02 Who I Am & What Matters Most

Who I Am & What Matters Most


What traits, preferences and self-perceptions make Gen Z who they are?

Personal achievement, whether educational or professional, and hobbies and pastimes are most central to Gen Z’s identity. Twice as many teens as Boomers strongly agree that these are important to their sense of self, while older adults are more likely to say their family background and religion are central to their identity (one in three in Gen Z considers these important).

The move away from identification with religious beliefs is a widespread cultural phenomenon, as we examined in chapter 1, but the comparative indifference of Gen Z to their upbringing or family background is likewise notable (and also somewhat dissonant—when researchers ask teens who they most look up to as a role model, half say their parents and one in seven says another family member). It’s not yet clear if this refocusing of identity away from family is the continuation of a descending generational trend, or if Gen Z will gain a deeper appreciation for the influence of their family of origin as they leave the nest. Time will tell.

There are significant differences when we look at teens by ethnicity. First, and not surprisingly, Gen Z racial minorities are substantially more likely than whites to consider their race or ethnicity important to their sense of self. African Americans feel most strongly about this—half strongly agree compared to only one in seven white teens—and Latino / Hispanic teens fall in between. Black teenagers are also more likely than white youth to consider their family background, achievement, religious beliefs and gender or sexuality important to their identity. Hispanic teens are likewise more apt to rate achievement as important, but they are least likely to strongly agree that religion plays a significant role in their sense of self.

Researchers also find sizable differences when they look at Gen Z faith groups. Engaged Christians are much more likely than average to consider their religious beliefs (and, to a lesser extent, achievement and family background) very important to their identity. The one-third of teens with no religious affiliation is, by contrast, far less likely to say that religion (12%) or family (22%) are significant factors when it comes to their sense of self.

Q&A with John A. Murray

Head of Central Christian School

John serves as Head of Central Christian School in St. Louis, Missouri, a 2016 National Blue Ribbon School. He is also Founder and Director of Central Leadership Forum and serves as President of the Christian Schools Association of St. Louis. His award-winning articles on education, history, media and youth culture have appeared in numerous publications, including The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, The St. Louis Post-Dispatch and FoxNews. com. His new book is In Whose Image? Image-Bearers of God vs. the Image-Makers of Our Time. John and his wife, Barbara, are parents of four Gen Z children.

Sexuality & Gender

Gen Z, more than older generations, considers their sexuality or gender to be central to their sense of personal identity. Of course, some life-stage effects are likely at work; teens whose physiological sexuality is developing are naturally more attuned to sexuality in general. Yet the fact that this appears to be so important, and that public debate surrounding sexuality and gender is so culturally pervasive, strongly suggests these topics will be a central theme for Gen Z as they move into adulthood. Ideas and experiences teens are dealing with now will undoubtedly shape their perspectives in the future.

It’s interesting that engaged Christians, even more than other young people, consider their gender or sexuality as central to their sense of self. It’s likely this is due to the ubiquity of the topic in the wider culture—for example, the entire January 2017 issue of National Geographic was dedicated to the subject, and “bathroom wars” have been much in the news—and churches’ efforts to respond faithfully through conversation and biblical education.

About one in eight of all 13- to 18-year-olds describes their sexual orientation as something other than heterosexual or straight (12%), with those who identify as bisexual making up more than half of that proportion (7%). (To put that in context, for as long as Barna has asked survey respondents about their sexual orientation, about 3 percent of all U.S. adults have identified as LGBT.) Faith identity and practice correlate with a higher tendency to identify as straight, with nearly all engaged Christians (99%) saying they are heterosexual (vs. 86% all Gen Z). On the other hand, teens with no religious affiliation are less likely than others to describe themselves as straight (79%; 13% consider themselves bisexual).

In focus groups with 13to 18-year-olds, the subject of gender, in particular, often came up in conversation, leading researchers to supplement the original surveys with further quantitative interviews on the topic. They found that only half of today’s teens believe one’s sex at birth defines one’s gender. One-third says gender is “what a person feels like.” Twelve percent do not know how to answer this question, while smaller percentages say “a person’s desires or sexual attraction” or “the way society sees a person.”

