“It’s so hard to see the future right now,” says Maddy, a teenager from New Jersey. “I worry that the world is going to end. I worry because of climate change. I worry about my family’s safety.”
Nancy, 17, is from Boise, Idaho. She rates how excited she is for the future a solid 1 (not at all) on a scale going up to 10. Why? “There’s too much wrong with the world.”
Gen Z’s purported nihilism has become widespread enough. Research studies have looked at a variety of factors, such as the fact that this is the post 9/11 generation that’s been saddled with plenty of student debt, combined with trading information at the speed of light. It’s even commonplace in culture: the theme of “we’re going to die and life is meaningless” can be seen throughout music, in TV and in Internet culture. It’s just one of a growing number of what seems like darkly observed characteristics about this young age cohort, who marketers have dubbed Gen Z.
This mindset has a profound impact on culture, communities and corporations. Generation Z also doesn’t trust easily — and certainly doesn’t trust brands, or governments. It’s the kind of mindset that makes millennials, who want to buy from brands with purpose, seem more like eager consumers. It’s also impacting entertainment, bringing to the forefront artists specializing in emo rap and popularizing dark comedies like “Rick & Morty.” Gen Z brings new challenges for marketing, leading to approaches like Doritos’ “unbranded” ad campaign, tailored, so the company says, for a generation growing up in an era of ad-free content.
One of the effects of this also means more emerging leaders coming from this generation, such as 16-year-old Swedish student Greta Thunberg, who is a climate activist raising the issue of climate change via school strikes, or Parkland school shooting survivor David Hogg, who is spearheading an online campaign for gun safety. For many of this generation, these issues are pressing and real — and they are the ones who will solve it.
The reasons, according to researchers, are many. Noreena Hertz, a researcher and author who studied the phenomenon, found that Gen Z is the first generation to grow up in an age of perceived decline. It’s marked by everything from increasing inequality to concerns about melting polar ice caps. In the U.S., particularly, this generation came of age in a childhood marked by “active shooter” drills. Hertz’s research asked Gen Z if they think their lives are likely to be more of a struggle than those of their parents — and 79% of them said they worry about jobs, while 72% worry about debt.
Of course, nihilism isn’t exactly only the arena that belong to this generation. Plenty of those who came before, especially kids growing up post World War I, felt this sense of disillusionment. But what makes this more apparent is of course technology: Gen Z is also the first generation to grow up with smartphones. So it’s not necessarily that they’re more worried, although that’s the case, but they’re also approaching this worry with a sense of acceptance that previous generations simply didn’t.
Nowhere is this on greater display than with r/dankmemes, the multi-million-follower subreddit favored by both millennials and Gen Z. As of writing, one of the top memes (posted by username “I Want 2 Die”) was of “Spongebob Squarepants” character Patrick Star, asking “God” to pick him up because he was scared — thanks to the “bees dying, coral reefs dying, plankton dying.”
And one of the most popular memes on Tumblr in the last six months is about a fourth-grade teacher, whose art class, when discussing work, frequently says things like “Even if you work hard all your life… it means nothing.”
Skylar, who is 13, says she’s not “at all optimistic.” Her reasons: “I think doom is going to come because of world pollution and the environment.”
After all, when your youth anthem is “All my friends are dead,” it’s hard to see it any other way.