Social Issues That Matter to Generation Z

Updated March 31, 2024 | Posted February 14, 2021
By the Annie E. Casey Foundation
Generation Z cares about a number of social issues

With tech­nol­o­gy at their fin­ger­tips — and a reg­u­lar tool in their grow­ing hands — Gen Zers have been able to con­nect to cul­tures around the world and learn about issues and news ear­li­er and more often than any gen­er­a­tion before them. This broad cul­tur­al expo­sure from an ear­ly age like­ly con­tributes to Gen­er­a­tion Z’s ten­den­cy towards open-mind­ed­ness, lib­er­al views and advo­ca­cy for the fair and equal treat­ment of others.

Eight Top Social Issues for Gen Z

Eight issues, in par­tic­u­lar, have com­mand­ed the atten­tion of Gen­er­a­tion Z so far. These are: 1) health care access; 2) men­tal health; 3) high­er edu­ca­tion; 4) eco­nom­ic secu­ri­ty; 5) civic engage­ment; 6) racial equi­ty; 7) the envi­ron­ment; and 8) gun violence.

1. Health Care Access

Health care is a core issue for Gen­er­a­tion Z. Almost nine in 10 Gen Zers ages 18 to 24 view access to health care as a human right, accord­ing to a nation­al poll in 2022. In addi­tion to access, they see afford­abil­i­ty and qual­i­ty as key sys­tem issues to improve. As part of this issue, access to repro­duc­tive health care, specif­i­cal­ly, has emerged as a top pri­or­i­ty for Gen Z young adults.

When it comes to their own health care, near­ly one in five (17%) Gen Zers ages 18 to 24 did not have ­health insur­ance in the fall of 2022, accord­ing to Cen­sus Bureau data. This high unin­sured rate is espe­cial­ly con­cern­ing giv­en that ado­les­cents and young adults gen­er­al­ly have low lev­els of health care access to begin with — and this is a vul­ner­a­ble phase of devel­op­ment in which sig­nif­i­cant phys­i­o­log­i­cal changes are tak­ing place. 

The age span of 14 through 24, which cur­rent­ly rep­re­sents Gen Z (ages 12 to 27 in 2024), marks a for­ma­tive stage in the lifes­pan, when youth must nav­i­gate increas­ing auton­o­my while form­ing their iden­ti­ties and build­ing socioe­mo­tion­al and life skills. This emerg­ing inde­pen­dence is crit­i­cal in the health care con­text, as young peo­ple must learn to tra­verse the health care sys­tem, devel­op health lit­er­a­cy and take charge of their own health needs.

While young adults who have health insur­ance often are cov­ered by their par­ents’ plans, the old­est mem­bers of Gen Z have aged out of their par­ents’ plans and are invest­ing in their own insur­ance for the first time. Many can only afford cov­er­age through the Afford­able Care Act and Med­ic­aid expan­sion.

When it comes to health care, youth today gen­er­al­ly have a holis­tic view – believ­ing providers should screen for social deter­mi­nants of health such as food inse­cu­ri­ty and hous­ing needs – and they val­ue self-care, con­ve­nience and effi­cien­cy. Thanks to evolv­ing tech­nol­o­gy, they are grow­ing up with­in a med­ical sys­tem offer­ing unprece­dent­ed online options for con­nect­ing with physi­cians, health coach­es, ther­a­pists and oth­ers — as well as self-mon­i­­tor­ing dig­i­tal tools — empow­er­ing them to gath­er infor­ma­tion, learn and man­age their health needs.

At the same time, Gen Zers are less like­ly to have pri­ma­ry care providers rel­a­tive to old­er Amer­i­cans, and they fre­quent­ly pre­fer telemed­i­cine to tra­di­tion­al in-per­­son vis­its, espe­cial­ly those with geo­graph­ic or trans­porta­tion bar­ri­ers. How­ev­er, main­tain­ing con­fi­den­tial­i­ty in tele­health appoint­ments is a con­cern for some young peo­ple, espe­cial­ly when they still live at home or lack a pri­vate set­ting. Ado­les­cents and young adults often have unique and sen­si­tive health needs, such as repro­duc­tive or men­tal health issues, that require con­fi­den­tial care.

Gen Z also believes that racial inequities exist in the health care sys­tem, and many report their own expe­ri­ences of dis­crim­i­na­tion in health care set­tings. Med­ical providers can respond by ensur­ing that they pro­vide cul­tur­al­ly respon­sive ser­vices ground­ed in pos­i­tive youth devel­op­ment prin­ci­ples, whether vir­tu­al­ly or in person.

