Walking with Generation Z: Understanding the Loneliest Generation

The first in a series that seeks to illuminate several key issues affecting Gen Z and to offer some in-depth guidance on how to reach and evangelize this generation.

(Image: Austin Distel/Unsplash.com)

Generation Z is approaching adulthood. Those born between 1997 and 2012 now fill our middle schools, high schools, and colleges. Unlike previous generations, Gen Z was raised with the internet at their fingertips and iPads in their hands. They do not remember September 11, 2001, but grew up under its shadow. Their childhood has been marred by increasing political and social turmoil, as well as a global pandemic. They are taught to question everything, including religion and their sexuality, which has led over 20% of Gen Z to identify as LGBTQ+ and more than 50% of Gen Z to say that they doubt God’s existence more than they believe He exists.1

For many Catholic educators, pastors, youth ministers, and parents, this generation is particularly hard to reach. The cultural upbringing of Gen Z has given them very different sets of values, interests, and questions than previous generations. Many characterize Gen Z as technology-obsessed, shallow, emotionally fragile, and confused. But this caricature does not fully capture the reality and complexity of Gen Z. If we, as loving parents, educators, and catechists, want to foster their greater growth and conversion, we must fully understand and appreciate what they are experiencing without being dismissive. Only then can we come to concrete solutions and actions to help and guide them.

This article is the first in a series that seeks to illuminate several key issues affecting Gen Z. Those who work with this generation already know that they are plagued by feelings of loneliness, distrust, and confusion. But recent polls concretize the true scope and depth of these problems. Springtide Research Institute is one secular think-tank that will be consistently referenced through this series because they offer one of the largest data-points for Gen Z. Not only do they provide an in-depth look at the issues, but they also indicate the root causes of these generational problems and workable solutions. Their data points and analysis, understood within the light of faith, can provide steps forward for those of us who serve Gen Z.

This series will present the research, polling, and analysis done by Springtide Research Institute and other institutions to assess Gen Z’s loneliness, lost sense of purpose, and distrust of institutions and organized religion. The situation Gen Z finds themselves in is much bleaker and more complex than many would expect. However, this research also gives signs of hope; Gen Z is very open to exploring new ideas if we meet them where they are at.

Therefore, the last two articles of this series will offer some in-depth guidance on how to reach and evangelize this generation.

Gen Z—The Loneliest Generation

In 2018, Cigna partnered with Ipsos to survey 20,000 people. Not only did they conclude that most Americans are considered lonely, but they realized the Gen Z is statistically the loneliest generation.2 This conclusion was widely publicized and spurred further research. In December 2021, the Survey Center on American Life further verified Cigna’s conclusion, saying that 56% of Gen Z reported feeling lonely at least once or twice a month during their childhood. This is a 32 point increase from the Baby Boomer generation.3

4

To gain a greater understanding of the true state of Gen Z, the Springtide Research Institute was created to specifically survey the interests, values, and needs of this generation. Their mission is to give a voice to Gen Z so that those guiding the youth can have an accurate understanding of who they are and what they are experiencing. In 2020, Springtide surveyed over 10,000 members of Gen Z and found that 48% of Gen Z youths feel that no one understands them. Even more surprising, 34% of Gen Z feel completely alone.5

Springtide also surveyed Gen Z youths who identify as Catholic, and like the rest of their generation, Catholic youths experience similar levels of loneliness. Nearly 40% of young Catholics say that at least sometimes they feel that they have no one to talk to and that no one really knows them well.6

Of course, many people will instantly point to the advent of technology and social media as the determining factor for the increased loneliness of Gen Z. Certainly, social media and technology contribute to the epidemic of loneliness, but the situation is not one-dimensional. In their 2018 survey, researchers at Cigna did not see a dramatic increase in loneliness between those who often use social media and never use it.7 Furthermore, the rise in loneliness started with Generation X and Millennials, who grew up before the advent of smart phones.

While Gen Z is the loneliest generation thus far, technology is not the only cause of their isolation. Instead, the epidemic of loneliness is tied to an even greater problem.

