Generations are defined not just by what year we are born in, but by our common beliefs and the things that collectively affects us during the time we’re alive. Generation X was shaped by many things, such as the fall of the Berlin Wall, a symbol of the end of the Cold War. For the Baby Boomers, the assassination of Kennedy and MLK were key factors. Now, what shaped us, Generation Y/Z, the people born between 1996 and 2004?
There have been few key words that have been used to describe us. Most prominent is “impatient”: we are called the “Now Generation”. “They have lived their whole lives in an information age where they don’t need to wait for a response. The answers they want come to them immediately through smartphones, iPads,” says Sarah Sladek, founder of XYZ University, the nation's first and only generationally-focused training and engagement company. Another word (or phrase) used is “overly socially conscious”: as the first post-9/11 generation, we have been active pretty much all our lives in fighting for all forms of social justice and equality, and we are considered to be more hyper-aware of the issues in the world.
Lastly, we are described as the “Anxious Generation”.
More than any other age group, teenagers of today, or Generation Y, are being diagnosed with either depression or an anxiety disorder. I interviewed over 160 teenagers with questions concerning the topic of anxiety. I asked every teenager if they had some form of anxiety—no, not the feeling of maybe a few butterflies in their stomachs before a presentation. I was referring instead to the many facets of anxiety that haunt a lot of us: maybe the inability to make a simple phone call, or the fear of too many people looking at you, or even extreme, anxiety-spiking disorders like OCD or paranoia. Only 2 students answered that they do not suffer from any form of anxiety. To adults, this may seem baffling—but to me, it really isn’t.
I myself am a teen who used to spent 2 hours a week in therapy just to get over my fear of people staring at me when I was in public, so anxiety is no stranger to me. I doubt there’s a single teenager who hasn’t heard a friend say something along the lines of: “I can’t do ____ because of my anxiety.” Perhaps you have friends your age who have bravely confided in you about their struggles with OCD, panic disorder, PTSD, or so on—or maybe you are that friend. Anxiety is so prevalent within our generation that instead of being called Generation Y, I believe we should be called Generation A, or Generation Anxiety. I want to answer why so many of us in Generation A deal with this.
We were born into a rapidly changing world at the dawn of a brand-new millennium. It was a period of new hope, heralding the rapid expansion of technologies the world never seen before. (Google, the world’s most-used search engine, was launched in 1998.) We were born in the age of technology and optimism, and our parents were ready to raise us in this hopeful new era—and then 9/11 happened and propelled us into a period of fear. Our primary developmental years were filled with constant fear and the perceived threat of terror.
It is proven that media has a lasting effect on children, and the events of 9/11 ushered in a new era of media coverage of collective trauma, where terrorism and other forms of large-scale violence were (and still are) transmitted into the daily lives of children and American families. Even though some of us we were too young to remember that day, our parents weren’t.
Fear spreads fear, and I know many of our parents just wanted to shield their newborn children from this ever-present threat of terror. As a result, we were brought up with the ever-present tension of “What if something happens today?”
This is compounded by the fact that we are in the era of the “Social Justice Warrior”. We are the most liberal and socially-conscious generation. We follow in the steps of the Baby Boomers and Generation X in the tradition of protest, but we have taken it even further than they did, perhaps because it is so much easier now to find things worth protesting. How often on social media do we see another shooting of people of color, or news of another threat to our basic human rights?
Our parents’ own age of fear has given way to our own: we are constantly afraid of the future because of how uncertain it is. And, yes, that’s what it means to be an adolescent—to be uncertain of the many aspects of growing up. But instead, for us, that uncertainty is fueled by the flames of anxiety and the true, generationally-spiked uncertainty of what our futures will hold.
Researchers predict that Trump’s Election will definitely have a major impact on Generation A. After spending our entire adolescence fighting for social equality and freedom and just plain basic rights, it feels like a slap in the face to have someone so against so many of our core shared values take office. But despite all of the fear dominating our culture, we are arguably the most fearless generation to come because of how persistent we are in our everyday efforts to change the world.