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Gen Z Needs 3 Things From Us To Find Purpose

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If a person were to say, in my day, that “she ate and left no crumbs,” I would have thought this was referring to finishing a good meal. Popularized on TikTok, teens now use it to describe that someone did something remarkably well.

As a dad to a Generation Z child—”Gen Z” defined as young people born between 1997 and 2012—their terminology often sounds like a foreign language to me. But if you look past the quirky slang and social media trends, you’ll notice that the polling and copious commentary about Gen Z can easily impart a conflicted vision of the generation’s overall happiness and prospects. For instance, one recent Gallup poll indicates that 73% of them say they’re “very” or “somewhat” happy. 

The torrent of Gen Z-centric books, headlines and analysis suggests otherwise: Gen Z is also anxious, depressed, lonesome. They feel economically and institutionally disenfranchised, and are even markedly prone to suicide.

But these two things can both be true at once. That’s because the source of Gen Z’s happiness as they age seems very specific: Namely, their sense of purpose.

Barely over half of Gen Z say they always or often feel their lives have “direction.” And feeling that your life doesn’t have a direction is highly correlated with anxiety, depression or friendlessness among young people, according to the Making Caring Common project of the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

Far be it from me to personally diagnose, once and for all, what ails Gen Z—or to explain why or when they count as “happy.”  The theories about why they suffer, and the debates over how, are many. Most of these are interesting. Some are worth serious consideration.

But addressing the “how” of their lives is much less urgent a project than addressing the “why.” Thankfully, the “why” is something we can help them obtain. 

There are three essential components of lived purpose: a life vision, a community and opportunity. These are also our three most promising opportunities to build a future of real happiness for Gen Z. 

Vision undergirds everything. Our vision helps us orient all of our actions, our relationships, our work and our rest. It makes us resilient. Crucially, it allows us to accept happiness that is less than theoretically perfect.

Yet Gen Z is inundated with unintelligible, unreal images and noise through social media around the clock. They are more isolated in real terms than any previous generation, yet more socially saturated digitally. And few in this relentless froth of online content creators have anything helpful to say about where the world might need or want the talents of the person scrolling through it. 

A life vision isn’t something we can come up with on our own. Gen Z needs real people to tell them just how valuable they are, and just how much real impact they can have on the world.

This is, of course, connected to our second opportunity to bolster Gen Z’s sense of purpose: building community.