When I think about our generation (those of us born near the arrival of the new millennium), I can’t help but reflect on a great deal of suffering. This may come as a surprise, since most of the people reading this have likely been lucky enough to grow up in warm homes without fear of war, domestic conflicts or hunger. Many of us in Generation Z, so-called ‘Zoomers’, were born into times of convenience, technology and dynamic communication. Many were raised on Disney movies and trained to find practical solutions whenever obstacles arose. And yet, economists still describe us as “stressed, depressed and exam-obsessed”. This makes me question how, with all the advantages we have been handed, have we found ourselves suffering from more social anxiety and depression in comparison to past generations?
History has shown how much people had to sacrifice simply to stay alive. Only a handful of people in the past had the liberty to fulfil their potential. And this is understandable - between having to survive as a species, managing to endure wars, feeding a family and fighting for basic human rights in an unequal system we have developed - there was not much free time left to think about who we really are. But technological development, increased standards of living and the recent pandemic have changed things irreversibly.
Young adults in the Western world have now access to a greater variety of options from an early age and are entering the labour market later than any generation before. Zoomers have more freedom to get to know themselves and can (supposedly) choose their life path more consciously.
"The pandemic has helped shift everyone’s priorities and people of all ages are putting greater focus on their mental health"
It can now be argued that even though we are less scared and distracted by tragic externalities and live in a far more developed world, Gen Z still haven’t managed to escape a great deal of societal expectations. Whereas some conventionalities have waned and there is less social stigma around things like divorce, homosexuality or independent living, new pressures have emerged in the last decade. Being the first generation exposed to social media and virtual reality in their teens, the expectations to possess new products, follow trends, earn more money, have more friends on Facebook or stay in failed or toxic relationships have intensified for them. Without many tools available to manage these social callings at a young age, they are often forced to put on figurative masks out of the fear of being left out and the desperate want to belong. Many of us in Gen Z feel the need to secure a respectable place in a society with a well-paid job, decent car and nuclear family; all of which takes its toll on our self-acceptance. We still think of these things as the pinnacle of success, but arguably they are not necessities at all. I believe they could, on the other hand, be considered a root cause of the recently escalated, global mental health crisis
I admire people who have decided to stop fulfilling the expectations of others after they realised what pain it may cause. Last week I talked to my dear friend who recently changed her Masters degree application from Management to a far less conventional one. Her older sister (despite being a very progressive woman with a good job in a bank and a new husband) could not understand how blind her little sister could be to sacrifice her future happiness in such a frivolous way. She advised her to find herself a boyfriend who could talk some sense into her as soon as possible. As shocking as it may sound, all of us have those memories when someone reacts disapprovingly to a different way of doing things.
I had to admit that this all sounded very familiar. I spent the last year trying to identify and confront the lies that myself and others have been told my whole life. The following is just a sample of them:
- Good grades will get you a good degree, which will give you a good job, which will make you happy in the future.
- Your parents have the experience, they are always right.
- You always have to be positive and energetic to have friends or a job.
- You need to have a high salary.
- You cannot cry or be emotional around others otherwise you will lose them.
- You have to follow the ways things have always been done.
- You have to be happy.
Now you can go on forever with those examples, especially if you are a woman. I am quite confident that the less you believe them, the freer and happier you will feel. However, with societal pressures skyrocketing like never before, it is easy to fall back into the game of pretend and be certain you are making your own choices. It is easy to follow the crowd and take your prosperity for granted. Many Zoomers have joined the never-ending race for a fantastic job, fast car, luxurious home, the best body, popularity AND intelligence.
If we are lucky, there comes a time in our lives that we cannot continue denying ourselves anymore. We suddenly tell ourselves: “this job doesn’t make me happy”, “I don’t like myself anymore”, “Money bought me a new phone but it did not buy me love” and so on… When this time comes, we need to face these questions sooner rather than later: Who am I? Why am I here? Where is the place for me in all of this? And lastly, what am I like when I free myself from expectations of others?
Such questions may seem daunting, but we all know they will inevitably need answering. It can come very late unless we start working on ourselves now. Most people don’t. I am not surprised that my peers find it difficult to look each other in the eyes and say how they feel, because most of the time, we are stuck somewhere in between the past and the future. This generation is so concerned with their worries, expectations and efforts to refine their lives that they forget to stop, breathe and appreciate how they are in this moment. Zoomers are too proud to say they are sad, and too sad to take action to change their lives for the better .
"This generation is so concerned with their worries, expectations and efforts to refine their lives that they forget to stop, breathe and appreciate how they are in this moment."
It is nonetheless reassuring to observe that more and more of us started taking steps to discuss the importance of self-acceptance. The pandemic has helped shift everyone’s priorities and people of all ages are putting greater focus on their mental health - this is especially true for the generation that has the greatest experience in communicating remotely and may now struggle the least in reaching out. There is a lot of hope for the future when young people begin to realise their importance and stand up for themselves.
Howard Thurman once said: “Don't ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive, and go do that, because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” It takes great effort and courage to face what inside us screams for attention. And it also takes asking others for help. So be brave and say it out loud. Trust yourself. Tell your friends what you really fear, ask for help if you feel lost and keep digging. There is a great treasure to be found. There is a new generation to be reborn.