Go to the Globe and Mail homepage

Jump to main navigationJump to main content

AdChoices

Generational divides



Through the eyes of Generation Z Generation Change Generation Innovation the iGeneration Generation Tech

They’re the anti-millennials, a sober cohort with a practical eye for career and money and a native’s familiarity with technology. Erin Anderssen talked to students from the Class of 2016 and analyzed surveys to see what makes their generation tick. She finds a group unsure of the best nickname for itself – but, contrary to popular myths, they are ready to take on the massive burden of inheriting the planet

On Sunday, June 12, Emily DePaoli was between lifeguard shifts in High River, Alta., when, scrolling through Instagram, she saw #PrayforOrlando. She follows several drag queens, who were suddenly urging people to give blood. The Grade 12 student immediately went to news sites and learned that a lone gunman in Florida had killed people in a nightclub popular with the LGBT community, and that the death toll was rising.

For the rest of the afternoon, and then when she returned home, she followed the chatter on Twitter and Tumblr, as well as Instagram, as people discussed homophobia and terrorism – conflicting fact and opinion rushing like water from a broken dam. She saw the better parts of humanity also playing out, as hundreds answered the call to donate blood. “In times like this,” she says, “we need to feel that connection.” But she couldn’t stop crying. She couldn’t concentrate on her exams. Eventually, she had to log off. It was all too much.

Emily belongs to Generation Z. Too young to have a clear memory of 9/11, they know just where they were when Osama bin Laden was killed, when a gunman dressed as the Joker opened fire on people watching a Batman movie in Colorado, when the Boston Marathon blew up, when Paris was bombed.


We asked a small group of Canadians about to graduate high school for the songs that speak to their experience. Press play for their soundtrack.

Now, the older members of Gen Z will remember Orlando, in the final days of their Grade 12 years. And theirs are memories sharpened by real-time video, desperate texts from those trapped inside the Pulse nightclub, photos of bodies on the ground – not how their parents absorbed tragedy, through three minutes on the nightly news, but immersed and up close. One way, among many, in which this generation is different.

Social scientists have made hay slicing humanity into cohorts of common values and outcomes, so that old and young can squabble at the dinner table about who’s smarter, who’s luckier, who’s harder-working. (Place yourself accordingly; generations can get a little blurry around the edges.) In 1998, the year Emily and her peers arrived on the scene, this would have included the surviving members of the GI Generation – called “matures” in Canada – who lay claim to the title “greatest” for both surviving the Depression and winning a world war. The matures’ boomer children – born between the mid-1940s and the early-to-mid-1960s – were laying claim to middle age, and the rise of the millennials into adulthood was just around the corner.

Squeezed in between the boomers and the millennials was my tiny, loser generation, born in the sixties and seventies, and dubbed the unlucky “13th” in a bestselling book by generational experts William Strauss and Neil Howe that contained the inspiring chapters: “We trust ourselves and money – period” and “Room to move as a fry cook.” (The book came out in 1993, two years before Douglas Coupland’s Generation X – his name for my generation – started the alphabetical trend.)

If other generations began life slated for greatness, Gen X, the cynical, slacker children of divorce – born too late for flower power, too early for the Internet, and in too small numbers to matter much to marketers – were destined to disappoint.

It hardly matters. We were quickly eclipsed by those bright, dreamy millennials (a.k.a. Generation Y), still in their pre-stumble glory, and soon to get their own Strauss and Howe book, which declared them the Next Great Generation. Sample chapters: “The happiness business” and “A capacity for greatness.” In the words of Valley Girls everywhere, gag me.

But sooner or later, every generation gets its time in the sun, and it appears that we Gen X Breakfast Clubbers have done something right after all: We eventually got our act together, and had kids, and they are, totally, like, the Next Best Thing. As the current narrative goes, Generation Z (trademark pending) comprise the anti-millennials: solid, serious, pragmatic, savers. They “matter more” than their immediate predecessors, Goldman Sachs has declared. “Make way for Generation Z,” The New York Times has trumpeted. Could they truly be, the Financial Times has breathlessly asked, “the world’s saviours?”

Those are lofty expectations for a generation barely out of high school. And, as their predecessor millennials can attest: One day you’re saving the world; the next, you’re whiny, spoiled and sucking your thumb in your parents’ basement. But there is something about these kids, this Class of 2016, the senior members of Generation Z. Nora Spinks, chief executive officer of the Vanier Institute for the Family in Ottawa, says generations are most influenced by three factors: their parents, their teachers, and the culture and world events of their adolescence.

