Gen Z’s lost teenage years

Student wearing “I voted” sticker. Photo by Adam Fleischer.

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In November, I turned 20. I wanted to make an Instagram post about the excitement of entering a new decade, a farewell to my chaotic teenage years. But as I searched my mind for memories that embodied the teenage experience, I realized that the past seven years were messed up in a way I couldn’t even begin to explain. 

As a kid, I had a romanticized view of the teenage experience. Media like “Sabrina the Teenage Witch,” “Glee” and “The Princess Diaries” convinced me that being a teenager was awkward and dramatic, but also the exciting bridge between childhood and adulthood. Teenagers on TV existed in this weird purgatory outside of the real world, too caught up in their high school drama to notice the world falling apart outside. 

In reality, most of Gen Z’s teens have been far busier dealing with the world falling apart than high school drama. 

When Donald Trump became president a few days before my 14th birthday, I quickly realized that the entire world ran on a hierarchy far more horrifying than North Shore High School, and that I was near the bottom of it. I had always been aware that women and people of color weren’t respected as much as their white and male peers, but I had never realized how many Americans would actively discriminate against me until I saw them choose a violently racist and misogynistic man to lead our country. 

At first, I naively thought that Trump was merely a single “bad apple” in a predominantly just government. But as I started researching history, I began to understand that we live within centuries-old systems that uphold racism, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia and colonialism as our status quo. These realizations shaped my worldview and motivated me to get more involved in social justice movements, but they also left my head spinning. How could we ever achieve equity in a country built upon systemic oppression? 

Six years have passed now. I don’t regret educating myself about the forces and ideologies that direct our world. But I am also angry and exhausted, because I have spent my childhood fighting for my right to exist with dignity and I fear I may never see true equity in my lifetime. 

It’s a depressing thought – and one that many of my Gen Z friends share. For years, we’ve been checking the news every day to see the latest discriminatory bill or hate crime against our communities. We’ve encountered so many of these incidents that we know which friends need to vent about them and which friends need to log off social media for the weekend. Driver’s licenses and pierced ears seem trivial compared to the mass shootings and police brutality we see almost every day. For us, being carefree teenagers was never an option. When we said we wanted our lives to feel like a teen movie, we meant “High School Musical,” not “The Hunger Games.” 

While issues like the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change have affected Gen Z as a whole, the social reckoning has been particularly hard on people from marginalized communities. As a queer woman of color, I cannot abandon the fight for equity even if I wanted to; my existence is constantly up for debate. As a queer, biracial cis woman, I watched six people seize one of my fundamental rights and threaten two more. When the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, they exposed a vulnerability in the Fourteenth Amendment that threatened to annul my parents’ 25-year interracial marriage and forbid me from marrying at all. Every day, I wake up and wonder if my government has invented a new piece of legislation to strip me of my rights. 

Even the smallest milestones of adolescence have been tainted by oppression. As a lesbian, the simple act of having a first crush is something inherently controversial. Acknowledging that I like women, blushing at the sight of a beautiful girl, smiling at her from across the cafeteria — they are all acts of defiance against a global system of homophobia. Even today, I find dating daunting because queer relationships are framed as something revolutionary. I don’t mind fighting for equal rights, but I don’t want a casual date to feel like a rebellion simply because my date is a woman. 

I also want to acknowledge my privilege in this situation. While intersectionality impacts my everyday life, many groups — like trans people, sexual violence survivors and women in countries with even more extreme systems of patriarchy — occupy an even more precarious position in society. We cannot give our children a better world unless we believe in improving the world for everyone. 

Over the past few years, the media has propped up a new type of role model for girls: the heroine who must solve the world’s problems. While seeing brave young women in the media is often empowering, I can’t help but notice how being a strong woman is rarely something we choose to do — we are strong because we cannot survive if we are weak. We are training a generation of women to carry the world on their shoulders because we know they cannot afford to be passive. 

In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby,” Daisy Buchanan says that the best thing a girl can be is “a beautiful little fool.” When I first read this line in seventh grade, I thought it was a horribly misogynistic insult towards women’s intelligence. But now, I feel this line so deeply. We shouldn’t have to walk home gripping pepper spray in white-knuckled hands. We shouldn’t have to drive for days through snowstorms because five old men and a traitorous woman decided that we are not the masters of our own wombs. We shouldn’t have to fight every day for our right to exist. We shouldn’t be degraded for enjoying “Gossip Girl” and Olivia Rodrigo music. We deserve to be silly and playful and happy. 

I will continue fighting for equity because I want to create a world where future generations of teenagers are free to be teenagers.