Those who make up Generation Z — generally defined as those born after 1995 — are coming of age after the Great Recession and the September 11, 2001 attacks. They do not remember a US president before Barack Obama, or life without the iPhone. Everything has always been one tap away.
At approximately 60 million, Generation Z Americans outnumber millennials by nearly 1 million. Compared with their predecessors, members of Gen Z are true digital natives, with 92% having a digital footprint on social media and the web. But that doesn’t mean they overshare. Teens are more likely to curate their profiles than their parents, who just put everything up.
They’re also highly entrepreneurial (72% of teens say they want to start a business someday) and are working and driving less than past generations. Nearly half of Gen Z is also not white, making it the most ethnically diverse generation in history.
And while many American adults identify as being on either the right or the left on the political spectrum, a 2016 survey of 150,000 teens found that most say they are both: socially liberal and moderate but also moderate to conservative financially.
“They want a balanced budget, but they want universal healthcare — things that other generations have seen as opposing or a choice. They see them as one or want both,” Corey Seemiller, a Wright State University professor who studies Gen Z, told Business Insider.
But, as with any generation, there’s a great amount of diversity within teenage America, too.
Business Insider spoke with teens from across the US with different hometowns, political views, and socioeconomic backgrounds about their lifestyles, hopes, and worries.
Below, check out personal stories from 10 American teens, who are trying to create America’s future right now.
Max Doocy, 17 — A male, Catholic feminist with two moms
In his conservative town of Omaha, Nebraska, Max helps lead a club that started in the ’70s, called Prep Accepts, at his Catholic high school. The club acts as a space where students discuss how to make the school more inclusive. Topics include abortion, racism, and same-sex marriage — the latter of which is personally significant to Max, who has two gay moms, Carol and Laura.
But in 2015, the school threatened to shut the club down after wealthy donors in the area said they would withdraw funding. Max immediately sent a letter to the local archbishop and met with the school president, who reinstated Prep Accepts. This school year, Max said more white, non-LGBT students showed up to meetings.
Tell me about where you live. What do you like most about it?
“There’s a lot of businesspeople and a lot of old money and not as many cornfields as people think. Omaha is known for mansions, because they’re much cheaper here. Coming from California, we bought a 7,000-square-foot house with seven bedrooms for the amount of money a down payment was in Alameda … I like that it has a small-town feel. People are really nice to each other — and let you cut them off in traffic and not freak out.”
Do you feel like you fit in?
“I don’t like how conservative it is. People are usually open-minded, but religion is used as a basis for being judgmental.”
Have you ever faced discrimination?
“I went to a Catholic elementary school. When it went public that I have two moms, it was a big problem. [The students] were called to the church on campus, and the archbishop of our area talked about how homosexuality and homosexual actions are against God and that as a church community they needed to come together and act against it and not support families who support it, and that was pretty much me … I remember sitting there thinking, ‘What does this mean for my family? How do I deal with it?'”
Are you a feminist?
“Yep. It’s something that makes a lot of guys uncomfortable, but I would not think twice about answering that as a ‘yes.'”
Do you think the American dream is still alive?
“Yeah, I think so. I think it is what you make of it. If you want to think that it’s not, it won’t be. But if you think it is and work for it, anything is open.”
Kai Morton, 18 — A coder who wants to make social change
Kai programmed her first video game when she was 11 years old on a big, purple, clunky laptop. In the game, players jump from platform to platform to collect bugs.
Today, at 18, she knows 15 coding languages and is learning how to develop iOS apps. She is focusing on making apps for social change in San Francisco, including one that connects restaurants that have excess food with food banks. Kai was also the inspiration for Black Girls Code, a national organization founded by her mother that encourages young African-American women to pursue tech careers.
Tell me about where you live. What does your bedroom look like?
“I live in an apartment on the fourth floor. My bedroom has a bed in the middle with lights over it. And then I have a desk with a giant computer with three monitors. Under my desk, I have my old laptop, iPad Pro, an iPad mini, a gigantic drawing tablet, another drawing tablet that’s portable, and a huge pile of books. Next to my bed, I have a bass guitar, an amp, and two Xboxes. And in my closet I have every ‘Goosebumps’ book in existence.”
How much time do you spend online per day?
“A lot. At least 70% of the day I think.”
How do you use social media? What do you try to portray to people online?
“When I first got my Instagram account, it was all about posting what I was doing. But now, it’s about creating your own aesthetic for your page and thinking when and what you want to post and what you want your image to be and how you want people to view you … I want my photos to be good and portray my image and personality well. I see my mom’s generation post a lot more random stuff … I don’t have a finsta [a secret, less curated Instagram account], but all my friends do.”
What are you worried most about for your future?
“Getting into tech, I’m realizing that things are never going to be easy as a black woman. In STEM, and especially in the tech world, it’s harder for women to have a voice, because it’s been dominated by this white, male stereotype for so long … But I’m not taking it as a disadvantage. I’m taking it as an opportunity to be the first and change the image that it’s not just this white, male field. Hopefully a little girl interested in STEM will see me and feel inspired to not give up their dreams.”
What would an ideal world would look like to you, 10 years from now?
“Finding a way to get humanity back into having moral values. Of course, it’s hard to say ‘no discrimination, no racism, and no prejudice,’ because those are hard things. If we’re talking about a utopia, I’d love to see less discrimination and diversity in all fields where anyone can see themselves reflected.”
Joseph Touma, 19 — A conservative who wants to bridge the nation’s political divide
One afternoon at a summer program, Joseph and his friend Clara Nevins were in a heated debate about climate change. Joseph, a West Virginia Republican, wants limited government regulations, while Clara, a California Democrat, values environmental regulation. They realized though, after they listened to each other, that they were able to understand each other’s point of view more clearly.
Clara and Joseph founded an organization, called Bridge the Divide, that aims to make an increasingly polarized America recognize common ground. Its site features message boards where young people can debate political issues, and BTD has 100 student ambassadors in 22 countries.
Tell me about where you live.
“I’ve lived since I can remember in Huntington [West Virginia]. One of most notable, negative things about it is that there’s an opioid epidemic. Some people call it the ‘heroin capital of the world.’ Just the other day, I was downtown, and the police pulled up and there were 50 or 60 needles all over the street. You see more and more of that every day. But we’re also a community of resiliency and bouncing back.”
How did you form your political views?
“My parents are very moderate but more recently have been becoming more conservative. I think they played a big role in me having the beliefs I have today, but they don’t have all the same beliefs I do … For example, I think that legalizing marijuana is not a bad thing. I don’t plan on smoking marijuana, but it would be a great source of income for our state … That’s something my parents don’t agree with me on.”
What do you and your friends disagree on?
“I was talking with someone who was saying, ‘We need to remember, members of ISIS are people too, and they have reasons behind their demands.’ And I didn’t see it the way she’s seeing it, and she didn’t change my perspective, but it was definitely a revelation to me.”
What would an ideal world look like to you, 10 years from now?
“[Right now] while our leaders are at each other’s throats, it’s interesting how [teens] can be so loving to one other and civil. But for some reason, in the grander scheme of things, we are enemies … In an ideal world, there would be an end to violence of any type, whether it’s country-versus-country or individuals on the street.”