On all three counts, Gen Z has a fresh narrative. Their parents, today mostly in their 40s, were launched into the world during a recession, made their way – and were then handed, in their peak earning years, a Wall Street meltdown: Their kids grew up listening to disillusioned, hard-knocks money talk at the kitchen table.

“Gen X has created a sense of self-reliance with their kids,” says Jason Dorsey, co-founder of the Austin, Tex.-based Center for Generational Kinetics, whose high-energy TEDx Talk boasts of Gen Z’s attributes: “Rather than, ‘My mom is going to show up to help me with my essay,’ Gen X parents said, ‘You better figure it out.’ “

In today’s high schools, Ms. Spinks points out, technology is wiping out note-taking, rote learning and textbooks; instead, students have to learn to navigate massive amounts of information and data.

When it comes to culture, Gen Z considers same-sex marriage a done deal, a black American president reality, and working mothers normal. Its members have grown up in the most diverse classrooms in Canadian history – learning beside fellow Gen Zers of diverse races and religions, and those who face challenges ranging from dyslexia to autism.

But what really defines this generation is technology. Gen Z – or iGen, as it is sometimes called – has never known a phone that wasn’t smart, or a fact it couldn’t Google. They spend their days as confident citizens of a digital world that exists mostly apart from the adults in their lives.

This generation also will inherit a world with monumental problems: climate change, terrorism, the gap between the rich and the poor. By the time the first wave of Gen Zers have graduated from university, says Ms. Spinks, one of them will be entering the work force for roughly every three baby boomers retiring.

How does all that change them? What characterizes the psyche of a generation that grows up never knowing a world without lone-wolf terrorist attacks? What’s the effect of seeing those just ahead of you stumble financially, burdened by university debt? What does it mean that your life – your brand – plays out on Instagram and Facebook and Twitter, with the expectation, and the responsibility, of being both the watched and the watcher?

Our survey

To capture how Gen Z’s first wave feels about life, we designed a survey that, since January, has drawn 886 responses from Grade 12 students across Canada. Yconic, the Toronto-based youth-marketing agency that helps businesses understand millennials and Gen-Z Canadians, distributed the survey on the Globe’s behalf, and provided the bulk of responses. The Globe also sought help from the Canadian Student Leadership Association, as well as various schools and teachers. Students also passed the questionnaire to friends. Data was analyzed by the Globe.

The survey asked for opinions on a range of topics. Although some of our results resemble those of other polls, the picture is obviously incomplete. After all, there are about 400,000 17-year-olds in Canada. Also, our responses come largely from students bound for higher education; those dropping out or falling behind may have different stories to tell. Although the survey was available in French, few responses came from Quebec. The results have been weighted to account for gender; the margin of error is plus or minus 3.3 per cent, 19 times out of 20.

– Erin Anderssen

So, The Globe and Mail put some of these questions directly to the Class of 2016, through a national online survey of 886 students conducted with Yconic, the Toronto-based youth-marketing agency, as well as e-mail questionnaires, round-table conversations and interviews. Along the way, we met, among others, Kakeka Thundersky, an activist-minded indigenous student in Winnipeg growing up with a foster dad, and headed for a teaching degree; Muhammad Hussain – Muslim, feminist, class president and power-lifter in Cambridge, Ont.; thoughtful and articulate Jake Paterson in Ottawa, who sees his future working outdoors on power lines; Abena Miller, fiercely religious, and growing up as a proud Jamaican-Canadian in Edmonton; Mahima Mishra, an accomplished athlete of South Asian descent in St. John’s, determined to find her own path; and Sabrina Cruz, a math-loving YouTuber in Ajax, Ont. They all refuse to be put into tidy boxes, let alone to be stereotyped.

It’s hard to define the narrative of any generation, composed, as it is, of individuals, all with their own stories to tell. But this isn’t intended to be definitive; it’s a snapshot in time. Some day, these young people may look back at what they said, and smile at their foresight. Or they may laugh at themselves. Or wonder wistfully where that person went.

But for now, we wanted to ask them, where might they go?

They worry – a lot

“I get very stressed out about money,” says Chelsea Knuth, in Ottawa. “I can’t sleep too well worrying about it.”

For her, debt is weight that will drag down her future, limiting her choices. She doesn’t want to be trapped, for instance, in a job she doesn’t like just to be able to pay the bills. “I have a picture of what I want my life to be.” And she doesn’t want carelessness with money to be the reason it doesn’t happen.