The Absence of Trusted Adults

In 2019, a study from Pew Research Center showed that 23% of children under the age of 18 in the United States live in single-parent households. This means almost a fourth of all children in the United States live with only one parent. This is three times the worldwide average.8 This absence of an intact family has a significant impact on the child’s loneliness. The Survey Center on American Life’s 2021 poll shows that those who are raised by married parents are significantly less likely to feel lonely than those who are raised by divorced parents. Only 7% of children raised by married parents say that they felt lonely every day, compared to the 16% of those who are raised by divorced parents.9

10

Additional data from Springtide Research Institute shows that the growing lack of trusted adult figures is particularly damaging for Gen Z. Springtide Research Institute reports that 27% of young people say that they have one or fewer adults that they can turn to in a time of need.11 When wise leadership is needed most, over a fourth of Gen Z feel that they have few, if any, adults to turn to.

Likewise, many Catholic youths feel that they have few trusted adults to turn to in time of need. More than 1 in 5 Catholics say that they have one or fewer adults they can turn to if they need to talk.12 When asked if they are flourishing in their relationships with adults, three in ten youths say that they are not flourishing in these relationships.13

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The lack of trusted adult figures in the lives of Gen Z is truly frightening. Without them, many Gen Z youth are left feeling alone and helpless. They are encouraged to question everything, but many have one or fewer adults to turn to with these questions and to guide them to the right answer. In effect, many of these youth must discover the truth and even what it means to be human by themselves. They are forced to create their own identity instead of discovering themselves within a community. They must reinvent life’s meaning and purpose rather than finding the truth under the proper care and guidance of the adults around them.

The absence of trusted adult figures does not mean that Gen Z needs more people telling them what to do. As forthcoming articles will discuss, Gen Z responds very poorly to lectures and authority figures commanding them from on high. Instead, trusted adults are those who walk with this generation to guide them. Only when trusted adults authentically engage in the lives of Gen Z and show that they truly care can they direct these youths toward greater flourishing and conversion.

The Difference Trusted Adults Make

To limit the epidemic of loneliness in Gen Z, it is not enough to encourage them to minimize their social media usage. Instead, they need to be surrounded by adults who truly listen, love, and support them. Not surprisingly, it is most important that parents engage in the lives of their children. When asked which adult figure they would turn to in need, 74% of Gen Z said their parent or guardian, whereas only 45% of them said their close friend.15

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But this does not mean that the parents are the only key mentors in the lives of the youth. In fact, Springtide Research Institute reports that the more adult mentors a youth has, the less likely he or she is to be lonely. Those who reported having zero adult mentors have a 58% likelihood of saying that at least sometimes they feel like they have no one to talk to. Comparatively, if they are supported by five or more adult mentors, only 24% say that at least sometimes they feel that they have no one to talk to.17 Therefore, those with many adult mentors feel much less isolated when they need somebody to talk to.

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Gen Z is truly the loneliest generation, but this fact should not lead to despair. The epidemic of loneliness and loss of adult mentors means that this generation is searching for authentic relationships, especially with trusted adults who will walk with them and meet them where they are at. Every single teacher, parent, pastor, and youth minister has an opportunity to make a real difference in the lives of Gen Z youth.

Toward the end of this series of articles, we will investigate how we can effectively engage and guide Gen Z youths. But for now, know that our presence, ministry, and involvement alone is a step in helping the upcoming generation.

Endnotes:

1 Jeffery M Jones, “LGBT Identification in U.S. Ticks Up to 7.1%,” Gallup Poll, February 17, 2022, and Springtide Research Institute, The State of Religion & Young People: Navigating Uncertainty (Farmington, MN: Springtide Research Institute, 2021), p. 46.

3 Daniel A. Cox, “The Childhood Loneliness of Generation Z,” The Survey Center on American Life, April 4, 2022.

4 Ibid.

5 Springtide Research Institute, The State Religion & Young People: Relational Authority (Catholic Edition), (Farmington, MN: Springtide Research Institute), p. 47.

