sites mostly, as a way to motivate himself.
Pew said Gen Z is likely to be the best-educated based on trends that show they are enrolling in college " at a significantly higher rate than millennials were at a comparable age," as reported in earlier research. That's a look forward, though, as most of Gen Z has yet to graduate high school.
Today's youths are being told that college is a must, even if it means unprecedented debt, Chambless said. Twenty-year-olds now hear they'll work until at least 70, a half-century span likely to include "12 different jobs you'd put on a resume and at least seven in which you change careers." Experts even predict half the jobs to be filled by the turn of the next century do not yet exist. So they live in uncertain times.
Life's more expensive, too. This combination of factors can "depress, disappoint and frustrate" a lot of young people, stifling launch into what most earlier generations considered routine steps in adulthood, like getting married, having kids and buying a house, Chambless said.
For many, that adds up to severe stress. He sees college students "trying to work full time in a job they'd never pursue as a career path while taking a full load of classes." They may be spouses and parents, too.
Gen Z also has more options — and while that "sounds wonderful at first, they can become confused as to which path to follow," he noted.
Pellegrini is the first to admit some uncertainty, though she has a plan for her future. She will teach English next year in Russia and then serve a mission, before going to college so she can work in special education or humanitarian aid.
Business major Taeoalii thinks his future lies in entrepreneur management.
As Pellegrini and Taeoalii answer questions about their lives and their peers, theype are a reminder that no generation is one-size-fits-all and generalizations only go so far.
They each describe themselves as religious, but see their peers, as a whole, becoming less so. Pew didn’t ask about religion for its report, but other research suggests a decline in religiosity in Generation Z. And an online search of "Generation Z and religion" yields faith groups pondering how to attract and keep a younger audience, as well as articles warning religion is in danger of becoming irrelevant to youths.
What does Generation Z value? Pellegrini and Taeoalii give top place to relationships, especially family.
"I just like a lot of people — and especially my family," Taeoalii said. "I've always been family first and my brothers are my best friends. As I've gotten older, that's kind of extended to my friends, who I also consider to be family."
"My family is important to me. I spend a lot of time with them and their input really matters in my life," said Pellegrini, who called her older sisters role models.
"I love my generation and the people I'm around. I really think everyone is trying to make the world a better place, which is what I appreciate. Everyone that I'm around is very go-getting and trying to become the best they can be; I think that's really awesome," said Taeoalii. "As long as someone's trying to do that, even if it's something different than I agree with, that's awesome."
Taeoalii thinks Gen Zers might bridge some ideological gulfs in a divided country. "I've heard people say it's almost a civil war. I'm not sure that's true. But I definitely feel my generation could be the one to bring everything together."
The Pew report used an online survey of 920 American teens ages 13-17, combined with data from a survey of 10,682 adults from Pew's American Trends Panel. Young adults 18-21 were combined with those in the younger survey to look at Gen Z attitudes, while the other participants' views in the larger adult survey provided other-generation comparisons. Graf's co-authors were Kim Parker and Ruth Igielnik.