This early cohort of Gen Z has watched many of the millennials crash and burn, and is trying to dodge the wreckage. They universally want to avoid major tuition debt. Some can cite the employment rate of graduates from their chosen university or college programs, and say they wouldn’t even consider a degree that didn’t look like it tracks to a job. Their parents come up a lot: They mention hearing at home about layoffs, pensions and escalating housing prices. They describe their parents sitting down to calculate budgets with them. (Chelsea’s helped her lay out the cost of university on an Excel spreadsheet.)

They tend to suffer from performance anxiety. In the Globe-Yconic survey, 68 per cent agreed that they feel overwhelmed by everything they need to do each week. Almost half, like Chelsea, said that stress makes it hard to sleep through the night; more than half said they worry about meeting their parents’ expectations. As for the future, only 27 per cent agreed with the statement “My generation will be better off financially than my parents’,” and 80 per cent were worried about one day making enough money to support themselves.


Being careful about money, some students said, has led them to take a gap year, or choose alternate postsecondary programs. Chelsea, for instance, has deferred her acceptance by St. Francis Xavier University, in Antigonish, N.S., to work to save money. (She also hopes to fundraise for a trip to Africa to volunteer for several weeks next winter.)

Matt Small, 17, in Coquitlam, B.C., says his parents were keen to have him attend Simon Fraser University, but he chose Douglas College, where, for less tuition and while living at home and working part-time, he can test-drive criminology courses without investing big bucks in a degree he may not like. “It’s my personality,” he says. “I don’t like to be owing people money.”

Success, suggests Kakeka Thundersky in Winnipeg, is “being comfortable with what you have.” As for debt, she says, “I want to give back, and you can’t do that if you are struggling to look after yourself.”

MacKenzie: I would take being comfortable, and being able to spend time with my friends and family and doing what I want, over making a lot of money.

Paige: Definitely.

Chelsea: For me, the money is a factor, but I just want to have a job where there is something different every day.

Paige: I don’t think I could see myself working in government cubicle, every single day for the rest of my life.

Tess: That scares me.

More pragmatists than entrepreneurs

In Grade 7, Sabrina Cruz posted her first YouTube video – two minutes of herself eating a cookie. (She has since deleted it.) It was the beginning of what has become a promising YouTube career, with 226 videos of the Ajax resident riffing on feminism, movie heroines, and crying in public. Her NerdyAndQuirky channel now has 134,000 followers – and, in a world where YouTube can be a star-making machine, you’d think Sabrina would have stars in her eyes. Instead, she is heading to the University of Toronto, to study math. Her dream: a finance job in a big company, with a steady paycheque, maybe doing her own thing on the side. “I have always wanted a 9-to-5,” she says Some marketers suggest that Gen Z has a make-your-own-job approach to work, but there isn’t much evidence among the students we met. The Class of 2016 talks about earning a stable income and working their way up in a company. Or they’re interested in traditional jobs such as teaching, and medicine.

Nerdy & quirky Sabrina Cruz argues why strong female leads are needed in the movies

2:58

“I think being successful at all in the future would be a dream come true,” says Morgan Burton, 17, in Black Diamond, Alta. “It’s a really daunting feeling, knowing that you might not be.”

She wants to become a teacher: “While I would love to be innovative enough to do something important and groundbreaking, having a steady paycheque seems a bit more reasonable.”

When asked, in the Globe-Yconic survey, what the key is to getting ahead, 96 per cent chose hard work – something that researchers suggest their Gen X managers will especially appreciate.

“You have to prove yourself,” explains Jake Paterson, leaning on the table in the boardroom at Ottawa’s John McCrae Secondary, where he and three friends have gathered to talk about work, life and social media. He expects late-night shifts and on-call weekends in his early years on the job. “You don’t just start 8 to 5, when there are guys who have already paid their dues,” he says.

Nick Anagnostopoulos, who wants to “get his foot in the door” with a company, agrees: “At the start, you will be more consumed with work, because you want to get a good reputation with your employer. But eventually, hopefully, you can find a proper balance.”

The goal, says Mack Mercier, is for each generation to improve upon the last. But he says, “you don’t want to work so much, to make so much money, that you don’t have any time – you have to do something for yourself as well.”

At the same time, the job had better not be boring. In another conversation at John McCrae, some female students discuss an article in a morning newspaper in which employers complained that young workers are unreliable and suffer from a lousy work ethic. They reject the generalization. “I am an excellent employee,” says Paige Dalley, who works part-time at a Freshly Squeezed juice bar. “I take on all kinds of extra duties.”

But Tess Durham concedes the employers’ point: “If it’s a career and it’s the same job every day, I can see how that would be a little bit true, because we aren’t a generation who can sit there doing the same thing every day. We need change.”

