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By the time the first Zers get to vote in 2021, they’ll have seen the global impact of Donald Trump, Brexit and observed the rise of populism.
Commentators, noting the significantly greater turnout of young voters for the Brexit vote, suggest that we are moving into a new era of political activity by the young after a decade or two of little apparent interest.
This activity is likely to be issue rather than party-based, focusing on subjects such as climate change, gender and sexual orientation issues, and poverty, and to use social media rather than the traditional forms of political engagement.
Yet, while this might be encouraging, there’s also a grimmer side to the lives of Generation Z. Much of this generation is likely to be in the unusual situation of being, overall, less well-off than their parents’ generation. They’re very aware of the financial pressures on their parents, and on older siblings post-schooling, whether in tertiary study, the workforce or unemployment and worry about what this will mean for them.
They seem less interested in drugs and alcohol than those before them at the same age, but do appear to have more mental health issues — low self-esteem, anxiety, depression, gender and sexual orientation issues and suicidal behaviours. Greater awareness of these issues and a greater readiness to talk about them and to seek help could be part of the reason.
However, the rise of instant and continuous communication on a massive scale also plays a significant part, allowing them to count their "friends", to feel left out, and to be on the receiving end of a flow of bullying, creating an unprecedented level of desperateness.
Ironically, the ability to connect so easily and with so many is increasing a sense of social isolation from real friendships and peers with whom to genuinely share and relate.
United Kingdom child psychotherapist Betsy de Thierry pointed out in The Guardian late last year that youngsters may think that they’ve got 1000 friends but wonders if anyone really knows them. She thinks, probably not.
"Not their parents, as they don’t eat together and are working longer hours. And not their siblings, possibly because they’re sitting in separate rooms on phones and they text each other. Being known is a really important part of being alive."
Therein lies the challenge for the parents of Generation Z. Our youngsters may well be more connected, more politically and social aware, but if we aren’t careful, also more personally isolated from each other. That could be a volatile mix.