2. Men­tal Health

Men­tal health is a cri­sis in Amer­i­ca, accord­ing to more than eight in 10 Gen Zers. This gen­er­a­tion is far more like­ly to report emo­tion­al health prob­lems than old­er age groups. A 2022 sur­vey of U.S. young adults ages 18 to 29 found that about half report­ed always” or often” feel­ing anx­ious in the past year, com­pared to one-third of adults over­all. In addi­tion, a mul­ti-year Gen Z study found that they were 83% more like­ly to report anx­i­ety issues and 86% more like­ly to report depres­sion com­pared with oth­er gen­er­a­tions. Mem­bers of Gen Z are con­cerned about this cri­sis affect­ing their age group, but they tend to be prag­mat­ic about address­ing it and they are help­ing to des­tig­ma­tize the issue. They are more accept­ing of and open to talk­ing about depres­sion, anx­i­ety and oth­er emo­tion­al chal­lenges than old­er generations. 

While tech­nol­o­gy and social media can fos­ter crit­i­cal social sup­port and con­nec­tions for young peo­ple, they can also aug­ment anx­i­ety, depres­sion, low self-esteem and stress. Con­tribut­ing to this, trag­ic U.S. and world news is now deliv­ered faster than ever — and dif­fi­cult to avoid — via an assort­ment of apps and out­lets. Gen Zers report seri­ous con­cerns about home­less­ness, gun vio­lence, sys­temic dis­crim­i­na­tion, cli­mate change and more. Oth­er major stres­sors for Gen Z in recent years include the COVID-19 pan­dem­ic, high hous­ing costs, and per­son­al finances.

For­tu­nate­ly, today’s young adults are more like­ly to seek treat­ment for their anx­i­ety and depres­sion than old­er age groups. Near­ly one in three (31%) young adults ages 18 to 29 report­ed receiv­ing men­tal health care in the pre­vi­ous year, com­pared to one in four (25%) adults ages 30 to 49 and less than one in five (18%) ages 50 to 64, accord­ing to the 2022 sur­vey not­ed above. Oth­er stud­ies note sim­i­lar trends. At the same time, young peo­ple who need treat­ment do not always get it. In 2022, almost half (47%) of young adults said they did not get men­tal health care when they thought they might need it in the pre­vi­ous year, with cost cit­ed among the top bar­ri­ers. Low­er-income and LGBTQ groups tend to be par­tic­u­lar­ly vul­ner­a­ble, both in terms of access­ing treat­ment and expe­ri­enc­ing poor men­tal health outcomes.

Read more about Gen­er­a­tion Z and Men­tal Health

3. High­er Education

High­er edu­ca­tion is one of the top issues Gen­er­a­tion Z cares about. The vast major­i­ty (83%) of U.S. Gen Zers ages 12 to 26 believe a col­lege edu­ca­tion is very impor­tant” or fair­ly impor­tant,” accord­ing to a 2023 Gallup sur­vey. Con­sis­tent with this, mem­bers of Gen­er­a­tion Z are the least like­ly to drop out of high school and the most like­ly to go to col­lege com­pared to old­er gen­er­a­tions, accord­ing to the Pew Research Cen­ter.

How­ev­er, only about half (53%) of col­lege-bound Gen Zers thought they could afford it, based on the same 2023 sur­vey. While con­cerns about col­lege afford­abil­i­ty were con­sis­tent across all demo­graph­ic groups, Black Gen Zers were the least like­ly to think they could afford it (39%). Researchers note that this could con­tribute to low­er col­lege enroll­ment and com­ple­tion rates among Black students.

As learn­ers, Gen Zers are inter­est­ed in acquir­ing career skills, and they val­ue flex­i­ble and per­son­al­ized teach­ing approach­es. They are inde­pen­dent, cre­ative, hands-on and tech-savvy stu­dents who pre­fer immer­sive, active edu­ca­tion­al expe­ri­ences ver­sus pas­sive­ly sit­ting and lis­ten­ing to lec­tures for hours. Of course, they are a diverse group with dif­fer­ent back­grounds and learn­ing styles, which is part­ly why flex­i­bil­i­ty and mul­ti­ple modes of learn­ing (e.g., visu­al, audi­to­ry, kines­thet­ic, e‑learning, self-dis­cov­ery, etc.) work well for them.