Not all sold on love, marriage, baby carriage

Most students in our sample see long-term commitment and kids in their future – two-thirds expect to be either married or in a permanent relationship by the time they are 30, and the majority figure they’ll have kids some time between the ages of 25 and 35. But in the survey, 20 per cent of the girls and 15 per cent of the boys say they have no plans for kids at all. “I understand planning out your career. I have never understood girls that plan their wedding,” says High River’s Emily DePaoli, who plans to become a veterinarian but currently has no vision for the wife or mother role. “I want to make sure I can make myself happy and I can live a comfortable life by myself.”


Mahima Mishra in St. John’s says that, over the last few years, her priorities for the future have shifted. “It’s not so much that having a family has become less appealing; it’s that independence has gotten more interesting to me now.

“I think it has a lot to do with how society has changed. That was the conventional thing to do – you go to school, find a job, get married, and have a family – and I now see more women not doing that, and living their own lives.”

Her idea of happiness is focused on “knowing for myself that I am a good person,” and her future – whether it includes a family, or “just doing my own thing” – is what she will make it. One thing for sure, she says, “I won’t settle.”

Their constant companion

Tess: If I am feeling awkward on the bus, I will just take out my phone right away. You really notice when you are not looking at your phone, how many people are. Like, is this weird to be just looking around?

Brooklyn: Adults can walk through crowds, like that, they can sit on a bus, and they don’t have to look at their phones. Because they grew up without them.

Tess: It’s a support system. You have your own little life on your phone. You can go on Twitter and you know these people. Instead of sitting with strangers.

They wake up in the morning, and check their phones. There are selfies to like, and selfies to post, and tweets to read – the social-media housekeeping of the modern teenager. “Likes” are the new currency, evidence of wit or popularity; one student admitted to removing a picture that didn’t collect enough likes, and reposting it later in the evening when more people would be online to see it. Failing to like a friend’s selfies fast enough often leads to an urgent text, asking why.

“My phone,” says Lisa Martell in Red Deer, Alta, “is only off when it’s dead.”

In the Globe-Yconic survey, one-third of students said they receive or send more than 50 texts a day; 12 per cent put the number above 200. (Many parents may guess a number closer to a thousand.) They are heavily dependent on the Internet – 40 per cent said they are using it almost constantly. In interviews, students talked about “craving” notifications, and compared social media to a drug.


“It’s how we grew up – everything is a screen now,” says Brooklyn Van’tSlot, in Ottawa.

Jenna Viscount in Halifax says she spends up to 90 minutes a day on social media, and sends about 150 text messages a day.

“I do not eat, do homework, shower, fold laundry, without social media, Netflix or listening to music.”

Social media have created a shared experience, and a common language (Damn Daniel!) from one side of the country to the other. But students also acknowledge being exhausted by the need to keep up with multiple social-media sites. “It takes up a lot of energy,” says Noah Hollis, another Haligonian. “A lot of people are really tired because they are always on their phones, always thinking about what they are going to post next, who they are going to talk to, what kind of lie they can make up to avoid doing something … It’s tiring. It’s really tiring.”


Facebook, students explain, is where they post pictures and news for their parents and extended family. Twitter is a place for witty non sequiturs directed at friends, and for thinly veiled, passive-aggressive sub-tweets fired at frenemies. On Instagram, they catalogue their favourite selfies. Snapchat streaks require two participants to send at least one picture every day. And then there are the late-night group chats where gossip is exchanged and plans are made. “Never go to bed early,” says Ottawa’s Chelsea Knuth. “You could miss so much.”

Class of 2016 grad Kakeka Thundersky shared a grad photo with her twist on a bouquet.

Class of 2016 grad Kakeka Thundersky shared a grad photo featuring her twist on a bouquet.

Text, they say, is how they stay in touch with friends en masse, especially when life is busy, and when they feel overscheduled. “I think adults look at us and see us always on our phones, but we are doing so much with school, extracurricular activities and jobs, there is hardly any time to have conversations,” says Mahima in St. John’s.

Not all text chats are superficial. “At night, when I am relaxing, I really start having deep conversations with my friends.”

In Ottawa, Tess Durham offers this observation: “What bugs me about our parents saying, ‘You’re always on your phone,’ is that that’s how society is: Everything is online. That’s how parents get their information, too. They can be giving me a lecture about always being on the phone, yet I will be sitting there on the news on Twitter, learning everything that is going on in society right now.”

