Young Canadians are fearful about the future. But underneath their existential angst lies an unexpected resilience.
On the June day that Hannah Zilke, a 19-year-old university student, is explaining why she doesn’t want to have children, the answer wafts outside her bedroom window in Calgary: a haze of smoke lingering from forest fires still burning out of control hundreds of kilometres away.
Within her lifetime, she says, the world will likely face a fresh water shortage, run out of top soil for farming, and be ravaged by scorching heat waves, devastating flooding and more fires.
“Like the best thing you can do for the planet is not have any kids, right?”
Also, she has a short temper; kids get on her nerves. But even if they didn’t, she’s not going to raise a child into a conflict-ridden, climate-changing future where she can’t even expect to afford a decent home like her parents before her. Ms. Zilke worries, with good reason, that her generation will fall behind and never catch up.
Six years ago, when The Globe and Mail interviewed Canadian members of Gen Z’s first high school graduation class, the generation was bright and shiny. “Make way for Gen Z,” the headlines trumpeted, as researchers, brand consultants and employers bowled down the millennials to get a good look at the next human crop. Born roughly between 1997 and 2012, they were the first generation to grow up with the iPhone, celebrated for their openness and diversity, and their sensible sturdiness was going to Save The World.
Even then, however, researchers were handwringing about worrisome signs: rising rates of depression and anxiety, an addiction to social media, an aversion to risk (they were late to sex, drugs and driver’s licenses!) that somehow lacked the lustre of youthful enthusiasm. This was, of course, before a pandemic came along and locked them away from the proms, frosh weeks and summer jobs they will never get back. Now that the world has opened up again, another thread has entered the narrative: Gen Z are apathetic, overly sensitive and they don’t really want to work. They are just too darn needy.
But what story do members of Gen Z tell about themselves? In May and June, The Globe and Mail and 55 Rush, a Toronto-based marketing company with a large online youth community, surveyed 1,646 Canadians between the ages of 15 and 26 on subjects such as housing, work and gender. Although it is only a snapshot of a diverse country and generation, the results resembled other surveys.
Their voluntary responses, and two dozen follow-up interviews, supported their reputation as a progressive, media-literate generation deliberate about achieving a work-life balance.
But their answers also revealed a disheartening pessimism about the world around them, and the future ahead. They expressed distrust for institutions and leaders who, they said in interviews, either ignored them or failed to prioritize long-term solutions to problems, such as climate change, that would affect them the most.
As a group, they worry a lot about their financial security; in interviews, they often mentioned rising rent and grocery store costs. Nearly three-quarters disagreed that, as a generation, they would surpass their parents. These concerns no doubt contribute to their mental health issues: In the survey, more than half said they find it hard to sleep at night because of stress.
And yet, during hours spent talking to survey respondents, this narrative was incomplete. Underlying all this very real and existential angst was also resilience and pragmatism, a hardiness that defies the Gen Z naysayers. If anything, they thought their elders were the fragile ones, prone to freaking out when they questioned the status quo, particularly around gender and work-life balance. And it becomes clear how often their opinions are overlooked or dismissed – to everyone’s detriment.
“We have a whole way of talking about young people, that they are immature, that they don’t know enough yet,” says Ilona Dougherty, managing director of the Youth and Innovation Project at Waterloo University, “and that is not fair.”
Not fair, given they could be the ones scrambling for water someday. And also a failure on the part of older generations, because the young brain, as Ms. Dougherty puts it, is “primed for bold problem-solving.” So why are they so often shut out of the national conversation, told to wait their turn? And how we can make more room for them?
Ms. Zilke certainly wants a say. She looks for hope in the incremental progress at climate change conferences, and the petition she signed that helped save an endangered frog in Arizona. She writes letters to politicians, even though she’s not sure they actually read them. “We can’t give up. We don’t have that option.”
But these looming existential threats, she says, are emotionally draining. That’s the risk, one already showing up in the mental health struggles of Gen Z: it’s hard to sustain youthful optimism and creative energy when a generation feels overwhelmed by a mess they didn’t make.
In the summer of 2021, COVID-19 swept through Galilea De Burgos’s home. Her mother, older brother and Ms. De Burgos herself recovered. But her father, a professor at the University of British Columbia in Kelowna, died later in hospital. Now his daughter studies at the same school, feeling his absence.
This past summer, she was a barista at a coffee shop when the fire arrived at Kelowna’s border, and residents on the threatened side of the city had to evacuate. For three days, friends with nowhere else to go lived in her family home while the mountains glowed orange from her backyard. “I have never seen that before,” the 19-year-old says. “It was very scary.”
Yet despite everything, Ms. De Burgos exhibits a stoic kind of resilience. The pandemic, she says, didn’t crush her, it taught her how to face tough times. Her university years may be different than she’d hoped, but she knows her dad would be proud of her. The fires were a terrible reminder of climate change – but look, she says, at the environmental activism on her campus.
Evidence of that resilience comes through in The Globe’s survey. Yes, Gen Zs are stressed out. But a sizeable majority also reported above average life satisfaction.
