Jan 28, 2021

New Data on Gen Z—Perceptions of Pressure, Anxiety and Empowerment

In 2018, Barna released Gen Z: The Culture, Beliefs and Motivations Shaping the Next Generation, a study created in partnership with Impact 360 Institute, that sought to help church leaders understand the next, next generation. Now, just a few years later, Barna and Impact 360 Institute have once again teamed up to learn more about this young generation, resulting in the new report, Gen Z, Volume 2: Caring for Young Souls and Cultivating Resilience.

Some of the key findings from the first report had to do with Gen Z’s drive—or ambition and optimism about the future—with two-thirds of then 13– to 18–year-olds desiring to finish their education (66%), start a career (66%) and become financially independent (65%) by age 30. Trends surrounding drive extend into the 2020 data as well and are taking a toll on some teens and young adults today. This article explores four profiles of Gen Z’s emotions that speak to some of the opportunity and precarity for this generation.

Gen Z Vol. 2

Caring for Young Souls and Cultivating Resilience

Over Three in Five Gen Z Hope to Achieve a Lot in the Next 10 Years
As both Gen Z: Volume 1 and Gen Z: Volume 2 highlight, drive is a key generational attribute shared among today’s young adults and teens. Barna data featured in the latest report show that when asked if they feel they have been successful thus far in life, three-quarters of Gen Z (77%) agree. Looking toward the next 10 years, nearly all (91%) agree they hope to achieve a great deal.

Despite generally having a success-oriented mindset, Gen Z’s future-orientation doesn’t necessarily equal sunny optimism. Three in four (73%) agree that their perspective on life tends to be positive, but more than half say they tend to expect the worst to happen (56%). In fact, roughly one-third agrees with both statements, making them what we might call “positive pessimists.”

Brooke Hempell, Senior Vice President of Research at Barna Group, notes, “This is the reality of Gen Z; they are guarded, and appropriately so. They have learned to face the rollercoasters of life and they have seen generations before them go through many disruptive experiences. This has taught Gen Z to wait before they act.”

“This could be a really good thing for Gen Z,” Hempell continues, “especially in a year like 2020. They are developing a sense of agency in the world, wanting to press forward and achieve things. They have drive—but drive could be good or bad in many cases. So are they driving forward, or are they being driven? That is an important distinction to make.”

Gen Z Vol. 2

Caring for Young Souls and Cultivating Resilience

About Two in Five Gen Z Are Either Internally or Externally Pressured
How does Gen Z’s drive impact their overall well-being? Via factor analysis, researchers discovered two themes that related to feelings and well-being among Gen Z.

The first theme that emerges is the experience of pressure. In order to be considered either internally or externally pressured, respondents meet all of the following criteria:

Those who are internally pressured always or usually feel:

  • “pressure to be successful” (56%) and
  • “a need to be perfect” (42%).

Those who are externally pressured always or usually feel:

  • “judged by older generations” (42%) and
  • “pressured by my parents’ expectations” (39%).

In all, about one-third (31%) can be categorized as “internally pressured” and one-quarter (25%) as externally pressured.” About two in five of all Gen Z (41%) qualify as at least one or the other. Feelings of pressure are consistent with Gen Z’s inherent drive, but the differing sources of this pressure are worth noting.

Today’s teens and young adults surely feel the weight of expectations from parents, teachers and older adults—as many elder adults have felt before during this life stage—but an even larger proportion of Gen Z feels this weight from within. In relentlessly pursuing their aspirations, Gen Z needs wisdom to root their expectations of themselves in grace.

About One in Four Gen Z Is Anxious or Empowered
A second theme related to the theme of drive is a dichotomy between anxiety and empowerment. In order to be considered either anxious or empowered, respondents meet the following criteria:

Those who are anxious always or usually feel:

  • “afraid to fail” (47%),
  • “anxious about important decisions” (51%) and
  • “uncertain about the future” (45%).

Those who are empowered always or usually feel:

  • “able to accomplish my goals” (61%),
  • “satisfied with my life choices” (55%),
  • “someone believes in me” (65%),
  • “prepared for everyday life” (50%),
  • “optimistic about the future” (55%) and
  • “deeply cared for by those around me” (63%).

About one in four members of Gen Z meets the criteria for empowered (25%) or anxious (26%). Their inherent desire for success and the accompanying weight of expectations seem to push them toward one of two extremes—anxiety or empowerment—or, for a small percentage (5%), some fusion of these seemingly incongruent emotions.

Will they falter beneath the weight of their ambitions and dreams? Or can empowered, empowering parents and mentors offer support systems that give steadiness to Gen Z’s drive? Gen Z: Volume 2 looks at some of the ways 13– to 21–year-olds cope with negative emotions, like anxiety and loneliness.

Commenting on the data, Hempell shares, “Pressures are not all bad. In some cases, they can absolutely lead to anxiety and fear—but pressure can also be a shaping form. Just like a diamond, it’s a lump of coal to start with, but pressure, when applied, creates something beautiful in the end.”

“The hope for Gen Z,” concludes Hempell, “is that we can help them manage these pressures; we can see these ambitions in them and help shape them and move them towards good. … The hope is that a year like this (2020), which was full of pressure, actually will help shape and refine them into people who know their identity in God and are ready to grow in that.”

Strengthen your ministry to with the Gen Z Vol. 2 Ministry Kit, available for purchase in the Barna store or free with your subscription to Barna Access Plus. Check out the Next Gen channel on Barna Access to peruse other helpful insights and resources as you lead and learn from the next generation.

Learn more about Gen Z from one of its own members in this post about Gen Z and digital discernment

Gen Z Vol. 2

Caring for Young Souls and Cultivating Resilience

About the Research

Interviews for this study were conducted using an online consumer panel of 1,503 U.S. teens and young adults ages 13 to 21 between June 15 and July 17, 2020. Quotas and minimal weighting were used to ensure data are representative of known U.S. Census ethnicity, gender, age and region. Margin of error is ±2.53 percent at the 95 percent confidence level.

Photo by Lidya Nada from Unsplash

© Barna Group, 2021

About Barna

Since 1984, Barna Group has conducted more than two million interviews over the course of thousands of studies and has become a go-to source for insights about faith, culture, leadership, vocation and generations. Barna is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization.

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