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Gen Z: Slackers or Superheroes?

Many young people are leading the way in hard work and activism.

Carlos Foster is only 21, but he already has a resume many people twice his age would envy. He is currently juggling a demanding career in marketing, an MBA program which he expects to finish next year, and several community commitments. Despite his age, however, this kind of demanding schedule is nothing new for Foster. 

In 2016, at just 17, Foster founded The Hope Event Foundation, which organizes fundraising events in support of local non-profit agencies in his hometown of Morganton, North Carolina. Two years later, after holding several events that raised thousands of dollars, Foster handed off the foundation’s leadership responsibilities and relocated to Knoxville to begin his marketing career with Varsity Allstar. 

“Growing up, I had seen a lot of people who struggled,” says Foster. “A lot of people grow up and get comfortable with that. I wanted to do better for myself and those who worked so hard to give me these opportunities.” 

In recent months, COVID-19 and related economic shutdowns have severely impacted him and his company. The company was forced to cancel all of its remaining events for the year, leading to massive furloughs. In the wake of this unprecedented uncertainty, Foster is scrambling to pick up extra responsibilities at work and adapt to continually changing circumstances. 

“It has been an eye-opener,” says Foster. “I still have a clear vision of where I’m going, but I’ve learned that anything could happen, so I’m just learning to be adaptable.”     

The Slacker Stereotype 

Ambitious, goal-oriented young men like Foster are not the typical portrait of youth we see in our culture. From YouTube and TikTok to politics and the workforce, young people are often broadly dismissed as uninformed slackers. This “Slacker Trope” may not be a new phenomenon, but in recent years, something more insidious seems to be lurking just beneath the surface. Take the example of Charlotte, North Carolina, ninth-grader Mary Ellis Stevens. 

Starting in April of 2019, Stevens spent 30 straight Friday afternoons climate-striking outside the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Government Center. She worked on homework and spoke with public officials, sometimes enduring hostile weather conditions, usually alone.  

“When I started striking, I was convinced I was going to be alone forever,” says Stevens. 

Then, on Nov. 6, well-known activist Greta Thunberg asked if she could join her next strike. The 14-year-old Stevens had less than 48 hours to organize the logistics of a rally that would attract hundreds of participants, a task that would have intimidated most people three times her age. On Friday, though, she and Thunberg stood on stage side by side in front of a crowd of more than 1,000 people. When the video of her rally hit YouTube that evening, the slacker trope hit back with full force. 

“This kid should go to school and learn something before she shoots off her mouth,” wrote one detractor. 

“When you get older and maybe obtain some wisdom, you’ll see the foolishness of this climate change hoax,” spouted another.

Lessons from the Young

By characterizing bold, outspoken young women like Mary Ellis Stevens as lazy and uninformed, detractors attempt to discredit them and their ideas without having to engage them on the issues. Imagine the pushback a 19-year-old Charles Spurgeon would have endured if London’s prominent New Park Street Chapel had called him to its pastorate in 2020 instead of 1857. Picture the reaction of the Cable News punditry to Alexander Hamilton, just 29, overseeing the creation of the Federalist Papers. By dismissing young voices based solely on age, we risk discrediting some of the most brilliant minds and important ideas of our time. 

Goal-oriented, enterprising young people may run against our cultural stereotypes, but according to recent sociological research, Foster and Stevens are anything but anomalies. Growing up in the shadow of the 2008 recession has shaped the attitudes of many in today’s under-30 crowd, uniquely preparing them for the turbulent new world of COVID and unrest that now welcomes them into adulthood. Research also suggests that the typical irresponsibility that often accompanies youth has been declining over the past several years. Underage drinking, teenage sexual activity, even the amount of unsupervised time spent away from adult influences have all dropped drastically over the past decade.  

In her book IGen, Jean M. Twenge interprets the data to suggest that a desire for safety is the driving mentality behind the behavioural changes in Generation Z. As they grow into adulthood, this safety-first mindset is beginning to translate into a work ethic and civic-mindedness that looks more like that of their grandparents than their Millennial and Gen-X siblings and parents. Generation Z may have put off adulthood longer than previous generations, but now, with a tech-savvy lifestyle and the ability to adapt to an increasingly uncertain gig-based economy, they are willing and able to do whatever it takes to face it head-on.  

Caring for Community 

From punk rock guitarist to entrepreneur, community activist, and devoted father, Isaac Crouch plays many different roles in his hometown of Morganton, North Carolina. Last year, Isaac and his twin brother, Sam went into business for themselves as the owners of Simply Green Recycling. 

Crouch and his brother also co-founded Citizen Earth Media as well as a local secular support and civic action group. In 2019, at the age of 30, Isaac launched his campaign for city council, narrowly losing the three-way race to two long-time community fixtures. 

These days, with his city council run behind him, Isaac is focusing his energy on his business, his new role on the County Board of Health, and Citizen Earth Media, which is working to keep his community informed through the pandemic. 

“The state of information right now is kind of scary,” Crouch said. “I don’t have all the answers for sure, but I’m trying to put the information out there for the people who are willing to listen.” 

Crouch typifies another emerging trend among younger generations. Today, young people are becoming increasingly more informed and active with social and political issues. In response to Florida’s 2018 Parkland shooting, students across North America walked out of their classrooms in the “March for Our Lives” movement. Then in 2019, waves of students around the world set aside Fridays for the future, walking out again to protest climate policy. 

Now, in 2020, thousands of teens and twenty-somethings have taken to the streets, marching on the frontlines of the Black Lives Matter movement. Once again, Charlotte’s 15-year-old climate warrior, Mary Ellis Stevens, has found herself at the centre of the controversy. After participating in a massive demonstration on May 29, she took to Twitter, publicly refuting the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department’s claim that no chemical agents were used during the protest. 
“I saw it,” Stevens wrote. “The media might not hold you accountable, but I will. Do not lie.”

We don’t necessarily have to share their wide-eyed enthusiasm to appreciate the fact that young people standing up and taking responsibility for the world they stand to inherit is a good thing. Perhaps we have never seen eye-to-eye across generations – older adults accusing the young of unrealistic idealism, while young people resent their elders’ resistance to change. Categorically dismissing people without even considering their ideas, however, isn’t helpful to anyone. Instead of discrediting others based solely on age, we should all be seeking to understand where they are coming from. 

Despite his youth, Carlos Foster seems to have stumbled upon a balanced approach to this problem. 

“I think a lot of young people want to succeed,” he said. “But we need older, more experienced people to mentor and mold us, instead of just dismissing us.”

The truth is that those of us who are older probably need young people like Carlos just as much as he needs us.


  • Jason is an ordained Baptist minister who writes at the intersection of faith and politics. He lives in Western North Carolina with his wife and two teenage daughters.

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