But many students also recognize that social media can be a toxic space. (Several report taking mental-health breathers, particularly when the real world got busy, or when conversation had turned negative.) In the Globe-Yconic survey, 43 per cent of students said they have witnessed cyberbullying, 64 per cent have read racist comments, and more than one-quarter have logged off because someone’s behaviour made them nervous.

Social media is where people say things they’d never say in person – for better as well as worse, sometimes opening a door to difficult topics. It’s also a space where young people have become more careful, cloaking insults with coded language, in order not to incur the wrath of the majority in a generation raised to be sensitive to bullying.

“It can be like psychological warfare,” says Sabrina Cruz, “like watching reality TV.”


Where they build their brand

Abena: It’s marketing – social media has become a business.

Sabrina: YOUR stats are like a designer outfit.

Noah: Each person has their own brand that they have TO perpetuate every single day in the online word.

Abena: True.

Sabrina: Like you become less yourself to get more people to "like" you.

And yet members of Gen Z are also sensitive about privacy and maintaining control over their digital identities. They will periodically scrub their sites of unflattering pictures and will carefully script tweets to be funny, but not too controversial. (They are also not shy about culling their friend groups of negative voices.) They’re critical of the way millennials have dumped their entire lives onto Facebook.

“I thought they were going to be another oversharing generation,” says Corey Seemiller, co-author of Gen Z Goes to College. “But they are much more private. They are highly guarded about what they say, and they share a lot less on social media than they follow.”


“I am really cautious about what I post,” says Kakeka, in Winnipeg. “I don’t want it to come back to haunt me.” The stories of politicians whose early Internet activity derailed their careers has left an impression. “I want to keep my options open.”

“Why risk it?” asks Jake Paterson in Ottawa. “Why throw something up there that you are going to regret? Once it’s there, it’s there. You aren’t removing it. Even if you do, tons of people have seen it. Somebody probably screen-shot it. So you have to be smart about it.”

“All my accounts are private,” adds his friend Ryan Farrell. “I don’t want somebody I don’t know looking at me.”

But they’d rather talk in person?

Nick: If it’s urgent, a call is way better than texting.

Ryan: And it’s stressful if you think something is wrong. I have been in situation where someone texts ‘Omigod I have to tell you something….’ Just tell me – so I am not stressing waiting for you to text me back 10 minutes later.

Jake: It’s like my dad, the one time he will text me, he will be ‘Call Me Now period.’ So, it’s like, what’s going on?

Mack: Like, who died?

Jake: So I will call him back quickly, and he’ll say, ‘We’re going to Grandma’s for dinner.’ And it’s like, Why don’t you just say that?

Ryan: People just assume we don’t like face-to-face interaction. I like that a lot more. I hate texting.

Although they concede that texting is useful for making plans, and sometimes better for handling complicated conversation when you want time to think your answers through, students readily acknowledge that face-to-face has clear advantages. “Sometimes you can hide your emotions over a screen,” says Paige. But, as Tess points out, “Sometimes, it escalates things. Especially if people don’t know your tone or reaction.”

Morgan Burton, of Black Diamond, explains: “I’d always rather have a meaningful conversation with someone in person. But communicating online does have its benefits; it takes away uncomfortable barriers, makes it easier to be eloquent and gets one’s point across.”

Says Sabrina Cruz, “I would rather talk to a person than a screen. If it’s something that is important, there is nothing more vital than looking into a person’s eyes.”

Except, of course, that the phone has become a social crutch to avoid doing just that.

“We use them as excuses in awkward situations,” says Halifax’s Jenna Viscount. “Don’t know anyone at a party? Pull out your phone. Standing at a bus stop with someone you don’t know? Pull out your phone. At school and eating lunch alone? Pull out your phone.”

Alexandra Fabugais-Inaba, in Oakville, pines for an earlier time: “I wish that we didn’t have millions of apps that hoard our lives,” and instead “actually had face-to-face conversations with people. I wish that boys would ask girls out in front of their face, not be sliding into her DMs [direct messages] to finally work up the courage to type ‘Do you want to go out?’ “

Even Lisa Martell, who never turns off her phone, is conflicted. “Social media is an incredible thing – I will always stick to that,” she says. “But I believe more than anything that our generation also needs to learn to look up and see life through our own eyes rather than someone else’s camera lens.”

Terrorism and tragedy – the world they know

Noah: We can’t stay focused. … We have good intentions and we want to help, but there’s too much in too many places for people to choose one thing. Like walking into a vault and seeing gold and money everywhere, and you don’t know where to begin.

