It’s graduation season, and that means millions of young adults—the leading edge of Gen Z—are graduating from high schools across the nation, and making decisions about beginning their career or higher education. In addition to a growing religious apathy and other demographic shifts, a key characteristic of Gen Z is that their expectations are largely shaped around themes of academic and career success—more so than any other generation we’ve observed. Barna conducted a major study in partnership with Impact 360 Institute, available in our recent Gen Z report, and, below, we take a look at what we learned about teenagers’ views on identity, work and their futures.
Personal achievement, whether educational or professional (43%), and hobbies and pastimes (42%) are the things most central to Gen Z’s identity. Their responses stand out against those of their elders: Twice as many teens as Boomers strongly agree that these factors are important to their sense of self (22% and 24% in Boomers respectively), while older adults are more likely to say their family background and religion are central to their identity (one in three in Gen Z considers these important, but ranks them 5th and 6th as personally defining features).
While all adult generations say family is most important to their sense of self, Gen Z’s identity is most defined by personal achievement. Click To Tweet
Many in Gen Z are not yet clear about their mid-range goals (which is understandable, especially for younger teens). A plurality (42%) agrees only somewhat that “I have clear goals for where I want to be in five years,” while one-quarter disagrees (27%). In terms of priorities for the future, the majority of faith groups (except for engaged Christians, who are more religiously minded) prioritize either their personal interests or money.
What does Gen Z want to accomplish before age 30? Trends that a previous Barna study identified among Millennials—high priority on career achievement, low priority on personal and relational growth—are amplified in Gen Z. Fewer teens are interested in starting a family or becoming more spiritually mature. Nearly two out of five want to spend their 20s enjoying life before they take on the responsibilities of being an adult—significantly higher than the one-quarter of Millennials who said this. More than half of teens want to follow their dreams, yet just three in 10 want to find out who they really are.
How will they know when they have “arrived” at adulthood? Barna also asked this question among Millennials in 2013—and the differences are stark. Financial independence looms large for many teens in a way it did not for 18- to 29-year-old Millennials; doubtless the country’s (and their parents’) financial problems since the Great Recession are a big influence here. Emotional maturity, on the other hand—of such supreme importance to many Millennial twentysomethings—is significant to fewer than one in four teenagers. (Notice that marriage—once seen as a key marker of adulthood—doesn’t even make their list.) It will be interesting to see if these priorities shift as Gen Z moves into adulthood.
The people teens look up to—and the reasons why—are another window into their ultimate goals. A sizable majority of Gen Z says their parents or another family member is their role model. But why? On an open-ended question, top answers say that the role model is hard-working and responsible, that he or she provides for their family, that they have a good career, that they have an education, that they are successful and that he or she is independent. To be clear: Six out of the top 10 reasons teens look up to their role model are related to career or financial success.
John A. Murray, Head of Central Christian School in St. Louis, Missouri, believes educators and mentors can play a key role in coaching youth in the process of identity formation. “Within the framework of viewing ourselves and others as image-bearers,” says Murray, “Christian educators can help students examine different aspects of their identity through a healthy, biblical worldview. When students see themselves as God’s masterpieces (see Eph. 2:10), they see themselves as God sees them. Ultimately this allows them to pursue their place and purpose in society, having an others-centered orientation and developing a genuine concern for the poor and disenfranchised.” See the full text of his commentary in the Gen Z report.
About the Research
Two nationally representative studies of teens were conducted. The first was conducted using an online consumer panel November 4–16, 2016, and included 1,490 U.S. teenagers 13 to 18 years old. The second was conducted July 7–18, 2017, and also used an online consumer panel, which included 507 U.S. teenagers 13 to 18 years old. The data from both surveys were minimally weighted to known U.S. Census data in order to be representative of ethnicity, gender, age and region.
One nationally representative study of 1,517 U.S. adults ages 19 and older was conducted using an online panel November 4–16, 2016. The data were minimally weighted to known U.S. Census data in order to be representative of ethnicity, gender, age and region.
GEN Z were born 1999 to 2015. (Only teens 13 to 18 are included in this study.)
MILLENNIALS were born 1984 to 1998.
GEN X were born 1965 to 1983.
BOOMERS were born 1946 to 1964.
ELDERS were born before 1946.
NO FAITH identify as agnostic, atheist or “none of the above.”
ENGAGED CHRISTIANS identify as Christian, have attended church within the past six months and strongly agree with the each of the following:
- The Bible is the inspired word of God and contains truth about the world.
- I have made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that is still important in my life today.
- I engage with my church in more ways than just attending services.
- I believe that Jesus Christ was crucified and raised from the dead to conquer sin and death.
Barna Group is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization under the umbrella of the Issachar Companies. Located in Ventura, California, Barna Group has been conducting and analyzing primary research to understand cultural trends related to values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviors since 1984.
© Barna Group, 2018