Nearly 60 per cent agreed, strongly or somewhat, that the pandemic was “harmful to their mental health in a lasting way.” But when asked to pick an answer that best defined the consequences of living through COVID, nearly 40 per cent chose that they felt either more prepared for the future or more resilient in the face of adversity.
That resilience continues to be tested. Nearly every Gen Z interviewed for this story expressed concern about inflation and the housing crisis, even if their parents were still paying most of their bills.
They knew – thanks to YouTube and TikTok and family dinner conversations – that rent is rising, that the price of a home is outpacing salaries, and that, without solutions, a devastated environment will forever alter the way of life in Canada. In the survey, about 80 per cent agreed that people will have to make “major lifestyle changes” to mitigate climate change.
Society is designed around the idea that each generation, in the aggregate, will do better than the last one. But that optimism is being chipped away. The young people filling out The Globe’s survey come from a place of relative advantage: they had the time and ability to answer our questions, and most of them are in college or university, or headed there. But even among this group, 42 per cent “strongly disagreed” that they would financially surpass their parent’s generation.
Gen Z have just cause for pessimism – a state of mind with profound consequences. A generation that can’t get their footing can’t stand up to participate in the public square; they are too busy surviving.
“Not only will we risk losing the optimism and dynamism of youth,” says Bobby Duffy, director of The Policy Institute at King’s College London, “but when people think progress has stopped, they start to question the value of the whole system.”
Gen Z is already a cohort of skeptics, according to The Globe’s survey results. Among them is Spencer Dyck, who in a follow-up interview held the view that most people can’t be trusted. As evidence, the 19-year-old business student at the University of Saskatchewan cites the customers he’s caught at his retail job hiding items at the checkout, or returning items they didn’t buy. The internet that’s a playground for scammers, disinformation, and biased media. Politicians that lie to get elected.
“Don’t be offended,” he said during the interview, “but I checked you out before returning your text. You can’t be too careful.”
If trust is betting on the future action of others, as Polish sociologist Piotr Sztompka once wrote, then Mr. Dyck is playing his cards close to his chest. And who can blame him? The world is indeed swamped in shallow lies and deep fakes.
“It seems to me,” he says, “that everyone is primarily self-interested, and society promotes this selfishness.”
This negative view of leaders, businesses and people in general showed up in several questions in the survey. Respondents were significantly more likely to see people as untrustworthy than say they can be counted on to do the right thing. Roughly 70 per cent either strongly or somewhat agreed that “the internet brings out the worst in people.”
They expressed a similar suspicion for elites that has been found in other Canadian surveys: nearly 60 per cent agreed that “big events, such as wars, recessions and elections, are controlled by small groups of powerful people working against the rest of us.” Despite spending their lives immersed in technology – or perhaps because of that – 60 per cent also said that humanity will regret expanding artificial intelligence, as opposed to the technology improving their lives. This lack of faith extends to themselves: only 42 per cent agreed that their generation will solve climate change.
Maybe it seems like young people have always been distrustful, but as U.S. sociologist Jean Twenge writes in her new book, Generations, this was not always the case. Dr. Twenge points to the Silent Generation – the great-grandparents of Gen Z – as that last truly trusting cohort, who were more likely than those that followed to say that people try to be fair and are usually helpful. In the late 1980s, Dr. Twenge writes, a reversal happened: compared to their grandparents, young people, once the idealists, became the cynics.
The reasons for this are complex and individual. Even within generations, people with more money, more education and power tend to be more trusting of a society that is working reasonably well for them.
But trust is fostered by certain key beliefs: a sense that big problems in the world can be solved, that the odds of success are in your favour, and people will make sacrifices for others. Gen Z, according to our survey and others, often feel the opposite is true.
“I want to believe the best in the world,” says Anastasia Kartadinata, a 17-year-old first-year student at the University of Calgary. But, at the same time, she says, the internet is full of people faking good deeds for attention, or manipulating facts to their own advantage. “We’ve now been completely exposed to how bad people can actually be.”
The internet has made them more global in their outlook, and it was clear that their perceptions were being shaped by influencers and events beyond Canada’s borders, especially the polarized politics, school shootings and racism in the United States.
But they weren’t gullible either. In interviews, they described the constant – often exhausting – need to fact-check videos and statements before reaching an opinion. And they expressed the wish that politicians and businesses would be more transparent with the public – by owning up to their mistakes, as Mr. Dyck said, and speaking in plain language. They saw social media as their most accessible and powerful tool to hold people to account.
A lack of trust doesn’t mean you reject society, Mr. Dyck explains, only that you move more carefully through it.
While The Globe’s survey suggests that Gen Z is still deeply attached to their country – three-quarters agreed that they are “proud to say I come from Canada” – they also often expressed impatience with how slowly governments and institutions adapted to modern culture, dithering on social justice issues, and catering to special interests.