The pan­dem­ic knocked a sig­nif­i­cant share of stu­dents off their aca­d­e­m­ic path. For instance: In Octo­ber 2020, more than 40% of house­holds report­ed that a prospec­tive stu­dent was can­celing plans to attend com­mu­ni­ty col­lege, accord­ing to data from the U.S. Cen­sus Bureau. Since the pan­dem­ic, col­lege enroll­ment rates have con­tin­ued to decline, espe­cial­ly among two-year insti­tu­tions, and grad­u­a­tion rates have stag­nat­ed. Gen Zers are increas­ing­ly tak­ing uncon­ven­tion­al path­ways through high­er edu­ca­tion, such as chang­ing schools, mov­ing across state lines, adjust­ing course loads and/​or paus­ing and restart­ing enroll­ment. It remains to be seen how Gen Z uncer­tain­ty about col­lege afford­abil­i­ty may affect future atten­dance rates.

Rec­og­niz­ing the range of issues fac­ing Gen Z, lead­ers in high­er edu­ca­tion and oth­er sec­tors can pri­or­i­tize a holis­tic approach to stu­dent well-being that address­es their finan­cial, men­tal and phys­i­cal health needs, as well as racial, gen­der and LGBTQ+ equity.

Read more about Gen­er­a­tion Z and Education

4. Eco­nom­ic Security

Eco­nom­ic secu­ri­ty mat­ters to Gen Z. Mul­ti­ple stud­ies have report­ed that per­son­al finances, jobs, debt, the cost of liv­ing and hous­ing inse­cu­ri­ty are major sources of stress for Gen Z. In 2023, almost two-thirds (64%) of Gen Zers ages 12 to 26 said finan­cial resources were a bar­ri­er to their future goals. They want to have sta­ble, well-pay­ing jobs, afford­able hous­ing and to avoid crip­pling col­lege debt. Many also see a role for gov­ern­ment in sup­port­ing the eco­nom­ic secu­ri­ty of Amer­i­cans. More than two-thirds (70%) of Gen Zers think the U.S. gov­ern­ment should pro­vide a uni­ver­sal basic income for all indi­vid­u­als, com­pared to 61% of the over­all pop­u­la­tion, accord­ing to the Cen­ter for Gen­er­a­tional Kinet­ics’ 2023 State of Gen Z report.

Gen Z has been through con­sid­er­able tur­moil, eco­nom­ic and oth­er­wise, in their young lives to date — a glob­al pan­dem­ic and eco­nom­ic down­turn, cli­mate dis­as­ters, numer­ous polit­i­cal and soci­etal crises, his­tor­i­cal­ly fast inter­est rate hikes, high infla­tion and more. But they are resilient and con­tin­ue to adapt. When asked in 2023 about their finan­cial goals, Gen Z over­whelm­ing­ly report­ed that they are cur­rent­ly focused on sav­ing and earn­ing mon­ey, with old­er Gen Zers also focused on pay­ing off debt. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, two in five (41%) mem­bers of Gen Z say they have no mon­ey saved for an emer­gency, accord­ing to the State of Gen Z report.

When it comes to earn­ing mon­ey, Gen Zers are career-focused, com­pet­i­tive and inter­est­ed in forg­ing their own paths. They have an entre­pre­neur­ial mind­set and are open to chal­leng­ing the tra­di­tion­al rat race. Quite a few of these youth believe that col­lege isn’t the only path to reach their goals, with near­ly one in five say­ing col­lege is not that impor­tant, and near­ly half hav­ing an infor­mal or for­mal job on the side (a side hustle”).

When it comes to choos­ing career paths, only 29% of Gen Zers plan to pur­sue an occu­pa­tion relat­ed to sci­ence, tech­nol­o­gy, engi­neer­ing and math (STEM), which are wide­ly con­sid­ered the jobs of the future. STEM sec­tors are already expe­ri­enc­ing labor short­ages, and jobs in these areas are expect­ed to grow sub­stan­tial­ly in the com­ing decades. U.S. lead­ers are grap­pling with how to pre­pare today’s young peo­ple for tomorrow’s work­force needs. 

5. Civic Engagement

Mem­bers of Gen­er­a­tion Z are pas­sion­ate about advo­cat­ing for social change.

