Student Well-Being Q&A

Gen Z Members Are Very Optimistic. Should They Be?

By Arianna Prothero — September 29, 2023 4 min read
Ninth graders paint a speaker shaped like cake for a capstone project on March 13, 2017, at MC2 STEM High School in Cleveland.
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Generation Z has faced a battery of challenges in recent years: They’ve muddled through a pandemic, their learning and mental health suffering along the way. And by their own admission they’re worried about whether they’re prepared for the future and have the money they need to achieve their goals.

But despite those challenges, members of Gen Z remain overwhelmingly optimistic about their future.

Here are some key findings from a comprehensive survey of 12- to 26-year-olds, the ages that make up Generation Z, from a recent survey by the polling and research firm Gallup. This is part of a long-term project studying the attitudes and behaviors of Gen Z:

  • 44 percent report feeling prepared for their future;
  • 47 percent report feeling they are thriving, lagging behind millennials, Gen Xers, and baby boomers;
  • 64 percent say a lack of financial resources is a barrier to achieving their aspirations;

    Yet, 76 percent believe they have a great future ahead of them.

To make sense of these numbers and understand why the majority of Gen Z would report not feeling prepared for the future, but would believe they have a great future ahead of them, Education Week spoke with Zach Hrynowski, an education research consultant at Gallup.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Students’ level of optimism does not appear to be syncing with reality. Is this just unrestrained, youthful optimism?

Zach Hrynowski

I hesitate to call it blind faith. I don’t think there’s [nothing] that they can grasp on to that’s making them feel confident and they’re just hoping against hope. But there is very clearly the dichotomy.

I think they’re not feeling prepared for [the future] just yet, but they think they’ll get there. But, obviously, therein lies this chasm of, well, are they eventually going to get there?

If you look at the data at who feels the least prepared, who feels the least confident in their future, it’s actually those students who are in that 18-year-old range who are on the precipice [of graduating high school] and are now staring over the cliff and thinking: “Am I going to be able to make it?” Much more so than maybe the 12-year-olds or even the older end of the cohort.

That being said, there are some experiences that they’re having, especially in K-12, that make them far more likely to feel confident in their future. So that being: at school I get to do what I do best every day; I’m learning things in school that are preparing me for the future; I’m being recognized for doing good work at school; I’m being challenged at school; and I’m generally interested in what I’m learning. If you can get more K-12 students to be having those experiences, they’re far more confident in their future. They’re far more likely to be optimistic.

So, should students be this optimistic, given all the challenges they face?

I don’t think having an optimistic outlook on the future precludes them from overcoming the many challenges they face. You mentioned learning loss, to which I would add our findings that about one in three Gen Z K-12 students say they haven’t learned anything interesting at school in the past week, and 60 percent of them don’t think they get to do what they do best while they’re in school.

Less than half of this generation trusts the police or health care system, and fewer than one in five have much trust in our government, the news, and technology companies. More than half of them say they spent a lot of the previous day stressed and anxious.

So, for a lot of Gen Z, school doesn’t feel like a very inspiring place, the world that their education is supposed to be preparing them for doesn’t look great either, and all of that is negatively affecting their mental health. The costs of starter homes have never been higher. The net price of a college degree has improved slightly in recent years, but still remains incredibly expensive. And in spite of all that, more than three-quarters of this generation continue to think they will achieve their goals and have a bright future ahead.

I’m a positive person by nature, so maybe I’m projecting a little, but I happen to think that’s pretty admirable. Now, I also acknowledge that having a positive mindset is necessary, but not sufficient to achieving a great future—Gen Z is still going to have to do the hard work of catching up and adapting to the long-term effects of the pandemic.

But as much as Gen Z has a responsibility to get themselves prepared for the future, I think folks who work in education and public policy have a corresponding responsibility to listen and take seriously the feedback we’re getting about the systems that Gen Z is inheriting. I feel like some of Gen Z’s optimism—consciously or not—is predicated on the assumption that the people who have the power to make things better might still do so.

Do older generations’ perceptions of Gen Z align with reality?

So much of the conversation is through that lens of Gen Z is the “who cares” generation, the nihilist generation, the checked-out generation, and we just don’t really see any evidence of that in the survey.

What we actually see is they are invested and hopeful in their future. They just don’t really have the confidence that they have the skills they need right now to get there. And they need a hand from this generation or from older generations that are the ones who are primarily saying, “Gen Z doesn’t care enough” for us to invest in them and get them to this point.

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