When it comes to climate change, says Ravana Smith, a 19-year-old from Moncton, studying at Mount Allison University, “the excuse is always, ‘Oh, but we’re doing our part to fix it.’ Except you’re not actually fixing anything. You’re putting a Band-Aid over a leak.”
As Ms. Zilke says, “Climate change and global conflict scare me, but people not caring about it scares me more.”
Bashing the next-in-line is a favourite pastime for those on their way out – especially when times are tough, says Ms. Dougherty.
But that’s unproductive, she points out: squabbling about who had it worse only wastes time better spent working together to solve today’s very real problems.
Generations are, of course, flawed boxes that oversimplify individuals. They make for funny TikTok memes, but as Dr. Duffy explains in his book, The Generation Myth, they matter less than we think. While the culture we inhabit as teenagers leaves a lasting imprint, our values are also influenced over time by world events, and life stages such as parenthood and retirement. The differences within generations can be even wider than the space between them.
Canadian Gen Zs may be the most worldly, racially diverse and open-minded young adult generation the country has ever seen. But as Dr. Duffy point out, their progressive values are extensions of a rebellious liberalism that began with those now-stodgy Boomers. The distrust of politicians is not acute, he says, but chronic. Even the hope that the next generation would enjoy a better future than their predecessors has been dwindling for more than a decade.
The Globe and 55 Rush also surveyed 1,015 people born between 1946 and 1996, through the marketing company’s online parent community, and Globe readers. The results for Gen X, the parents of Gen Z, now in their 40s and 50s, and Millennials, the cohort just ahead of them in the workforce, suggested similar concerns about climate change and the consequences of AI, and significant worry about the younger generation’s financial future. They also pointed to a shared lack of faith in politicians, and an antipathy toward social media. In other words: we’re all in this together.
Yet the narrative of the lazy, fragile twentysomething persists. Never mind that young people made a sacrifice during the pandemic on behalf of older generations, since COVID was rarely more than a bad cold for anyone under 18. Or that when angry convoy protests over vaccine mandates eventually shut down Ottawa in January, 2022, the organizers were middle-aged. (Young people were more likely to be sustaining online support for Black Lives Matter and the #MeToo movement, and still dutifully wearing masks in school.) And never mind that the world they emerged into has become meaner, more polarized, less stable and more expensive.
Older generations still ask: How dare they reject the status quo?
This September, Rejaa Khalid, 21, a fourth-year university student at the University of Toronto, joined the crowd at Queen’s Park protesting mining activity on Grassy Narrows First Nations. She keeps going to protests, even when they don’t seem to accomplish much. “You sort of have this idealist version that you’re gonna be heard, but you’re not,” she says.
She wants to feel inspired. Government, she says, should make you feel like you belong to something bigger than yourself. “But we’re not getting that from institutions. We’re getting it from each other.”
She found it at her job this summer, she says, talking with low-income immigrant youth, who, despite their struggles in Canada, still expressed optimism about society and their future role in it. She pointed to what happened this summer when the Barbie movie – a commentary on gender roles that celebrated individual beauty – filled theatres with audiences dressed in pink. “This speaks to how deeply we want to share a connection with people.” she says. “It makes us feel heard and seen.”
Heather Lawford, a professor at Bishop’s University, and the Canadian Research Chair in Youth Development, studies how to better engage young people. She proposes that organizations pay them for their time so that their insights are seen as valuable. And that groups that solicit youth input need to follow up afterwards to share the results of their contributions, even if their proposals weren’t adopted. She remembers one young man offering this metaphor: “Adults are always asking me to text, but they won’t text back.”
Even when organizations share space on the stage, they don’t always share resources. In October, Ms. Dougherty co-authored a study that found that philanthropic foundations often overlook Gen Z groups for funding, so that twentysomething activists can’t make a living wage.
Gen Z has more to lose with the climate crisis, Dr. Lawford says, and it’s crucial to not sideline one generation for another. These problems require collective solutions. Mentorship between age groups fosters resilience and creativity. Being part of meaningful work, as mental health research shows, also helps to reduce anxiety and a sense of hopelessness.
And while older generations may feel uncomfortable having their values and choices questioned, Dr. Lawford says “when you bring young people in, and give them a real voice and decision making, you realize it’s good for all of us.”
“I had someone say to me a few days ago that my generation is just too young to actually see things the way they are,” Ms. Khalid recalled this month. This was insulting, but she shrugged it off as an older person gatekeeping the status quo, as if her idealism couldn’t also come with smart, viable solutions. “You pick your battles,” she says, and she has bigger ones to fight.
“Hope acts as a guide,” she says, in answer to how she remains optimistic. “It illuminates and pushes the feeling that you have the power to make change.”
Voices of a generation: Takeways from The Globe’s survey
To see how Canadians feel about the future, The Globe and Mail and marketing company 55 Rush questioned two groups: 1,646 survey respondents aged 15 and 26, and 1,015 people born between 1946 and 1996, including Globe readers and members of 55 Rush’s online parent community.
GRAPHICS AND DATA ANALYSIS BY YANG SUN
The Globe and Mail, October 28, 2023