• What is Happening with Gen Z—Mighty Parenting 230 with John Della Volpe

  • gen z

    We’ve had to adjust to (and sometimes struggle with) the rapid changes in economics, information distribution and communication in the past few decades—but our kids have had this from the beginning. Generation Z is the first generation to have grown up alongside the digital age; from when they were young, they’ve had access to the internet, computers, cell phones and other forms of digital connection. How has this upbringing shaped their worldview, morals, and plans for the future? And how can we better connect with our kids when our childhoods were so very different? John Della Volpe joins Mighty Parenting podcast host Sandy Fowler to discuss our gen z kids (including insights from his book FIGHT: How Gen Z Is Channeling Their Fear and Passion to Save America)—how they think; what they care about; their influence in social media, economics and politics; and how we can develop mutual understanding between different generations.

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    A Favorite Quote from the Show: 

    “The way parents think about bills and taxes, the way that weighs on your shoulders, that’s the way we think about living and dying.” ~ John shares a moment from a Gen Z girl

    High Points From Our Conversation on Gen Z:

    Quote about gen z

    Part of John’s work includes a 21-year-running project at Harvard regarding changing generations and how politics and public events affect millennials and Gen Z kids; he travels around asking a series of questions, including What’s the one thing older people should understand about your generation? and Are you feeling hopeful or optimistic about the future?

    John’s been interviewing Gen Z kids, teens and adults for years, and one common thread he found in their answers when he asked how they felt about the future was optimism—regardless of personal circumstances, they still had hope for their futures. 

    In 2017, the answers John was getting changed in tone; instead of hope, most of them revolved around fear, pessimism, and hopelessness.

    Events of 2017 added to the fear and anxiety experienced by the younger generations, which shocked the older ones, because we tend to think of our young people as generally being optimistic. That’s the age where you believe you can go out and you can conquer the world. You can change the world; you can make a difference. And to see that turned on its head across the country made for a radical shift in perspective for older adults. 

    In 2017, we lost the sense of stability that eight years of the Obama presidentship brought; things changed radically with President Trump in all ways:

    • Breaking news alerts – kids don’t have experience to help them sort through these alerts and find the pertinent info; they’re highly concerned every time
    • Many significant events occurring in the lives of young people with no context for them:
      • Early 2017: Talks about pulling out of the Paris Climate Accords
      • June 2017: Immigrants refused entry to the U.S. based on religion of their original country
      • Summer 2017: Marches with torches in Charlottesville 
      • October 2017: The mass shooting in Mandalay Bay, in Las Vegas

    Gen Z is already dealing with personal challenges—addiction, sexual harassment, suicide, depression, racism—and adding in the chaos of Washington D.C. that year only increased their fear, anxiety and struggle to deal with instability.

    This fear bleeds into household dynamics. Parents have trouble getting their kids to do things they used to do, to take care of chores, to discuss colleges and futures; they get frustrated, and it’s hard to understand why their kids have changed. Here’s the thing: if we can’t deal with our kids’ fears and help them get perspective and manage and walk through that, how can we expect them to look at something else? Fear is a powerful emotion.

    The more fearful they are, the less functional our kids are going to be. Older generations need to know that; millennials and Gen Z teens have experienced many scary events without the life experience we have to process those events and adapt to changing circumstances. We know that things come and go, that we will move forward and be okay; they haven’t lived long enough to know that.

    We need to acknowledge that politics needs to be included in the list of things creating stress and fear for us and our children, and to have those difficult conversations anyway. Your kids may have differing opinions about politics than you do. That’s something you’re going to have to work on accepting, while encouraging them to think it through and maybe realize their thought processes need work.

    Millennials and Gen Z kids have grown up feeling unsafe—9/11; then the recession; then school with lockdown drills, red alert drills and shootings; then the opiod crisis and its fallout; climate change, racism, gun violence have all rapidly proliferated across the country…  Unlike the older generations, they haven’t seen and experienced the opportunity to come together and celebrate what we can do as one country in the midst of all these awful circumstances.

    The Kennedy School’s Institute of Politics at Harvard (where John works part of the time) has done two surveys with 10 diagnostic questions among Gen Z in the last year; they’ve found some very concerning results. 52% of surveyed 18 to 29 year olds said that several times in the last two weeks—more than once or twice—they had feelings of hopelessness, despair, depression. There were not significant differences based upon love of education or gender or race or ethnicity. 

    This is not an issue that only one part of the population experiences, not when the population is everybody. More concerning is half of that number—over 25% of polled teens and young adults—indicated several times in the last several weeks those feelings were so bad that they had thoughts of self-harm or suicide. 6% indicated having those thoughts every single day, over several weeks.

    Gen Z is empathetic, but that doesn’t just mean overly sensitive for no apparent reason; with this generation, it means sensitive to injustice. They see things that need to change, that they’re willing to fight for, even if we don’t always understand why when the status quo seems fine to us.

    There have been five or six fundamental events in the lives of teens and young adults that are important to set the context and understanding for how and why Gen Z thinks and acts the ways they do:
    • The 2011 Occupy Wall Street Movement – this solidified the idea for Gen Z of the lack of economic opportunity and income equality in the U.S.
    • The changeover from Obama to Trump in 2017 – the whiplash from calm to chaos
    • The Parkland Movement – the empowering of a generation to stand up and do things for themselves
    • The climate strike – Greta Thunberg used tactics from the Parkland Movement to bring climate concerns to the global stage as a middle schooler
    • Racism and racial justice – in 2020 the murder of George Floyd was recorded and brought to the country’s attention by a teenager, and that was the tipping point for the Black Lives Matter Movement
    • COVID-19 – this is ongoing and we haven’t yet figured out the full effects of lockdowns, missing school, missing socialization, and losing friends or family members on Gen Z; but those effects are still there 

    As a pollster, John has measured significant changes in attitude in the last four to five years among Gen Z; in 2018 when Gen Z had the opportunity to affect the public and political climate, they did—they doubled the average turn out rate in mid-term elections. In 2020, for the first time in U.S. history, a majority (over 50%) of young adults turned out to vote.

    Gen Z is using their pocketbooks and time and votes to create change.

    In 2050, when our kids are running it, it’ll be a different world. It will impact the way in which we work because every single company is going to have to prove itself as a company that has a kind of a connection to the community and to some social good. 

    They’re also going to be impacting the way we eat in the future: John thinks we’ll see kind of an agricultural Renaissance in the U.S. And also possibly around the world, with less reliance on traditional meat and food, and opportunities for folks to grow and invest in local agriculture.

    One more way our kids will change the world is by changing the way success is defined—success will become less about the stuff you gain and more about the bonds you make and the depth of your friendships and connections in your community.

    Ultimately, we have to figure out that what’s important to us may not be important to them, and reconcile that with ourselves; if we can listen and be patient and try to help our kids feel safe, then they’ll have a stable platform from which they can push towards shaping their futures, and also the world’s.


    John’s website 

    Institute of Politics at Harvard University 

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    Our Guest John Della Volpe:

    John Della Volpe discusses gen z

    John Della Volpe is the director of polling at the Harvard Kennedy School Institute of Politics, where he has led the institute’s polling initiatives on understanding American youth since 2000. The Washington Post referred to him as one of the world’s leading authorities on global sentiment, opinion, and influence, especially among youth and in the age of digital and social media. Della Volpe appears regularly on MSNBC’s Morning Joe, and his research and insights are often found in national media outlets in the United States and abroad, including The Daily Show with Trevor Noah. He is also the founder and CEO of SocialSphere, a public opinion research firm in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

    To learn more or connect with our guest visit https://www.johndellavolpe.com/.

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