To come of age in 2017 in America is to enter adulthood in a time of often overwhelming turbulence. The country is deeply divided, technology is reshaping the world at a breakneck pace, and the future seems filled with uncertainty. As each day appears to bring with it another crisis, from unprecedented natural disasters to horrific mass killings to violent and vehement ideological clashes, questions lurk in the background: Who will inherit this world? And what will they do with it?
Enter Generation Z.
Loosely defined as those born after 1995, this new wave of soon-to-be grown-ups—also dubbed the iGeneration, Centennials, Post-Millennials, Founders, Plurals and the Homeland Generation, depending on whom you ask—picks up where millennials left off. True digital and social media natives, they’re ever-connected, multitasking on many screens and more comfortable sharing on Snapchat than IRL. “They are the first generation to spend their entire adolescence with smartphones,” says Jean Twenge, author of “iGen,” who has studied the group extensively. “That really rapid adoption of smartphones has had ripple effects across many areas of their lives.”
The 2016 election marked the first time many Gen Zers were able to vote, in an event that has served to spotlight and magnify the fractures and fissures in the nation. Decisions made by this administration will have ramifications for years to come, and many of the top issues that drove voters to the polls can be interpreted as de facto battle lines along which the country is dividing itself: Health care. Guns. Immigration. Abortion. The treatment of gay, lesbian and transgender people. Climate change.
So how do young people growing up in today’s chaotic environment feel about their country, their cities and their lives? We’ve spent the last few months following a handful of teenagers on the frontlines of Generation Z: five students who graduated from high school in 2017 and are full of big dreams. For these individuals, the issues facing the country aren’t just hypotheticals to see on the news or be debated by politicians onstage, but their daily realities.
Here are their stories.
At first meeting, Aidan Destefano projects nothing but pure teenage boy.
The 19-year-old is cookie-cutter handsome, with olive skin, dark hair, sparkling green eyes, a firm handshake, and a big, magnetic smile—the kid is always smiling.
But Aidan hasn’t had the typical teenage boy experience, exactly.
Born biologically female, he first encountered the term “transgender” while watching a YouTube video in the seventh grade, and that’s when the feelings he’d had his whole life suddenly had a name. In 2015, before his junior year of high school, he posted a Facebook video announcing he was transitioning from female to male, then started testosterone, changed his name, and had surgery to remove his breasts. While he’d entered high school on the girls’ cross-country team, by senior year, he was running with the boys.
Aidan now stands among other trailblazers at the crossroads of transgender rights in this country. When his high school was sued for allowing transgender students to use the bathrooms and locker rooms of their gender identity, he testified as a witness, sharing his experience of how important it was to be allowed to use the men’s facilities. (While a judge’s decision this summer upheld the school’s policy, the case is now headed to a higher court on appeal.)
Since taking office, President Trump has issued two blows to the transgender community: announcing a ban on transgender troops in the military and rescinding Obama-era guidance that instructed schools to allow transgender students to use facilities that aligned with their gender identity. In June, Aidan met with Gavin Grimm, the transgender student whose lawsuit over access to the bathroom at his Virginia high school was headed to the Supreme Court until the court ultimately declined to hear it this spring. These rights are currently being decided on state and local levels, leaving much up in the air.
As for Aidan, he doesn’t spend too much time thinking about politics. He’s more concerned with his day-to-day life and working toward his future.
“I’m finally me,” he says. “The next step is to live my life as me.”
Breann Bates voted for Donald Trump, but she wasn’t happy about it.
“I’m pretty critical of President Trump,” says the 19-year-old Florida native, who supported Ben Carson, Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz during the primaries before ultimately casting her ballot for the president. “I think that it’s important to stay critical and not just be a fan of any politician—to hold him accountable.”
She’s no passive political observer. Breann is a key member of Turning Point USA, a nonprofit that trains and organizes conservative activists on high school and college campuses. The group has made headlines for protests against “safe spaces” and for controversial initiatives like its Professor Watchlist, which keeps tabs on educators who “advance leftist propaganda.”