They are polit­i­cal­ly engaged and believe that the gov­ern­ment should do more to address­ society’s prob­lems. Recent sur­veys show that the top pri­or­i­ties for Gen Z include: cli­mate change, access to repro­duc­tive health care, cost of liv­ing (and hous­ing), jobs that pay a liv­ing wage, gun vio­lence and racial jus­tice. A 2022 poll also found that about three-quar­ters of Gen Z young adults (includ­ing polit­i­cal­ly con­ser­v­a­tive young peo­ple) sup­port gov­ern­ment poli­cies to reduce the wealth gap between the rich­est and poor­est Americans.

Gen Zers see vot­ing as a respon­si­bil­i­ty and a way to achieve change. Accord­ing­ly, in the Novem­ber 2022 elec­tion, Gen Z vot­ers turned out at a high­er rate than mil­len­ni­als and Gen Xers at the same age. This is part of an ongo­ing trend in which Gen Z’s 2020 pres­i­den­tial elec­tion turnout was almost a 10-point increase from their 2016 rate, and they are cred­it­ed with help­ing to shape the 2020 elec­tion results. Since 2022, Gen Z has added 8.3 mil­lion eli­gi­ble vot­ers, and they are on track to have more than 40 mil­lion total eli­gi­ble vot­ers in 2024.

Gen Zers are also com­fort­able dri­ving change. A 2023 report on Gen Z found that they are 92% more like­ly than pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tions to engage in pub­lic protests. Using plat­forms like Snapchat, Insta­gram, Twit­ter and Tik­Tok, these youth have helped move activism into the dig­i­tal age. And, along the way, they’ve offered the world a mas­ter class in har­ness­ing the pow­er of social media to spot­light a spe­cif­ic cause or an issue that they want to see change. Gen Z is 68% more like­ly to engage in polit­i­cal issues through social media than mil­len­ni­als, Gen Xers or oth­er gen­er­a­tions, accord­ing to the same report.

Some exam­ples to date: Mem­bers of Gen­er­a­tion Z orga­nized march­es nation­wide after a gun­man killed 17 peo­ple at Mar­jo­ry Stone­man Dou­glas High School in Park­land, Flori­da. Swedish teen and envi­ron­men­tal activist Gre­ta Thun­berg lever­aged social media to cap­ti­vate the world and chal­lenge lead­ers to take action against cli­mate change. And 23-year-old Malala Yousafzai, who blogged about her right to edu­ca­tion, kicked off a fem­i­nist move­ment in the Mid­dle East en route to win­ning a Nobel Peace Prize.

Gen Z rec­og­nizes the pow­er of social media to mobi­lize the pub­lic, and near­ly all U.S. mem­bers of Gen Z — 98% — report dai­ly use of at least one major social media plat­form.

6. Racial Equity

Racial equi­ty is a key social issue for Gen­er­a­tion Z.

Gen Zers are more racial­ly and eth­ni­cal­ly diverse than pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tions, with near­ly half of the group’s mem­bers rep­re­sent­ing com­mu­ni­ties of col­or. Fit­ting­ly, this group strong­ly val­ues inclu­sion, cul­tur­al diver­si­ty and racial and eth­nic equal­i­ty.

Today’s young peo­ple are also acute­ly aware of the nation’s steep racial divides.

One recent poll — con­duct­ed by the Asso­ci­a­tion of Amer­i­can Med­ical Col­leges Cen­ter for Health Jus­tice with Gen Zers ages 18 to 24 — found that three in five respon­dents believe racial jus­tice should be a top pri­or­i­ty for the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment. Fur­ther, the poll found that:

  • Two in three Gen Zers think sys­temic racism is a pub­lic health cri­sis and makes it hard­er for peo­ple of col­or to access health care.
  • More than three-quar­ters believe that racial res­i­den­tial seg­re­ga­tion and dis­crim­i­na­tion in hous­ing should be a pri­or­i­ty for the fed­er­al government.
  • Three in five have lit­tle to no con­fi­dence in the U.S. crim­i­nal jus­tice system’s abil­i­ty to treat indi­vid­u­als equal­ly. Trust in the police is par­tic­u­lar­ly low among those who have per­son­al­ly expe­ri­enced discrimination.

Gen Z does not stop at racial equi­ty, though. They val­ue fair­ness and equal­i­ty in all facets of life, and they are pas­sion­ate about LGBTQ+ rights, as well. To date, they are the gen­er­a­tion most like­ly to have mem­bers who iden­ti­fy as non-bina­ry or third gen­der. More than one in five U.S. Gen Z adults iden­ti­fies as LGBTQ+, accord­ing to a 2023 survey.

