Every loving parent wants their child to flourish. Parents want their children to be happy in this life and truly fulfilled in the life to come. Yet, the youth of the upcoming generation are not flourishing. In fact, Generation Z is facing an epidemic of depression and growing rates of suicide.
For example, from 2000–2017 the rate of major depressive episodes increased an astonishing 122% in young adults ages 20–21.1 Correspondingly, the rates of suicides also have been rising over the past two decades. In 2000, 12.5 per 100,000 youths ages 20–24 committed suicide, but in 2017 this number rose to 17 per 100,000.2 In 2020 alone, youth ages 18–25 were the most likely age group to contemplate suicide and sadly, 6,643 young people in the U.S. acted on these thoughts.
Finally, while the rate of suicide has increased from 2000 to 2020, there was actually a slight decrease in the number of suicides in 2019 and 2020. This data shows that the increase in suicide among young people is not simply due to the pandemic because the increase in suicides predated Covid-19.3
If you have been following this series of articles, the increased rates of depression and suicide among Gen Z may not be surprising, though they are deeply tragic. In the previous three articles, we have seen that these youth are lonelier than any other generation, suspicious of and disassociated with institutions, and religiously complex insofar as they often hold confused and contradictory religious beliefs. Without proper adult formation, trusted institutions, and consistent religious beliefs, these young people are left to create their own purpose. Instead of entering into a system of meaning, they have to make up their own and, failing to construct meaning for themselves, they fall into depression.
While the previous articles of this series spelled out the problems facing Gen Z, this article begins to look at some of the solutions. Initially, we will see that youth surrounded by strong adults, faithfully practice a religion, and actively engaged in Scripture are statistically more likely to flourish. These statistics reaffirm and provide further evidence of the importance of adult and religious engagement in the lives of Gen Z, but more specifics are needed to effectively call these young people to greater flourishing. Therefore, the latter part of this article outlines two practical touchpoints for this generation. By encouraging the youth to manage their expectations and strive for virtue, we can guide these young people to greater flourishing in this life and in the next.
The Difference Adults, Religion, and Scripture Make
The first article of this series discussed how trusted adult figures play a big role in mitigating the loneliness felt by many Gen Z youth. Additionally, these young people often look to their relationships for a sense of purpose. When surveyed, a total of 41% of Gen Z youth and 38% of young Catholics said that they depend on a close relationship to help them find meaning in their lives.5 Furthermore, 24% of Gen Z who do not have mentors say that they never feel like their life has meaning or purpose. But for those who have a relationship with just one trusted adult, this percentage falls to 6%.6 Therefore, one of the first and most important things we can do to help Gen Z youth find a sense of meaning is simply to be engaged in their lives.
Young people also are much more likely to flourish when they are strongly religious. For example, 17% of those who are not religious say that they generally feel that what they do in life is valuable and worthwhile, but this number jumps to 37% for those who are very religious.7 Furthermore, when asked if they were flourishing in various aspects of their lives, those who were very religious were much more likely to say that they are flourishing a lot.
Finally, in 2022, the American Bible Society published a series of studies that show that those who are engaged with Scripture have a 19% higher level of flourishing than those who are only moderately engaged or disengaged with Scripture.9 In particular, those who are actively engaged with Scripture are statistically more likely to be satisfied with their lives, stronger in their health and character, and content financially as well as interpersonally.
To many people, it is self-evident that young people need engaged adults, strong religious beliefs, and a love of Scripture in order to flourish. And, as Catholics, we know that the fullness of human flourishing is only found in the one true Catholic faith. True happiness on this earth and perfect fulfillment in Heaven are only possible for those who are transformed by God’s grace. But while many of us hold these beliefs intellectually, we do not always act on them practically. We know that we need to engage more with our children or our students, but we find it easier to let things slide because we are too tired or busy. We know that the Church is the fullness of the truth, but we are nervous to say it publicly for fear of being ostracized. We know that the Scriptures are the inspired Word of God, but we do not spend time prayerfully reading the Bible on our own time.
As Catholics, it is it not enough that we simply know the truth; we must believe it with conviction and live it with every fiber of our being. These data points should renew our conviction that what we believe can truly bring about not only our own happiness but also the flourishing of Generation Z.
Touchpoints and Steps Toward Flourishing
In addition to living our faith with greater conviction, we have discussed the importance of developing relationships, regaining trust, and engaging in dialogue with Gen Z youth. These steps have been proposed as necessary starting points because without them many of our youth will not hear what we have to say. Witnessing to the faith requires that we proclaim it, but this witness is most effective within the context of a relationship. Our very lives must show the truth of what we speak, and thus, the truth must be spoken with both conviction and humility.
Once we have begun developing this relationship with Gen Z youth, the questions that follow are “How do we guide them to greater flourishing? What things should we encourage them to do?” Certainly, we should encourage them to pray, receive the sacraments, and develop their knowledge and love of God. But sometimes a young person is not even ready to hear these things, so then where do we start? I suggest two touchpoints that come from my own experience of teaching Gen Z youth from a variety of backgrounds—some who are faithful Catholics, others who are moderately Christian, and even those who are opposed to the faith. No matter where they are at in their faith journey, these topics resonate with the youth, direct them closer to God, and open doors to future conversations.
