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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
17 Ibid., p. 47.
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