Sabrina: Yeah, but the gold and money is like terrorism and starvation and poverty.

Abena: But should we stay goldstruck, and do absolutely nothing?

On June 12, Noah Hollis woke up in the Halifax suburb of Hammonds Plains to a Twitter feed flowing with news about Orlando. Like Emily DiPaoli in High River, he watched the discussion unfold. People were quick to link the shooter to Islamic State rather than homophobia, the kind stirred up by the same conservative politicians now calling for prayers. “To call him an ISIS fighter distances him from everyone,” he says. “People want a simple conclusion, so they can wrap it up and move on.”

But events like the Florida shooting highlight the strengths and weaknesses of social media – its ability to organize people into concrete acts, such as donating blood or giving money, and, Emily says, “to open up doorways for conversations that need to happen.” But the whirlwind of fact and conjecture also “makes it difficult to focus on one solution to stop this from happening,” suggests Noah.

A photo posted by The Shade Room (@theshaderoom) on


Does this make them feel the world is unsafe? Mostly, they shrug off the question: “We are so used to it by now,” Noah says.

“This has always been happening since we were born,” according to Jake.

Canada still feels like a country apart from the conflict, a place, they repeatedly noted, where you can’t buy an assault rifle at a store on the corner. “I feel pretty safe in Newfoundland,” says Mahima. “What scares me is travelling. You always have it on your mind. Even though there’s not a big chance of anything happening, it’s unsettling.”

In the Globe-Yconic survey, students weren’t exactly brimming with youthful optimism. Nearly three-quarters believe the gap between rich and poor will widen over the next decade. And 55 per cent believe incidents of terrorism will increase. Roughly the same number say that terrorist attacks make them more fearful for their personal safety.


“We aren’t going [to the movies] with the mindset that we need to be ducking if someone walks in,” says Jake.

“But,” says Chelsea, “maybe eventually we will.”

Better behaved than their parents were …

As a group, teenagers today actually drink and do drugs less often than their parents did at the same age. And it’s no surprise that smoking is way less common now. Perhaps more surprising, in a wide range of large-scale surveys in both Canada and the United States, binge-drinking and drug use have declined among high-school students since the 1990s. Even marijuana use is down. (In fact, when it comes to legalizing pot, students in the Globe-Yconic survey are evenly divided – one-third say yes to the idea, one-third say no, and one third aren’t sure.)


It’s not that drinking and drug use aren’t common at parties, as they pretty much all make clear. But their lives are busy, and they socialize differently – you’re not likely to be drinking beer alone in the family room while playing Halo with friends online, or while texting from your bedroom.

Culture can also play a role: Muhammad Hussain, the president of his student council, doesn’t drink, both for his own health and fitness, and because of his Muslim background. “I respect the choices of others,” he says. “But it is a personal preference for me not to. I was raised in a faith where my family doesn’t drink, and I just don’t feel the need to put anything in my body that doesn’t need to be there.”

Gen Z has also got the message about drunk driving: In our survey, while the majority agreed that skipping class and “getting really drunk” is okay once in a while, 97 per cent say they “never” drink and drive.

… and no more sexually active

MacKenzie: A boy can go to a party and hook up with 10 girls, and he is congratulated, and a girl would do the same thing, and she’s a slut.

Tess: And girls [say it] too. It’s just as much girls as it is guys.

Brooklyn: We’re all hypocrites.

In a boardroom off the principal’s office at John McCrae, some senior students are explaining the term “wheeling,” as in “I wheeled five guys at Saturday’s party.” It translates to making out, usually random one-offs to be boasted about later – especially, they say, among the younger students.

“The Grade 9s will go to two parties in one weekend,” says Chelsea, in Ottawa, “and if they haven’t done something with a guy at one of those parties, they will be down on themselves. They’re like, it was an unsuccessful weekend.”

MacKenzie Corrigan insists, “We were never like that.”

Certainly many Grade 9’s won’t be, either. (But isn’t this the parlour game: world-weary seniors tsk-tsking about those wild and crazy kids?)

At the same time, here’s a generation with easy online access to hard-core pornography. Twerking is a thing, and song lyrics don’t even bother with euphemisms for oral sex any more.

And yet, while Canada doesn’t have great current stats on sexual activity among teens, Statistics Canada data from 2010 showed that 30 per cent of teenagers reported having sex before the age of 17 – roughly the same percentage revealed in Canadian surveys in the 1990s. (It’s also similar to the findings of the Globe-Yconic survey.) The incidence of teenage pregnancy and abortion has also fallen significantly in Canada since the 1990s. Over all, the world that teenagers describe isn’t that different from the one their parents may recall: Some kids have sex, some don’t.


