Gen X vs. Gen Z

Are there actual differences between our generation and our parents’ generation?

Sophie Terian and Carissa Sponagel, Editor-in-Chief and Writer

Twenty years ago, a boy sits in the back of American Government with a worksheet on his desk, stealthily reaching for a small package tucked away in the front pocket of his backpack. While keeping his gaze towards the front of the room, he opens the package, pulls out a smaller shiny object and beings to unwrap. As the teacher droles on about the legislative branch, he quickly shoves the contents into his mouth. But approximately two seconds later, he is reprimanded for chewing gum during class.

Today’s classroom scene features digital assignments on laptops, many students sporting ripped jeans and lots of gum chewing. But when students pull out a phone at the wrong moment with the wrong teacher, their reprimanding closely parallels that of the first student.

Though differences clearly exist between the lives of teens today and teens 20 years ago, whether differences in personality trends and societal opinions exist is less clear.

History teacher Gordon Wetmore’s 38-year career grants him the ability to recall both Gen X and Gen Z during their high school days.

“I’m not sure if overall there’s a lot of difference in kids,” Wetmore said. “They want to learn, they want to be prepared. But what are they coming to school from? And I don’t really want to classify or make any assumptions, but no, I’m not sure if there’s that much difference.”

“I think pretty much forever, kids have dreaded school. So I don’t think that much has changed,” sophomore Garrett McLaughlin said.

Garrett’s Gen X mother, Jessica McLaughlin, agreed.

“Attitude towards school has always been negative, but what’s different now is the mass shootings, social media, and you may have external pressures to do a lot of extracurricular activities as well as keeping up grades,” Jessica said.

We define generations as groups of people born around the same time, with exact years set by sociologists who carefully analyze culture and history. The proposed differences among each generation are said to be legitimate on the basis that common events occuring at common ages will affect children in common ways, thus affecting their personality and behaviors similarly.

Today’s teenagers are known as Gen Z, and have been labeled as accepting, health-conscious, and entrepreneurial. Gen X, encompassing most parents of Gen Z, is often labeled challenging, self-reliant and cynical.  

“I think we are more open-minded,” senior Kenzie Carpenter said. “A lot of us want to change and to throw out the old ways.”

But in terms of studentship, the most major difference Wetmore notices between Gen Z and Gen X is clothing.

“I think the thing that sometimes [changes] is clothing. How it has changed so much— [now] it’s informal. As silly as it is, it’s that we’ve got holes in the jeans. Some of the informality almost, on a profile, goes, ‘well I don’t care as much’ and I don’t think that’s necessarily true,” Wetmore said. “That kind of goes in cycles. I kid kids all the time because I just think, another 15 years probably, if you have holes in your pants, they’ll go, ‘is everything okay?’ So I think some of it is the looks.”

Both McLaughlins and both Holmes’s believed the introduction of technology creates the most significant rift between Gen Z and Gen X.

“[Technology] is a like a new appendage for [Generation Z], where you always feel the need to check it every few minutes,” Jessica said.

Some notice differences concerning college, grades and extracurriculars.

“It seems like this [Gen Z] generation has a lot to deal with,” Jessica said. “I don’t know if it’s changed from former generations, but from where I went to school, there weren’t as many extracurricular activities available as there are in the Shawnee Mission School District.”

“I’m not really sure how my parents viewed that, I know [my grandparents] encouraged me to be very active and enjoy them, but I’m pretty sure [extracurriculars are] something that’s been fairly consistent as well,” Garrett said.

Throughout different generations there have been varying events that have contributed to spikes in the political involvement of teenagers. Take, for example, the Vietnam War. The United States population was split due to different opinions arising from our involvement in the war, leading to protests in which many teens participated in.

For Gen Z, the topic of political involvement has centered around gun control issues.

“I think a lot of people have been pulled into politics as of recent events.  With the current administration, with school shootings— teenagers can have a strong voice when it comes to these things,” Jessica said.

Parental addressment of and engagement in sexual activity and drug use could change from generation to generation, but the extent of its change is debatable.

Some think there has been no significant change.

“I’ve never really liked how Americans approach the topic of sex. It’s either the parents avoid the topic with their kids, and they’re taught to just never [have sex]. And [the kids] get information from their peers instead of having open conversations and teaching teenagers to respect themselves and respect sex,” Jessica said.

“I feel like this Generation [Z] looks for a way to escape, like prior generations. Some kids turn to alcohol and drugs. If parents aren’t involved, and recognize their struggles, they’ll be more apt to turn to [drugs] as a solution,” Jessica said.

Some use their less than ideal teenage experiences to influence their own parenting.  

“I didn’t get a lot of information from [my parents] at all whatsoever about any of that stuff. ‘Don’t do [drugs and alcohol]— you’ll be grounded,” Kenzie’s Gen X mother, Tracy Carpenter, said.

But Tracy feels there has been generational improvement in this area.

“The parents of Gen Z kids are much more open and close about controversial topics such as these,” Tracy said. “The closeness wasn’t the same.”

Regardless of the exact ways and degrees Gen X and Gen Z may differ, learning from these differences and how to deal with them can reap important benefits.

“[Generational differences] are definitely real, but they’ve always been real,” Jennifer said. “It’s not anything different. Whether your generation is a teenager to a 30 year old or a 30 year old to a 60 year old, you’ll walk a different walk and talk a different talk. You’re in a different time of your life, so there’s always going to be that gap.”

“I don’t think the differences are as big as we think. I try to teach history and even when we look at something 400 years ago— they didn’t have the computer, they didn’t have the TV-— but people are people,” Wetmore said. “They want to belong. Many want to be part of a family, part of a group.”

“A teenager’s wants and needs are going to be different from a parent’s wants and needs, or a grandparent’s wants and needs. So there’s always going to be that gap,” Jennifer said. “The trick in society is to try to bridge it.”

“I think regardless of how we use certain subjects, we’re all human,” Jessica said. “As long as we treat each other as such, it should be okay.”