The “disturbing images” warning is one that Gen Z, the first fully digital native cohort, is used to encountering on their lingua franca: social media posts. On Saturday, the Islamic militant group Hamas launched an unprecedented attack on Israel, resulting in the worst war the region has seen in 50 years. In three days, more than 1,500 people have died on both sides, and graphic, difficult-to-watch videos have blanketed the internet—from Israeli civilians being captured, tortured, and killed by Hamas militants, to Palestinian civilians screaming in grief, and people on both sides attending to their dead and injured among the rubble.
If Gen Z feels like they’ve seen it all, in some ways, they have. This generation, aged 11 to 26, has already lived through numerous historic events, ranging from a once-per-century pandemic, to the January 6th insurrection—an event unseen for centuries in American politics. Then there’s the first major European ground war since World War II in Ukraine, not to mention market crashes in 2008 and 2020 that recall the Great Depression itself. As the first digitally native generation, Gen Z is experiencing it all through videos, images, and articles online, which is shaping their mental health, workplace attitudes, and financial habits in visible ways.
It’s no wonder, this Gen Z reporter notes, that 46% of young workers aged 18 to 26 say that they are regularly so distraught over what is happening in the news that they are unable to function at work, according to a 2023 Edelman report. By comparison, 38% of millennials, 24% of Gen Xers, and 19% of baby boomers and older generations say the same.
Everything about their behavior communicates that Gen Z is just not okay with it. This ranges from their widespread, hell-bent determination to find purpose in work and pushing their employers to have a social conscience, to a sense of despair over their own and the world’s future finances. They have largely given up on saving money and instead dish out on little “treats” as a way to cope with the larger absurdity of 21st-century life.
Consider the lifetime that was three years ago, as Gen Z emerged into young adulthood, when online videos of the murder of George Floyd shook the country in May 2020, resulting in a summer of violent Black Lives Matter protests and riots. A year later, people watched as armed right-wing extremists stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, following the election-defeat of former president Donald Trump. Then there are school shootings, which have only increased in frequency since Columbine in 1999, with more students documenting the terror on their phones and sharing it online. One of them was the Parkland shooting of 2018, which tragically created the first spokespeople of the post-millennial generation.
Gen Z’s mental health
Gen Z has the worst reported mental health of any generation—45% of young people report having “excellent” or “very good” mental health, according to a 2018 report by the American Psychological Association.
One of the major sources of Gen Z’s distress, of course, is climate change. Nearly seven in 10 Gen Zers say they experience anxiety when viewing climate change content on social media, according to a 2021 Pew Research report. But they’re not just reading about the detrimental effects of human-caused global warming—they’re living through the consequences themselves.
This summer reached record-breaking temperatures, with July being the hottest month the planet has seen in over 100,000 years. As a result, Arizona experienced a month-long heat wave with temperatures at or above 110 degrees every day, deadly fires broke out across the Mediterranean, suffocating smoke from Canadian wildfires blanketed New York City and the Northeast for days, and ice melt in the Arctic accelerated.
And extreme heat is likely here to stay—and get worse—unless countries can rapidly reduce their carbon emissions. That’s why Gen Z is more concerned with sustainability than any generation before them. Just look at Greta Thunberg: the 20-year-old has become one of the best-known environmental activists, famously speaking at the United Nations in 2019 with scathing words for world leaders:
“You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words. And yet I’m one of the lucky ones,” Thunberg said. “People are suffering. People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are in the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth. How dare you!”
Gen Z in the workplace
By 2030, Gen Z will account for nearly one-third of the U.S. workforce, but they’re already radically redefining the meaning of work.
Gen Z wants a sense of purpose, so they prioritize environmental, social, and governance (ESG) in the workplace, which encompasses sustainability and environmental impact, education and awareness for social issues, and diverse and inclusive boards and teams.
And it tracks: Roughly two-thirds of Gen Zers say they frequently speak about important societal issues while at work, according to the Edelman report. They’re also influencing their older coworkers when it comes to areas like work-life balance, fair pay, and employer’s involvement on social issues.
Gen Z’s financial stress
But don’t forget, Gen Z has also lived through a global pandemic that shuttered the world for nearly two years, two recessions, and a mounting student debt crisis, leaving them with little savings but an abundance of financial despair.
Roughly 60% of Gen Zers say they are stressed about money this year more than last year, according to a Bankrate survey from July. It’s no surprise either—85% of Gen Zers say that they couldn’t afford one month’s expenses if they lost their job today.
And since young people are typically affected by inflation the most, as they are the most likely to work part-time or low-paying jobs, this economic climate may have left Gen Z with permanent “psychological scars,” one expert says.
“How can young people build careers or wealth if they don’t have jobs and prices of goods and services continue to increase?” Dayo Abinusawa, founder of London’s Awa Business School and a former lecturer at Cambridge University’s Judge Business School, previously told Fortune.
One Fidelity survey backs this argument: 45% of 18- to 35-year-olds “don’t see a point in saving until things return to normal.” Some Gen Zers have even adopted the mentality that “money isn’t real” and are justifying spending on items to “treat themselves” amid a bleak reality.
Why it matters
Of course, every generation has lived through era-defining historical events. Millennials remember the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Baby boomers lived through the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War. But no other generation has been plugged into the world through the internet from such a young age like Gen Z.
Gen Z is already wielding their power in notable and sometimes comical ways. In June 2020, teenage TikTok users (with the help of K-pop fans) claimed to have sunk a Trump campaign rally by registering for thousands of tickets with no intention of actually attending. And last summer, after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, then-19-year-old activist raised over $2 million in abortion funds by trolling Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz.
It remains to be seen what they will do when Gen Z comes into decision-making positions in the workplace—perhaps they’ll channel their rage and cynicism effectively as some have already demonstrated—but Abinusawa warned that “a society where the young have little to no hope for the future is not a sustainable one.”