First, it is important to teach the youth to manage their expectations, especially when it comes to friendship and happiness. I remember when I was in high school and thought that my friendships were the ultimate source of my happiness, and, whether I want to admit it or not, I often still act like my happiness is found in this world and not in God. Indeed, we all struggle with these temptations—to make an idol out of our relationships and to expect the things of this world to bring us complete happiness. The youth of this age are especially susceptible to these beliefs and often look for personal satisfaction in their internet following and material possessions. They expect their truest friends and future spouses to satisfy their every desire.
But it is simply not true! God alone can satisfy our hearts. If Generation Z expects the things of this world or their friends to satisfy their desires for happiness, then they are bound to be disappointed and frustrated. Even the best of friends, the most faithful of spouses, and the most pleasurable of lives cannot offer the unending, perfect happiness that we yearn for.
However, we should be careful not to teach them that the things of this world are necessarily bad. The created things are good, our friendships are good, and even money, power, and pleasure can be good if we use them well, guided by God’s truth and grace. These things are truly good because God is good, and He created them. So, it is not simply a matter of hating the things of this world but loving them properly, and that means loving God above all else. Therefore, we must encourage young people to recognize the natural limitations of their human relationships and the things of this world so that we can direct them to the perfect love of God.
Second, we must call Gen Z to a life of virtue. The youth want to be good people, and while some of them may not yet see the need for God’s grace and the activity of the Holy Spirit, they still want to help others. Gen Z youths are naturally inspired by stories of heroism and self-sacrifice. I have seen the light in the eyes of my students when we talk about Aristotle’s virtue or Augustine’s path to holiness. They naturally want to be noble. Yet, like the rest of us, they are tempted by sin and weighed down by selfishness. As their mentors, we should challenge them to live heroically, sacrificially, and virtuously. Through our words and deeds, we can show them that a life of virtue is truly worth living and that it is the way to happiness.
Yet growth in virtue takes time, training, and effort. In a world of instant gratification, it is important that Gen Z youth grow in self-mastery and self-discipline. Just as becoming a pro football player requires hard work, dedication, and time, so, too, does a life of virtue. Like a good coach, we must challenge these young people to commit to a life of virtue by making small decisions every day. When they fall short, we should be patient with them and help them back up. Through these daily decisions, we show them that to be brave, we must be courageous in small things before we are ready for larger acts of heroism.
Growth in virtue requires suffering and sacrifice, and right now the youth shy away from any kind of pain. In fact, we all often try to find the easiest path. But not all suffering can be avoided, and virtue cannot be won without sacrifice. We must teach the youth the redemptive element of suffering and guide them to make noble sacrifices for something greater than themselves. While many young people inherently know that the best things in life require sacrifice, we must show them that these sacrifices are worthwhile and encourage them to choose these sacrifices on their own.
Finally, virtue requires God’s grace. Many mistakenly think virtue is simply a matter of practice and will power. Certainly, both are needed, but true virtue is ultimately a gift from God to those who offer themselves to Him. We must help Gen Z to see that, through our own efforts, we will often fall short of living a virtuous life. But with God’s grace and forgiveness, we can be strengthened and transformed. Ultimately, we are called not just to be good, but to be holy and filled with God’s grace. Through our witness and our words, we can lead Gen Z to flourish and become whom we are all created to be—saints.
1 Twenge, Jean M., et all, “Age, Period, and Cohort Trends in Mood Disorder Indicators and Suicide-Related Outcomes in a Nationally Representative Dataset 2005–2017,” American Psychological Association 128, no. 3 (2019), p. 191.
2 Miron, Oren, et all, “Suicide Rates Among Adolescents and Young Adults in the United States, 2000–2017,” JAMA Network 321, no. 23 (2019).
4 Statistics in chart found in the following resources: Twenge, “Age, Period, and Cohort Trends in Mood Disorder Indicators and Suicide-Related Outcomes in a Nationally Representative Dataset 2005–2017,” p. 191; Miron, “Suicide Rates Among Adolescents and Young Adults in the United States, 2000–2017”; “Suicidal Thoughts and Suicide Attempts,” Suicide Prevention Resource Center; and “Suicide Data and Statistics,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
5 Springtide Research Institute, The State Religion & Young People: Relational Authority (Catholic Edition), (Farmington, MN: Springtide Research Institute), pp. 46 and 49.
6 Ibid., p. 47.
7 Springtide Research Institute, The State of Religion & Young People: Navigating Uncertainty (Farmington, MN: Springtide Research Institute, 2021), p. 43.
8 Ibid., pp. 43 and 53.
10 Ibid., p. 74.
Previously in this series:
• “Walking with Generation Z: Understanding the Loneliest Generation” (August 11, 2022)
• “Walking with Generation Z: Distrust of Institutions and Organized Religion” (August 21, 2022)
• “Walking with Generation Z: Religiously Complex” (September 6, 2022)
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