“It still happens,” female students say that girls perform oral sex just so guys will like them. And girls, they admit, aren’t as often on the receiving side – especially if it’s a one-off hookup at a party. But relationships – and age – are perspective changers, they say. It’s no longer about “checking something off the list” – because everyone is supposedly doing it – but deciding whether you really want to do it in the first place.

As for porn, it’s being watched plenty. Does that create unrealistic, potentially negative expectations, as some experts fear?

“I think guys know it’s staged,” says Chelsea, “but for you to actually sit and watch it, and think that’s all fake, I don’t think they do that.” Says her friend, Mack Mercier, “If you have never done it before and just watch it, maybe you would think that’s what it’s like, but …” and then Jake finishes his thought, “I don’t think it stays with you. As they get older, they realize it’s not.”

And then there’s sexting. For a supposedly pragmatic generation sensitive about privacy, many of its members have a relatively relaxed attitude about clicking “send” on naked selfies. Students insist they would send such pictures only to those they trust – and when the exchange is mutual. If they knew of cases when photos had leaked online, it was usually at a distance, or in the news. “It wouldn’t be just anybody who would do that,” explains Black Diamond’s Morgan Burton. “It would have to be someone intent on hurting that person, someone pretty nasty.”

Jenna Viscount recalls being at a party where a boy she didn’t know well was showing off a collection of photos on his phone to anyone who asked. “He was bragging about it,” she says. “It never even crossed my mind that people would do that, until I saw that.”

Social media didn’t invent that kind of jerk, but gave him a new tool to use. And the damage is still higher for girls than for boys, however equal they may feel in other areas of life. In the Globe-Yconic survey, 49 per cent of students said that, when it comes to sex, the rules are different for boys than for girls, and 70 per cent said that “slut shaming” targets girls who have sex more than it does boys.

Even for a generation that talks large about busting stereotypes, some traditions are hard to shake.

Minds that are open, and can be changed

So maybe they haven’t made as much progress on sexual politics. This is still a generation that leans solidly left; that is relaxed in a diverse world, accepting of the kind of issues that still get adults in a lather, such as gender identity. They walk hallways with gender-neutral washrooms and with posters urging openness and tolerance. Jason Dorsey, of Generational Kinetics, suggests what will be strange to them is “walking into a boardroom full of a bunch of white people.”

“In previous generations, it was always black and white,” says Kate Turner, in Osoyoos, B.C., “and for us, we started asking questions – why does it have to be like that? Maybe there are other options.”

And as was often pointed out by these teenagers, Gen Z doesn’t have to rely on parents or teachers any more. “We have access to so much information,” says Mahima in St. John’s. “We have a chance to make our own opinions about how we see the world and how we see ourselves.”

“It’s all about exposure,” says Morgan. “People tend to be afraid of what they don’t know or understand. As more brave people share their stories, the more we see, the more accepting we become.” For the Alberta teenager, who identifies as pansexual, this was especially true of her questions about gender identity, which she explored online.

“That has to do with how easy it is for us to see what’s going on in the world,” says Mahima, suggesting that her generation isn’t as fixated on putting boxes around religion and gender identity as older Canadians might be. “We are really good at pulling out the best of everything,” she insists, and creating a life philosophy. “We go with the flow more than other generations.”

Maybe it’s part of their reluctance to wear a label from another generation, but Gen Zers are divided on feminism. In the Globe-Yconic survey, 66 per cent of girls identified as feminists. But in Ottawa, none of the female participants said that they see themselves that way. They feel the term has become too controversial and been taken too far, “as if women wanted to be above men,” Chelsea Knuth explains. “I wouldn’t call myself a feminist, just because of what the idea has surrounding it now.”

But feminist is a title claimed by 32 per cent of the survey’s male students. “I imagine people like my mother, or my little sister, when it comes to matters like these, and it sincerely hurts me to think that they are at a disadvantage in society simply based on their gender,” explains Muhammad Hussain, who calls himself a feminist and says he is proud that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau does the same. But he also feels that the view of feminists as man-hating has persisted. His male peers, he says, need to understand “that true feminists are not psychotic females out to hunt every man on Earth down, but instead are just normal women who want all human beings to be equal.”

Does fear of offending people stifle debate?

As a group, the members of Generation Z speak about the diversity of opinions they can find online, and how that has helped them shape their own views. They also happen to be entering university when trigger warnings – cautions about presentations, speeches or even required reading that may be upsetting to certain groups of people – have become more common. Some students wonder if it has gone too far.