6 Ibid., p. 20.

7 Cigna U.S. Loneliness Index, p. 1.

8 Stephanie Kramer, “U.S. has world’s highest rate of children living in single-parent households,” Pew Research Center, December 12, 2019.

9 Cox, “The Childhood Loneliness of Generation Z.”

10 Ibid.

11 Springtide Research Institute, Relational Authority, p. 19.

12 Ibid., p. 20.

13 Springtide Research Institute, Navigating Uncertainty, p. 52.

14 Springtide Research Institute, Relational Authority, p. 78.

15 Ibid., p. 46.

16 Ibid.

17 Ibid., p. 47.

18 Ibid.


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About Benjamin Eriksen 4 Articles
Benjamin Eriksen, M.A., is a doctoral candidate in philosophy at The Catholic University of America. He has taught high school and college students for several years and is a senior catechetical writer for the Word of Life series.

19 Comments

  1. Generation Z: loneliness and the need for a mentor who will not simply tell them what to do…

    A few years back my grown godson explained to me what his Generation-Z employees had to say after he just chatted long enough about their disoriented, day-to-day take on life. They finally opened up and confessed that their entire generation simply felt “abandoned.”
    Hence, the title of my book in 2017: “A Generation Abandoned.” I used a wide range of quotes and anecdotes (etc.) in the hope of being more interesting and readable. One revealing discovery was the celebrity Michael Edwards, who spent some years with the widowed wife of “The King” (“Priscilla, Elvis and Me: In the Shadow of the King,” St. Martin’s Press, 1988). Notoriety, filming, the fast lane, and then a devastating abortion and separation. Along the way, “I felt like a prehistoric man living in a cave, grabbing every woman in sight—not needing a brain.” Of the abortion he writes that as the father he knew better, but tragically “did not take responsibility.”

    At the end of his book, Edwards attaches a postscript. He steps back to show that as a person he was not really as stupid as his behavior, and to explain why he had blamed religion. And then to confide that only once in his life had he felt the “serenity” that he actually hungered for all along…

    As a teen he had found himself in a church: “. . . Above the organ was a life-sized crucifix, and if I stared at Jesus long enough he came to life and smiled at me. I was filled with a warm feeling of love and understood the meaning of the words ‘My cup runneth over.’”

    Of possible interest or help to some readers of CWR from Generation Z, here’s my author interview with CWR: https://www.catholicworldreport.com/2018/03/29/a-generation-abandoned-why-whatever-is-not-enough/

    • Since I have a high regard for your comments, I purchased and read your book. I applaud your insights. Perhaps more at another time. Regarding this current Church crisis, the young are being sadly betrayed. Stones instead of bread. This recent survey is an insult to their humanity with predetermined responses along the lines of, is the Church bad, very bad, very very bad, or very very very bad.

  2. Forgive me, but this Gen X, Gen Y, Gen Z stuff is all a bunch of pseudo-science. It’s the creation of realities where there are none. It’s part of current trend to categorize everything and everyone – to reduce everything to be neatly boxed into a category.

    Surveys are just another example of modernists staring at their umbilicus beyond the point that it’s having any interest or entertainment value. It’s part of the phenomenon of taking “selfies”(by the way, I’d like to know how often the narcissists later viewed those endless selfie” photographs they took). The problem with modernists is they survey the life out of everything they survey. Why, even the bureaucrats at the Vatican are resorting to surveying the life out of Christ’s Church. We’re awash in useless information gathered by people who seemingly have no purpose other than to take a survey.

    Take a lesson from the Amish: they don’t take photographs and don’t like any taken of them by others; they mind their own business, assist their neighbor as requested, worship God, work hard to sustain their lives and they don’t take surveys about themselves

    I just hope that CWR never takes a survey.

    • “Selfies”…the cover photo of my book (above) shows a wall-to-wall mass of tourist-humanity taking selfies from inside the backdrop of a cathedral, with no idea where they are or what the cathedral ambience used to mean.

      Today’s abandoned and lost “mass,” versus the Real Presence and communio Mass.