“I do believe there is an ideological battle or war being waged,” says founder Charlie Kirk, 24. “What does this generation stand for?”
Breann is passionate about fighting for her beliefs. She’s staunchly pro-life, a strong supporter of campus carry laws, which would allow guns on college campuses, and wants the government to be less involved in people’s lives. While her political passion may make her something of an outlier among her generation—Twenge says that among this group “interest in government is at an all-time low”—Breann’s skepticism of big government seems to align with her peers. In a study by the Center for Generational Kinetics, a millennial and Gen Z-focused consulting group, only 26 percent of Gen Z respondents said they trusted elected officials.
Now a freshman in college, Breann is hopeful that the country can move past its current division and that people like her will be able to communicate across the aisle. “I want to sit down and have a calm, cool and collected conversation,” she says, “and figure out why people believe what they believe and where that comes from.”
McDowell County, West Virginia, has the unenviable distinction of being one of the poorest communities in the country.
But Destiny Robertson wants you to know it’s also one of the strongest.
“We have some of the best people in the whole world,” says the 18-year-old, who grew up in the county in the town of Northfork. “I wouldn’t be who I am without where I am.”
West Virginia got a lot of attention on the presidential campaign trail from candidate Trump, who promised to bring mining jobs back to a state struggling with unemployment. People have been leaving McDowell County, once the top coal producer in the state, ever since coal production started to decline decades ago. Since its peak in 1950, the region’s population has dropped by over 80 percent. The unemployment rate is now more than double the national average, and more than 1 in 3 people live in poverty.
Destiny, whose grandfather was a coal miner, believes in her community, but doesn’t think the future lies in trying to chase the past. “A lot of my friends—my male friends—that’s their dream, to become a coal miner. That’s where you can make the most money here, when you can get a job,” she says. “I’m definitely in the minority. My views are that we have to move on from coal.”
Meanwhile, the county, like the rest of West Virginia, is in the throes of the opioid crisis. The overdose rate here is nearly five times the national average. “You have a big problem in West Virginia and we are going to solve that problem,” President Trump said on a visit to the state in August. In October, he declared the opioid crisis a public health emergency.
The president is popular in McDowell County. Seventy-five percent of the votes here went to him in the 2016 election, but Destiny’s wasn’t among them – at 17, she was still too young to vote at the time. She doesn’t like to get too public with her political beliefs, but she’s passionate about voter registration and encouraging people to make their voices heard. “Being a black woman in this town, it’s important to me to exercise my right to vote,” she says.
And she hopes President Trump will come through for the people of her county, who desperately need help. “This place has an epidemic going on…I’d hope that this new administration will bring awareness to that and help us figure out a way to get rid of the addiction.”
If you haven’t already been to Newtok, Alaska, you might never have the chance: The tiny coastal village won’t be around much longer. It’s being swallowed—an early casualty of the world’s changing climate. Newtok is built on permafrost, or ground that’s been frozen for a long time, and as the earth’s temperatures have risen over time, that land has started to thaw. The village now loses roughly 70 feet a year as the river erodes the weakened shore.
“The land used to be really far,” explains Isaiah Charles, who grew up here. “It is dangerous to have land falling off and a village of 350 people that are terrified from it.”
For Isaiah, 19, Newtok’s endangered status has long been a fact of life. Boardwalks throughout the town are sinking into the mud. During powerful storms, the damage can be even greater. Residents are actively worried for their homes as the coastline creeps closer.
“The general trend is quite unmistakable,” says climatologist Brian Brettschneider, who notes that Alaska is warming at twice the rate of the rest of the country, and what’s happening here should serve as a warning. “This is really the canary in the coal mine.”
In typical teenage form, Isaiah has other pressing concerns. The former star basketball player graduated from high school in May and will start college in a few months. He’s focused on his friends, family, community and finding a path toward a successful and steady career.