Faith is a guide to perspectives on gender, but there are still many Christian teens who don’t necessarily connect gender with birth sex. Three-quarters of engaged Christians say one’s gender is the sex a person was born with; one in five says it’s what a person feels like (19%). But views are more mixed among churched Christians who do not qualify as engaged: One-quarter says a person’s feelings are the primary basis of gender (27%) and just over half that birth sex is the primary determinant (56%). The disparity between engaged and churched Christian teens indicates a lack of clarity about traditional Christian teaching on gender—and the growing cultural influence of the religiously unaffiliated surely plays a role in the confusion. Two in five of those with no faith believe one’s gender is based on one’s feelings (41%), while just one-third says a person’s sex at birth is primary (35%); one in 10 says sexual attraction is the primary driver (10%).

Seven out of 10 teens think it’s definitely or probably acceptable to be born one gender and feel like another. (In fact, three in 10 report personally knowing someone, most often a peer, who has changed his or her gender identity.) About one in 10 young people is not sure it’s acceptable for someone to feel a different gender from their birth sex. Among engaged Christians, about one in six says they are not sure (17%), while the rest are split between those who believe it is acceptable (44%) and those who say it is not (40%).

If focus group participants are reflective of the broader Gen Z population, their evolving and sometimes contradictory views are often grounded in a desire to express solidarity with marginalized groups like transgender people. Gender issues, like a number of others they face, leave many teens feeling both compassion and confusion.

How teens would feel about, and what they would say to, a peer who was questioning or considering changing their gender also reveal a lot about their opinions on the topic. Nearly half of Gen Z say they would feel neutral if a friend was questioning their gender (45%) and about one in three would feel concerned (31%). One in nine says they would be “happy for them” (11%) and 14 percent are not sure. Young women are more likely to say they would be happy (14% vs. 5% young men).

Their own feelings aside, most teens would either remain neutral (38%) or encourage a friend (31%) who was considering a gender change; few would actively discourage it (8%). Again, the percentage on the positive end of responses is greater among young women than among young men. And teen girls are also more likely to say it is definitely okay for someone to “physically change their body (through hormones or surgery) to become another gender” (24% vs. 10% teen boys). Combined, about two in five teens believe it is okay (42%) for someone to change their body to become a gender other than their birth sex, and a similar proportion says doing so is not okay (39%). One in five is just not sure.

When it comes to faith groups, about the same percentage of engaged Christians would discourage a friend’s plans to change their gender (24%) as would encourage such a change (21%)—but even so, many would do neither (40%). Considering their own feelings, engaged Christians are more likely than teens with no religious affiliation to be concerned for a friend who wants to change their gender (53% vs. 24%). Interestingly, those with no faith are not more likely to be “happy” for a friend; rather, they are more likely to be neutral (56% vs. 27% engaged Christians). Regarding physical alterations, engaged Christians are most likely to believe this is not okay (63%), compared with half of churched Christians (51%), one in three unchurched Christians (34%) and one in four teens with no religious faith (28%).

Whatever their opinions or experiences, half of all Gen Z think gender is talked about too much in today’s society. However, teens are more likely to say gender is discussed among their peers “just the right amount.”

Friends & Neighbors

Who are Gen Z’s peers and friends? Not surprisingly, the vast majority of teens say most of their friends are from school (86%), followed far behind by schoolbased extracurriculars (31%), athletic teams (25%) and their local neighborhood (24%); only one in five says their friends are mostly from church. Not surprisingly, engaged Christians (66%) and churched teens (31%) are more likely than others to say church is largely where their friendships are based.

Within their peer groups, Gen Z reports a mix of homogeneity and diversity. Homogeneity is more common in small towns and rural areas, while diversity is more the rule in larger cities. One way to assess the experience of diversity is whether a teenager shares his beliefs in common with most of his friends; Gen Z is split into nearly even thirds on this question— though racial minorities tend to be more unsure about their friends’ beliefs (40% not sure vs. 28% white teens).

Teens (39%), along with young adult Millennials (44%), are more likely than older adults (especially Boomers, 26%) to say they often interact with people “who do not share or do not understand important parts of my identity.” This is partly a function of demographics; Gen Z and Millennials are more ethnically and culturally diverse than the generations before them. But their demographic diversity also appears to drive an expectation that those around them will have different identities and beliefs—and that those differences can be a source of joy: Teens (18%) and young adults (22%) are also more likely than older adults (14%) to strongly agree that they enjoy spending time with people who are different from them. Gen Z and Millennials have a greater appreciation for integration, in practice, compared with the generations before them.