    • The Amish don’t merely assist others as asked, they volunteer in droves, and often for their Englischer neighbors.

  3. As compared to previous generations, this one does not play outdoors like those in the past; connecting on the internet and through e games instead.

  4. FYI, GenX and GenY didn’t have smart phones but they did have televisions that they were glued to for hours every day. Television shapes our lexicon, supplies cultural references, and is constantly changing with new content. So kids are united laterally within their cohort by watching similar shows, and they’re divided vertically from their parents and grandparents because everyone’s speaking a slightly different language. Songs, figures of speech, jokes; whole worldviews and value structures are foreign to parents who don’t watch what their kids are watching.

    Do not be so quick to set aside electronics and media consumption from examination as the root of this loneliness epidemic. It’s like inviting a stranger to play with your kids when you have no idea what that stranger believes.

    • It has everything to do with electronic devices Patrick. You’re correct. Every sort of technology divides us further & further apart. And media influences everyone.

      Some innovations are too good for most of us to give up-running water, electricity, central heat & AC, etc. I’ve lived at times without those & trust me families definitely behave differently when there’s just one hurricane lamp to read by in the evening. Everyone sits close to each other. Ditto for keeping warm together by a woodstove & being dependent on each other to keep the fire going.
      Constant electronic entertainment & replacing real fellowship with screens is another sort of innovation entirely. It’s changing & deforming the way people interact with each other & many young people know no other means really. They struggle to engage face to face.

  5. I have a feeling, supported only by vague reflection on my own experience, that part of this may have something to do with the lack of shared physical tasks. It seems to me that so many of our relationships are forged in shared work. Tasks that require two sets of hands require the forming of bonds of trust and mutual support. Tasks that require two sets of hands allow children to work usefully in concert with their parents, and thus form those same kinds of bonds with them. There is a trust formed when a child holds a fence post while the parent swings a mallet. Both must play their parts well for the work to be completed safely. Each had to trust the other. There is a sense of belonging formed when work carried out in partnership produces a tangible useful result.

    But tasks that require two pairs of hands are more and more rare these days. As physical tasks are increasingly automated, and the kind of work that engages us and feeds us is increasingly digital; tasks that require ten fingers and a keyboard predominate over the tasks that require two sets of hands.

    To the extent that the dearth of tasks that require two pairs of hands contributes to this generational increase in loneliness and distrust, I’m not sure what we do about it. Some of it could certainly be contrived, but it would be hard to make it pervasive or meaningful. But I can’t shake the feeling that the things we do together and the kind of connections that are formed in doing them, are important, and have changed hugely over the past half century.

  6. Great, timely article for me. I am about to embark on a year of sub teaching in a middle school. These thoughts will act as a reminder for me to have extra patience rather than a strict disciplinarian.

  7. In any discussion of this sort we should ALWAYS keep in mind the basic fact that in large part this generation is the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the ’60s – the “peace and love” generation – Woodstock, Altamont, etc.

    We sowed bitter fruit.

    • And hippie priests, and nuns, and prelates all hostile to the idea that God might be smarter than us to have given us “burdensome” moral absolutes hasn’t helped either.

    • Ain’t that the truth. Ours was a generation of pampered self-indulgence. It didn’t take long for the post-war generation to deconstruct just about everything that the culture passed on to us. It’s why we’re in the mess we find ourselves. Ever try to get toothpaste back into the tube?

  8. There is a danger that adult mentorship will just reinforce social expectations of what the good life is, sprinkled with some piety.

4 Trackbacks / Pingbacks

  1. Walking with Generation Z: Understanding the Loneliest Generation | Franciscan Sisters of St Joseph (FSJ) , Asumbi Sisters Kenya
  2. Walking with Generation Z: Understanding the Loneliest Generation | Passionists Missionaries Kenya, Vice Province of St. Charles Lwanga, Fathers & Brothers
  3. Walking with Generation Z: Understanding the Loneliest Generation – Via Nova Media
  4. Ask Chuck: I need wise financial counselors! - Watchman.Today

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