Youth Perspectives

Youth disillusionment is a global risk, but it can be mitigated. This study on Gen Z shows why

It's time to teach Gen Z resilience. Their future depends on it. Image: Unsplash

Asheesh Advani
President and Chief Executive Officer, JA Worldwide
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Peace and Resilience

  • How can we prevent the pandemic from sapping the potential of an entire generation?
  • Findings suggest that resilience and self-efficacy can not only be learnt, but are very much sought after by Gen Z.
  • Youth can be taught resilience and self-efficacy through experiential learning and connections to mentors and role models.

Of the 10 immediate risks listed in this year’s World Economic Forum Global Risks Report, the one most likely to be overlooked is number eight – “youth disillusionment”.

According to the report, the result of young people facing their second global crisis in a decade is, at best, temporary disruption and disillusionment and, at worst, permanent scarring and lost opportunity. How can we prevent the pandemic from sapping the potential of an entire generation? Where can youth find hope?

Gen Z: 'Generation Pandemial'

Specific findings and predictions for young people from the Global Risks Report are troubling. These include a deterioration of mental health since the start of the pandemic, leaving 80% of young people across the globe vulnerable to depression, anxiety and disillusionment, and making them targets for radicalization.

Even before the pandemic, Gen Z’s stability, job prospects, and mental health were at risk due to the climate crisis, inequality, violence and other social disruptions. Fallout from the 2008 recession has revealed, in many parts of the world, the shortcomings of an outdated education system and continuing economic crisis.

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Furthermore, 30% or more of the global student population lacks the technology infrastructure necessary to attend digital classroom sessions, while young women have been hit the hardest by school closures. In particular, a higher percentage of girls versus boys are being required to take care of younger siblings instead of attending school.

While not all of these findings are easily undone, there is an opportunity to build resilience. And there has never been a more important time to understand what that is and to equip young people to meet the challenges they face.

Global Risks Horizon
Global Risks Horizon Image: World Economic Forum

What is resilience and is Gen Z ready to learn it?

Resilience is closely linked to self-efficacy, grit, toughness, growth-mindset, and adaptability. It refers to a person’s ability to bounce back quickly from failure, time and time again, without experiencing a loss of enthusiasm for the task or challenge at hand.

Building on data collected from students who have shown resourcefulness and perseverance, findings suggest that resilience and self-efficacy can not only be learnt, but are very much sought after by Gen Z.

The survey gives insights into Gen Z’s attitudes toward and ideas about global trends and how they believe the education system can improve to ensure they have the skills needed to adapt and thrive over the long term.

Most surprising is how optimistic our respondents were about the future. For example, 82% feel hopeful about finding meaningful work and addressing global challenges by 2030. And by “meaningful work,” our Gen Z respondents mean 1) generating original thoughts and ideas, 2) interacting with people from around the world, 3) solving complex problems, and more.

Many intend to find their ideal career by building companies from the ground up. Fully 65% of respondents who are already in the workforce expect that, within ten years, they’ll be running their own businesses.

Respondents are also positive about three areas that tend to be less well digested by older generations: the impact of globalization (83% of our Gen Z cohort feel positively about it), automation (74%) and shifting work norms (71%). Accordingly, they hope to see classrooms focus more on the changing world, with 77% rating environmental literacy and career development as the most important subjects in their education.

Students are eager for more hands-on experiential learning opportunities and believe that their education should not be limited to the classroom. They want more opportunities to try real-life work with professional mentors, and to have the opportunity to fail and try again, a key component of building resilience.

Experiential learning

Contrary to the belief that children will simply ‘turn out okay’, research reveals young people are more at risk of long-term effects from chronic stress and trauma than adults. This is because of the impressionability of trauma on their brains and because they lack practice at facing difficult situations and bouncing back from them.

But youth can be taught resilience and self-efficacy through experiential learning and connections to mentors and role models. Hands-on, learning-by-doing may take the form of play for younger students, simulations for tweens, and real-world entrepreneurship and business experiences for young adults.

Gen Z is poised to reframe the future, but are business and education ready?
Gen Z is poised to reframe the future, but are business and education ready? Image: EY-JA Worldwide

For many young people, interacting with a role model opens up a world of possibilities. This is particularly relevant for youth from disadvantaged backgrounds who are susceptible to social marginalization and disillusionment; after all, young people can only aspire to be what they know exists. Meeting a successful role model, who has persevered through hardship and overcome obstacles, can build resilience and self-belief.

Gen Z as a group has been overwhelmed by two major global crises in a decade. Some have been left behind because of the digital divide; others are experiencing extraordinary levels of violence and social disruption; and still others are already impacted by the effects of climate change and environmental degradation. But when we spoke to young people between the ages of 16 and 25, we found something else: hope, optimism and a desire to make the most of the cards they’ve been dealt. Or – resilience.

Gen Z as a group has been overwhelmed by two major global crises in a decade... But when we spoke to young people, we found hope, optimism and a desire to make the most of the cards they’ve been dealt. Or – resilience.

Asheesh Advani, CEO, JA Worldwide

Young people need to believe that they will succeed, no matter how many obstacles or failures stand in their way. But rather than focus on positive self-talk or, worse, the toxic positivity we saw examples of during the COVID-19 pandemic, children would benefit from learning how to manage the stresses and traumas they face. If they could learn resilience, they would be able to thrive as a result.

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

Related topics:
Youth PerspectivesGlobal RisksEducation and Skills
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