White and black teens are more likely than Hispanic young people to report often interacting with people different from them (43% white, 38% black vs. 29% Hispanic teens). Yet black teenagers are most likely to strongly agree that they enjoy spending time with people who are different from them (28% vs. 15% white, 21% Hispanic teens). So even though Gen Z is demographically diverse compared to other generations, not all teens are completely at home in that diversity.

Goals & Priorities

What aspirations are shaping Gen Z’s future? Where are they headed and why?

Many in Gen Z are not yet clear about their mid-range goals (which is understandable, especially for younger teens). A plurality agrees only somewhat that “I have clear goals for where I want to be in five years,” and one-quarter disagrees.

Engaged Christians appear to have greater clarity about the next five years compared to other faith segments (45% strongly agree vs. 32% other Christians, 27% no faith). This may be because they prioritize different factors as they consider the future. As the table shows, more than half say their faith is their top priority, compared to the majority of other groups who prioritize either their personal interests or money. As Donna Freitas’s work reveals, these priorities align with an overall pursuit of happiness, which nearly half of Gen Z equate with “success.” (See pp. 21 for more on happiness.)

Young women tend to have a clearer vision, at least for their near future, than young men: 36 percent of teen girls strongly agree they have clear goals for the next five years, compared to 27 percent of teen boys. This corresponds to other evidence that young Gen Z males, like their Millennial counterparts, often lack a sense of purpose. As we saw in chapter 1, more women than men enroll in college each year. And according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, male unemployment is consistently higher than female unemployment across the board, but especially among young adults (8.6% men ages 20– 24, 6.3% women ages 20–24).25 Young men are less likely than young women to be in college or to be working. No wonder many of them are feeling aimless and at sea.

Looking beyond the mid-term, there also are mixed feelings about growing up. Half are somewhat excited about becoming an adult (52%), while one in four is not looking forward to it (28%). Interestingly, white teens—who tend to enjoy greater wealth and comfort, on average—are more likely than black and Hispanic young people to say they are not excited to grow up (32% vs. 15% black teens, 26% Hispanic teens).

We see another symptom of a reluctance to embrace independence in the dramatic drop-off in teen driving: Nearly all Boomers had their driver’s license by their senior year of high school, but more than one in four of today’s seniors is not licensed to drive.

Just one in five among all Gen Z youth is enthusiastic about the advent of adulthood (20%)—and these are concentrated at the more religious end of the faith spectrum: 40 percent of engaged Christians are very excited about becoming an adult, compared to 16 percent of those with no faith. It may be that more engaged Christians have a clear picture of what adulthood will mean for them, while those without a faith background lack clear expectations for who they will be and what they will do when they are on their own.

Only one in four teens says they are most looking forward to the freedoms of adulthood (22%); the other three out of four are about evenly split between those most looking forward to the responsibilities of adulthood (37%) and those who look forward to both freedoms and responsibilities (41%).

Analysts believe the generational apathy toward growing up is more evidence of a creeping lack of purpose and meaning, which comes even more sharply into focus when we look at what teens say they want to accomplish before age 30. Barna offered the same list of options to Millennials in 2013; below are both generations’ answers presented side by side, for comparison:

As you can see, the trends Barna identified among Millennials—high priority on career achievement, low priority on personal and relational growth—are amplified in Gen Z. Fewer teens are interested in starting a family or becoming more spiritually mature. Nearly two out of five want to spend their 20s enjoying life before they take on the responsibilities of being adult— significantly higher than the one-quarter of Millennials who said this.

More than half of teens want to follow their dreams, yet just three in 10 want to find out who they really are. But the faith segmentation on these statements is interesting. Teens with no religious affiliation are much more likely than engaged Christians to want both to follow their dreams (62% vs. 42%) and to find out who they really are (41% vs. 25%). This may indicate an impulse in those with no faith to seek greater meaning.

Engaged Christians, as we might expect, are more likely to say spiritual maturity is a goal (46%) and a bit more likely to say they’d like to get married (29%) and have children (16%) before age 30. Yet these low percentages suggest the cultural tide against marriage—or at least toward delaying it—is tugging at faithful Christians, as well. Perhaps many teens consider marriage and parenting to be “adult responsibilities” that they are planning to avoid during their 20s.