But the reality of what’s happening to his hometown is impossible to ignore. Newtok must relocate, and in a few years, the place Isaiah has always called home will be gone. The village is moving to a new site called Mertarvik, 9 miles across the river, and the relocation team hopes to get everyone there by 2020.
In its current state, Newtok is an often jarring mix of tradition and modernity. A subsistence community, the people hunt, fish and gather most of their food. Though they speak English, most also speak Yup’ik, the tribal language of their ancestors. They don’t have running water in their homes and the erosion has impacted the community’s ability to safely dispose of their waste and maintain clean drinking water, raising health concerns. At the same time, thanks to services like a “lifeline” plan from a local cellphone provider, most young people are often heads-down texting, sending messages on Snapchat or talking to far-flung friends on FaceTime. They get Amazon deliveries, watch YouTube and stream Top 40 hits. “When I was a little kid, it was a lot different,” Isaiah reflects, wistfully. “Kids playing outside, having fun. But now that I’m older, everybody’s inside, just being on their phone or iPad. Everything’s changing.”
Isaiah knows that one day, when he comes home, his village will be gone. But he struggles to describe how it will feel to say goodbye to this place. “It’ll be like a memory to never forget.”
New Haven, CT
When Rasmi Moussa arrived in the United States in 2016, he only knew one word of English: “No.”
One of the 12,587 Syrian refugees who were resettled in the United States last year, Rasmi, now 19, moved to New Haven, Connecticut, with his parents and three of his siblings. They’d fled their homeland five years before to escape the ever-escalating violence, and had been living in Jordan, where Rasmi hadn’t been able to go to school, and instead worked odd jobs to help support his family.
Almost two years after coming to America, Rasmi has almost fully acclimated. He taught himself English through a combination of translation apps, videos and trial-by-fire experience working at a gas station. He graduated from high school with honors in June, and this fall he started taking classes at a local community college, where he’s pursuing a degree in radiography.
But behind his smile, Rasmi hides a deep sadness. He lost relatives in the war, his home was destroyed and many of his siblings are still trapped overseas. Those who are still in Syria are in too much danger to escape, and those who made it to Lebanon and Jordan were in the process of applying to the United States for refugee visas until their plans were thrown into limbo when President Trump announced his travel ban in January. With the situation in Syria still dire, Rasmi doesn’t know if he’ll ever be able to go home.
“It’s hard to think about,” he says. “I was thinking I would be back after one month, three months or four months. That was six years ago.”
Rasmi talks to his family as often as he can, staying in touch via video chat. It’s been so long since they were together that he has five nieces and nephews he’s never even met. He holds out hope that one day they will all be reunited.
“They ask me every day: What’s happened?” he says. “When can we come? Why’d they close the way to come to the United States?”
“If I had to sum up the generation in one word, it would be ‘terrified,’” says Twenge, whose research has found that Generation Zers are reporting higher levels of anxiety and mental health issues as well as lower self-confidence than the millennials before them. CGK’s Gen Z research found that only 23 percent of the cohort believe the country is headed in the right direction.
And with the typical teen spending an average of six to eight hours a day in front of a screen, their person-to-person communication will almost certainly be impacted. “They just don’t have as much practice interacting with each other face to face,” says Twenge. “I think it’s a pretty good educated guess that social skills are going to be different.”
Yet Rasmi, Breann, Isaiah, Destiny and Aidan all exhibit one defining characteristic that also defines their generation: determination to succeed. “They are very interested in finding good jobs and working hard at them,” says Twenge of Gen Z, noting that the group’s attitudes toward work are more positive than millennials at this age. And when they do relax and unwind, they’re doing it more safely than the generations before them, statistically getting into fewer physical fights and car accidents, recording fewer teenage pregnancies, and drinking less alcohol.
“It’s not like they’re buckling down at home with the books all the time,” says Twenge. “It’s that the party is on Snapchat.”