7. Envi­ron­ment

The wors­en­ing effects of cli­mate change are impact­ing the lives of Gen Z, spurring deep anx­i­ety but also activism.

Gen Zers around the world are expe­ri­enc­ing eco-anx­i­ety.” A recent inter­na­tion­al study of 10,000 young peo­ple ages 16 to 25 in 10 coun­tries found that over 80% were wor­ried about the cli­mate cri­sis, with many report­ing feel­ings of sad­ness, anx­i­ety, anger, pow­er­less­ness, help­less­ness and guilt. In the Unit­ed States, more than 70% of Gen Zers ages 18 to 24 believe cli­mate change is an imme­di­ate and long-term threat to the planet’s safe­ty and that the gov­ern­ment should strength­en poli­cies to reduce CO2 emissions.

Not sur­pris­ing­ly, Gen Zers believe that insti­tu­tions and busi­ness­es have an oblig­a­tion to take a stand on envi­ron­men­tal issues, accord­ing to a 2023 Gen Z study. And these young peo­ple will sup­port those that do. For exam­ple, one in five Gen Zers said that a brand’s posi­tion on issues would affect whether or not they buy from them. Addi­tion­al­ly, near­ly a third said they would buy more sus­tain­able goods if brands had clear­er labels or bet­ter infor­ma­tion on the product’s cli­mate impact. 

Beyond expect­ing com­pa­nies to fall in line, young peo­ple are also com­mit­ted to lead­ing by exam­ple. Sev­er­al recent stud­ies have found that Gen Z is will­ing to pay more for sus­tain­able prod­ucts, with one find­ing that 90% of Gen Zers pur­chased such prod­ucts, while the same was true for 85% of mil­len­ni­als, 84% of Gen Xers and 78% of Baby Boomers.

8. Gun Violence

Gen Z con­sid­ers gun vio­lence a major issue. As a gen­er­a­tion grow­ing up with mass shoot­ings and active shoot­er drills in schools, they are more like­ly than mil­len­ni­als to rank gun vio­lence among their top three pri­or­i­ties, accord­ing to a 2022 nation­al sur­vey by Tufts Uni­ver­si­ty. Anoth­er poll that year found that sev­en in 10 Gen Z young adults see this as a pub­lic health issue.

Trag­i­cal­ly, the data bear out their con­cerns. A 2023 analy­sis by the Johns Hop­kins Cen­ter for Gun Vio­lence Solu­tions found that firearm deaths are at an all-time high: 48,830 Amer­i­cans died as a result of gun vio­lence in 2021 (the most recent data in the report), more than 2020’s record-break­ing num­ber. The rate of gun deaths also increased by 22% between 2019 and 2021. This increase has been fueled by both gun homi­cides and sui­cides. Gen Z’s focus on gun vio­lence, includ­ing sui­cides, close­ly con­nects to their con­cern about the men­tal health crisis.

Guns are also the lead­ing cause of death for chil­dren, youth and young adults, as report­ed in the Johns Hop­kins analy­sis. Black young peo­ple expe­ri­ence gun vio­lence at espe­cial­ly alarm­ing rates. For instance, in 2021, more than half (51%) of all Black Gen Zers ages 15 to 19 who died were killed by firearms. Fur­ther, Black kids and teens were about five times as like­ly as their white peers to die from gun vio­lence that year, accord­ing to the Pew Research Cen­ter. The dis­pro­por­tion­ate impact of firearm vio­lence on peo­ple of col­or inter­sects with Gen Z’s strong focus on racial justice.

Rec­og­niz­ing Gen­er­a­tion Z’s pas­sion and will­ing­ness to engage in social activism, they will no doubt con­tin­ue to make their voic­es heard on this issue.

Learn More About Gen­er­a­tion Z

Under­stand­ing Gen­er­a­tion Z is crit­i­cal for shap­ing the future of the nation in a pos­i­tive way. Explore addi­tion­al Annie E. Casey Foun­da­tion resources to learn more about America’s younger gen­er­a­tions, includ­ing Gen­er­a­tion Z and Gen­er­a­tion Alpha:

KIDS COUNT Data Cen­ter indi­ca­tors on Gen Z and oth­er generations:

Sign up for our newslet­ters to get the lat­est data and oth­er resources.

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