Some parts of teenhood are evergreen: house parties, hookups, the perfect playlist, the thrill of a dark sweaty dance floor and — we’ll say it — drugs. This all holds true for Gen Zs…to a point. Today’s teens and twentysomethings are as up for a good time as generations past. Yet there are some things they can never put out of their minds completely, like the climate crisis, online bullying and school shooting drills, which have become as common as pop quizzes. Given the state of the world, it’s not entirely surprising that Zs are experiencing unprecedented levels of anxiety and depression, and that teen suicide is on the rise. For this generation, letting loose isn’t easy. As one teen put it, “How do you party when the world is on fire?”
Standard teen activities, like skipping school or testing the nightlife waters, have taken on a far greater sense of gravity for the generation tasked with fixing massive global problems. Most American teens (80%) believe their generation will make a bigger difference in the world than previous generations — not necessarily because they want to, but because they have to. Sixteen-year-old climate activist Greta Thunberg said it best in her U.N. Climate Action Summit address to a room full of elders, “How dare you! You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words.” Thunberg has inspired millions of Gen Zs around the world to skip school too as part of Youth Climate Strike, mass protests against government inaction.
“I think about the climate crisis all the time, and doing something to help fills me with a sense of pride,” said Gage, 21, from Lincoln, NE. U.S.-based Gen Zs also helped found Sunrise Movement, a youth-led political action group that lobbies for politicians who will support renewable energy. Their first big win? Helping AOC get elected. As most Zs (78%) said they regularly seek ways to de-stress in their daily lives, expect to see a rise in rebellious acts that serve a greater purpose.
Poor air quality is something I worry about as an athlete and captain of my soccer team. I care about me and my teammate’s health.—Edxon, 17, Los Angeles, CA
Climate change is something that me and my friends are particularly worried about. Politics is worrying too but that’s something that can be changed every four years, climate change isn’t.—Sam, 22, Lawrence, KS
Drug use tends to define the times. Boomers dropped acid; Xers did coke; Millennials popped molly. Statistically, Gen Z’s represent a sea change: they drink less, do fewer drugs, and are driving the current “sex recession” (silver lining: fewer teen pregnancies). But the reality is that Gen Zs aren’t partying — or coping — stone cold sober. This generation is chasing a high that relieves their anxieties. “Sometimes you just need something to take the edge off,” said Josh, 21, from Bend, OR. Xanax, percocet and “lean” are all favored drugs (and lyrics) of the SoundCloud rap crowd. Marijuana is so ubiquitous that party promoter Michelle Lhooq coined the term “Cali sober,” to describe a lifestyle that cuts out all substances except weed — and the term is catching on as others embrace another kind of plant-only diet. CBD, or cannabidiol, a non-psychoactive compound in cannabis that promotes relaxation, is coming to define this generation as it’s healing properties go fully mainstream. Over-the-counter CBD tinctures, gummies and lattes are available in states where weed isn’t even legal. Abercrombie & Fitch now stocks CBD body lotions and lip balms. Hell, Carl’s Jr. has even tested CBD-infused burgers in Colorado.
Sometimes you just need something to take the edge off.—Josh, 21, Bend, OR
Gen Zs are transforming nightlife scenes to fit their ethos. Take, for instance, LGBTQ+ nightlife culture, which has proliferated in recent years to provide inclusive and safe spaces for radical self-expression. New York City alone is home to Papi Juice, Hot Rabbit, THEMbot, Homotown, Teaze, Femmepremacy, GHE20G0TH1K and Hot ’N Spicy, among others. One nightlife denizen told The New York Times that these parties are akin to “getting a rinse;” i.e. rinsing off tragedy while allowing a joyful perspective to wash over you. An assurance of safety is key to these get downs: security guards are trained to work with non-binary bodies and card people whose names do not match their government-issued ID cards. Some nightlife organizers pay for clubbers’ cabs to make sure they get to and from parties harassment-free. Others require partiers give verbal consent before dancing with each other. London, home to iconic queer parties such as SHE and LICK, recently tapped its first “night tsar,” a city employee who makes sure that the nightlife economy is both vibrant and safe for all.
But we couldn’t talk about nightlife without addressing sleep, one of the most highly-coveted luxury items for a generation grasping for good mental health. A full 70% of Zs said they don’t feel like they’re getting enough sleep. “The first thing I think about when I wake up in the morning is when I’m going to be able to sleep again,” said Paige, 23, from Orlando, FLA. While it might seem counterintuitive, sleep is becoming an arena for entertainment. Pokémon’s follow up to its blockbuster game Pokémon Go will be Pokémon Sleep, an app that tracks sleep patterns and rewards good nighttime habits. Meanwhile, the latest music artist to sign with Warner Music Group — alongside Madonna and Coldplay — is Endel, an artificial intelligence technology that creates personalized audio tracks through smartphone data, like GPS coordinates, weather, and time of day. Endel’s first five albums are a collection of “sleep soundscapes” designed to reduce anxiety. Cue the Zzz’s.