How will they know when they have “arrived” at adulthood? Barna also asked this question among Millennials in 2013—and the differences are stark. Financial independence looms large for many teens in a way it did not for 18to 29-year-old Millennials; doubtless the country’s (and their parents’) financial problems since the Great Recession are a big influence here. Emotional maturity, on the other hand—of such supreme importance to many Millennial twentysomethings—is significant to fewer than one in four teenagers. (And notice that marriage—a key marker of adulthood just a few generations ago— doesn’t even make their list.) It will be interesting to see if these priorities shift as Gen Z moves into adulthood.

The people teens look up to—and the reasons why—are another window into their ultimate goals. As noted earlier, a sizable majority of Gen Z says their parents or another family member is their role model. But why? On an open-ended question, among the top 10 answers is that the role model is hardworking and responsible, that he or she provides for their family, that they have a good career, that they have an education, that they are successful and that he or she is independent. To be clear: Six out of the top 10 reasons teens look up to their role model are related to career or financial success.

Morality & Values

Moral relativism is taking deeper root in America. One-quarter of Gen Z strongly agrees that what is morally right and wrong changes over time based on society, and they are nearly on par with Millennials in believing each individual is his or her own moral arbiter.

Teens in Barna focus groups elaborated on their perspective. One participant said, “Society changes and what’s good or bad changes, as well. It is all relative to what’s happening in the world.” What they likely haven’t heard as much of is that there exists an objective morality, compared to which all human morality falls short. At their best, our redefinitions over time are not according to whim but in an effort to get closer to true morality.

Looking at some basic moral principles, there is a clear generational decline in the moral compass of Americans. (Elders are a shrinking proportion of the overall population, but are included here for perspective.) Fully three out of five among the eldest generation strongly agree that lying is immoral, while only one-third of Gen Z believes lying is wrong; there is a continuous slide by generation in conviction about this moral principle. Generational perspectives on abortion, use of recreational drugs and sex before marriage are more similar, yet Gen Z is also least likely to consider abortion wrong.

Overall Gen Z holds the most liberal views when it comes to issues of sexuality. They are least likely to agree that marriage should be a lifelong commitment between a man and a woman (tied with Millennials) and to have moral objections to same-sex sexual activity.

Some culture watchers have suggested that Gen Z is “more conservative” than their predecessors, but Barna researchers see little evidence of this claim. Moral shifts that began during the sexual revolution of the 1960s have made an indelible cultural impact, with today’s teens the most liberal generation thus far. (There is some anecdotal evidence that Gen Z overall may have more conservative economic views than Millennials, but socially speaking, they tend to be just as, if not more, liberal than their predecessors.)

Engaged Christian teens, however, are a stark contrast to their peers on moral issues. We see significant gaps between their beliefs and all others, including other churchgoing teens, on most moral issues, suggesting that church attendance alone does not create distinctive believers. Instead, only those teens who grow up with strong Christian education and intentional discipleship are taking the Bible’s moral principles to heart, while others look more like the broader culture. One churchgoing teen from the focus groups is a clear example: “I believe in God, in a higher power, I believe in Jesus. But I don’t believe you necessarily have to follow the Bible step-by-step. I believe that if you’re an overall good person and you have good intentions, that’s all you need.”

Gen Z, including engaged Christians, are generally opposed to challenging others’ beliefs. They part ways with other teens, however, when it comes to evaluating the reliability of their own beliefs in light of how those beliefs might affect others. Engaged Christian teens and adults are twice as likely as their peers to strongly disagree that “if your beliefs offend someone or hurt their feelings, they are probably wrong.” That is, two-thirds do not equate the truth of their beliefs with how appealing (or unappealing) they are to others.

Taken together, and considered in light of the trends examined in chapter 1, these data sketch a portrait of a generation that feels at once ambivalent about the present and apprehensive about the future. Many seem to believe that what I do is who I am—a self based on personal achievement and risk mitigation, in a world where so many things are up for grabs. Barna analysts believe many teens are disempowered and disengaged, entertained but not inspired. They are hyperaware of their public image—according to Freitas, eight out of 10 agree “I’m aware that my name is a brand and that I need to cultivate it carefully” 27—but few feel truly known.

And many don’t want to rock the boat. Adding to their uncertainty is growing cultural (and generational) ambiguity surrounding morality, the basic human framework for understanding what it means to be a good person and to live a good life.

So what happens when their uncertainty and ambiguity cross paths with the historic Christian faith?

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