Understanding Today’s Youth Culture

May 5th, 2018 | By | Category: Culture & Wordview, Featured Issues


The Oxford Dictionaries 2017 Word of the Year was “youthquake,” a rather unusual choice but one that necessarily reflects Western Civilization’s obsession with “staying young.”  But the choice presumably goes deeper than that, for the term is defined as meaning “a significant cultural, political, or social change arising from the actions or influence of young people.”  It represents the awakening of millennials striving for change during a turbulent 12 months in 2017 across the world.  Prime Minister Theresa May used the term in describing the huge turnout of young voters as they rallied behind Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn.  The term was coined in 1965 by Vogue Editor Diana Vreeland, who used it to highlight changes young people drove in the fashion and music industries.

The Oxford Dictionaries choice highlights an important development to which the church of Jesus Christ must pay attention—the youth culture is changing Western Civilization and, if the church is going to remain relevant to this generation, it must understand this generation.  In February 2018, the Barna Research group published an important report on “Gen Z,” the label now being used to capture the distinctives of the generation born between 1999 and 2015.  [Other generational labels are Boomers (born 1946 to 1964), Gen X (born 1965 and 1983) and Millennials (born 1984 to 1998).]  Priorities change for each generational group, especially in the areas of education and friendships, which tend to be more important at a younger age while career and family become more important as Americans move into adulthood. Gen Z represents how rapidly things are changing in terms of priorities.  Over the last 50 years, technological advancements, demographic changes, an increasingly post-Christian environment and political realties have apparently all contributed to a rather radical cultural shift evidenced with Gen Z.  Here are several salient findings the Barna Research group has discovered:

  1. Gen Z is the most diverse generation Barna has observed in American history. Gen Z racial minorities are substantially more likely than white teens to consider their race or ethnicity important to their sense of self.  When it comes to perceptions of the church, African-American and Hispanic teens are more likely to choose church-themed activities or icons that have more communal feel and greater diversity than white teens.
  2. The problem of evil is a major barrier to faith for non-Christian teens. Other barriers to faith include “Christians are hypocrites” (23%); “I believe science refutes too much of the Bible” (20%); “I don’t believe in fairy tales” (19%); and “there are too many injustices in Christianity” (15%).  Among those why say attending church is not important to them, three out of five Christian teens say “I find God elsewhere” (671%), while the same proportion of non-Christians says “church is not relevant to me personally” (64%).
  3. The “Faith Segments” of Gen Z are rather surprising:
  • 9% Engaged Christian
  • 33% Church Christian
  • 16% Unchurched Christian
  • 7% other Faith
  • 34% No religious affiliation
  1. It appears that Gen Z is de-prioritizing family. Personal achievement (education or professional)—43%–and hobbies and pastimes—42%–are more important to Gen Z’s identity than family background.  [In all other generation groups, family ranks at the top.]  Religious belief is also less influential with Gen Z.  Finally, with Gen Z only one in five wants to get married.  Although not certain, it appears that this refocusing of identity away from family is the continuation of a descending generational trend.
  2. Achievement is significant for Gen Z, both to their sense of self and for their ultimate goals, particularly their education, career and achieving financial independence. Barna argues that this emphasis on career presents an opportunity for the church to engage in what could be called “vocational discipleship”—teaching about the integration of faith and occupation, helping them to better understand the concept of calling and emphasizing the meaning and theological significance of work, not just their potential for financial or professional success.

Summarizing additional research on Gen Z, the magazine The Economist adds several important insights about this emerging generation in Western Civilization:

  1. Preliminary evidence indicates that Gen Z is not as active in drinking alcoholic beverages and not as prone to experiment with drugs.
  2. Technology has obviously changed this generation’s behavior. Gen Z members are heavy internet users, spending an average of 146 minutes each day online.  Their world is the world of Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.  The personal smartphone explains this nearly addictive behavior online.  Preliminary evidence also indicates that technology is affecting the minds and emotional moods of Gen Z.
  3. Most profound in my opinion is that Gen Z seems to be the loneliest generation on record. Social isolation is a growing reality among Gen Z members, with some becoming “virtual hermits”  (e.g., in Japan and South Korea especially).  It is difficult to not see a correlation between technology (especially the smartphone and social media), which fosters radical personal autonomy, and this surge in loneliness.  Genuine and deep friendships are difficult online!!

Those involved in ministry must pay attention to these observations about Gen Z, for this is the next generation of leaders in our culture and in the church.  We cannot ignore these developments.  Church leaders need to be bold, creative and flexible in reaching this generation for Christ.  May God give us the wisdom and enablement to be good stewards of the Gospel and of the Christian faith as we seek to touch Gen Z with the truth about Jesus.

See the Washington Post article on “Youthquake” (15 December 2017); “Gen Z: Your Questions Answered,” www.barna.com/research (6 February 2018); and The Economist (13 January 2018), pp. 53-54.

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One Comment to “Understanding Today’s Youth Culture”

  1. Richard Pendell says:

    Asian countries have more readily acknowledged and begun to deal realistically with the psycho/social cost of a generation who have formed their identity and values in the artificial world of social media and virtual reality. We have known for years that living in these worlds makes most people sad and disconnected. But, like the addictive drug they have been designed to be, we believe we simply cannot live without them, even for short periods.
    Before this generation, people’s identities and relationships were largely determined at birth. Social/economic class, peer groups, church and family relationships and area of residence determined 80% of the likelihood of one’s life path. Without life-changing, dislocating events, the outcome of most life stories was fairly predictable.
    Take your eraser and wipe away all of these factors, or at least, move them to a sidebar. Now, introduce the mobile, digital-visual world as the primary determining factor in a person’s identify and life outcome. No longer is your life influenced by the stationary powers and markers of this static reality. Now, you are free to determine your own identity entirely. You can experiment anyway you wish and are then free to market this ‘self’ to the entire digital world. All this is done with very little actual physical face-to-face time with people. You become isolated, lonely, lacking in social skills, without the need for patience and problem solving that comes with real human interaction. Your friends are virtual, your education is virtual, your job will likely be virtual.
    You feel you cannot trust or believe in anything permanent. Everything is always changing and isn’t what it appears to be anyway, kind of like living in California. Forty years ago, this would have been a description of a person with mental illness. Today, this is the ‘new normal’ for Gen-Z and younger.
    How do you reach people wired like this? It actually takes a LOT of patience to deal with people who are miswired by digital media. Don’t ask them to put it away for along. They won’t. But, keep your teaching and interactions with them simple and real, reintroducing them to the real wonder of God’s fingerprints on the physical world, the spiritual world and the world of their deepest needs for connection. Slowly reveal their own narcissism and help them experience living for people and ideas outside of their own bubble worlds. Teach them to pray, to connect with the ultimate reality frequently and honestly. Help them to experience times of digital fasting and filling that time with real, tangible, godly and wholesome experiences. The Holy Spirit will begin to work on and rewire those who He is calling. Be patience. They didn’t get like that in a day and they won’t pop out of it quickly either. I work with Gen-Z’s everyday. I know if I take the time to patiently lead them back to God, it’s the best investment of time I can ever make.