“Making jokes out of incredibly serious issues in front of someone who has suffered through that is unacceptable,” Morgan says. “But to avoid serious topics at all for fear of upsetting someone means that important issues are often not discussed. The need for trigger warnings and the demand for the utmost political correctness at all times has seemingly only caused more problems, because it leads people to believe that life should always be as gentle, which just isn’t the case.”

Abena Miller, in Edmonton, points out that when people don’t agree online, what starts as debate can quickly disintegrate into insults. “I feel like censorship is increasing so much [because of] fear of offence. It might be [rapper Azealia Banks] today for her racism – which is inexcusable – and me tomorrow for my religious beliefs,” she says. “I’m not really free if I can’t have an opinion.”

“Political correctness is very trendy nowadays,” observes Noah, “and if there’s one thing this generation is good at, it’s following trends and attacking those who don’t.” At university, he says, he wants to experience a broad range of debate. “The online world makes it too easy for people to feel they are right 100 per cent of the time.”

They get it: The planet is in trouble

In the Globe and Mail-Yconic survey, 88 per cent of Grade 12 respondents said they worry about the condition of the planet, and 61 per cent said they believe that climate change will get worse in the next 10 years. To solve it, 85 per cent say that people will have to make lifestyle changes. Roughly half think their generation will figure out a solution eventually.


“You see predictions,” says Morgan, “that this is how long water is going to be available, and how long the polar ice caps will exist, and it feels like a time limit for us to figure it out, and this is a huge weight on our shoulders.”

And it is wearing them down. Mahima recalls an English class this spring, when the teacher gave out yet another assignment on global warming. “As soon as we opened the page and saw what it was about, there were a bunch of groans,” she says. “This problem is just being thrown at us. We are not in a position where we can make major decisions. It is almost too much. It doesn’t even seem like the generation before us is doing a lot about it, and they are the ones who caused the problem.”

They all teach (and have done for years)

Brooklyn: When you have to explain the same thing every day, that's when some days I kind of get annoyed. You don't understand why they can't get it, when you show them something 30 times. … It's just that we grew up with it, and they're trying to learn.

Tess: And then they're, like, 'Oh, thank you,' and they're kind of proud of you, because you know so much.

Here’s a surefire trick to get teenagers talking: Ask them about their parents’ attempts to navigate social media.

“No matter how many times I tell my mom you cannot zoom in on Instagram, she will still do it,” says Mack.

“Last month, I had to show my dad how to find a website on Google,” says Jake.

“My mom’s phone started playing music in a meeting,” Tess says, “and she couldn’t figure out where the app was to turn it off. So she had to leave the meeting, go into her office – and call me.”

For this generation, knowledge is no longer hierarchical, and information doesn’t travel one way. It comes from multiple sources – their peers, their parents and teachers, their favourite YouTube channels, bloggers – and when news breaks, the mainstream media, more often than not. The Vanier Centre’s Nora Spinks predicts that this early pattern of being both learners and teachers will make them valued employees. (For this story, they patiently explained slang or memes or social-media behaviour, with barely a hint of adolescent condescension.)

As Mack observes, his generation has developed the art of giving directions. “You’re learning how to communicate,” he says, to avoid being asked over and over again.

But if anything, they feel these teaching moments bring them closer to their parents. “It creates a different bond,” Tess says. “You are on a level playing field.”

“My dad knows nothing about technology when I try to show him,” says Jake. “But then, when it comes to working on a car, he knows way more than I do. You show them what you know, they show you what they know.”

Still, quips Chelsea, “It’s much easier to teach kids things than adults. So they have the easy job.”

What the world needs now?

At some point, nearly every generation gets told they’re going to save the world (even mine, whom some eventually tagged the boomer cleanup crew). But, let’s suppose the early indicators hold, that Gen Z leans on the sensible side, trends toward financial frugality while possessing an open-minded approach to diversity and a serious disposition. They may not be rebels. But says Ms. Spinks, “maybe pragmatism is what the world needs now.”

There will soon be five generations in the work force – one with the clear technological advantage, setting the digital path for everyone else to follow. In the all-encompassing culture of the Internet, “We are going to look more like them,” predicts Jason Dorsey, “than they will look like us.”

“I wouldn’t call us saviours of the world just yet,” cautions Noah Hollis, offering a voice of reason on behalf of his peers. “We need a bit more time.”

Still, fingers crossed.

Erin Anderssen is a senior feature writer with The Globe and Mail.

Report Typo/Error

Next story

loading