‘Lonely’ Gen Z not turning to religious leaders

By Around the Web

[Editor’s note: This story originally was published by Real Clear Religion.]

By Kevin Singer
Real Clear Religion

Self-absorbed and materialistic; naive and cowardly; idealistic, oversensitive, and fragile; apathetic and uninformed; narcissistic; the “snowflake generation.”

These are just some of the stereotypes young people have reported hearing for Generation Z, or those roughly born between 1995 and 2010.

Yet, as misunderstood as they might be, there is plenty of investment being made into trying to understand them.

“These tweens and teens of today are primed to become the dominant youth influencers of tomorrow,” writes Alex Williams of the New York Times. “Flush with billions in spending power, they promise untold riches to marketers who can find the master key to their psyche.”

Scholars like Jonathan Haidt of New York University have built their careers analyzing what makes Gen Z unique. In the New York Times best seller “The Coddling of the American Mind,” Haidt argues that Gen Z is being denied important opportunities to be challenged in their perspectives at America’s colleges and universities, which are essentially grooming them to be spineless and self-entitled.

One research group based out of Bloomington, Minnesota, believes the only way we can truly understand Gen Z is by listening to them. Springtide Research Institute, led by Dr. Josh Packard, is surveying and interviewing young people by the tens of thousands on topics like relationships, religion, and politics, and their experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic. Their most recent study, “The State of Religion and Young People 2020,” drew over 10,000 survey respondents and 150 interviewees between the ages of 13-25, making it the largest study of the faith lives of Gen Z in the United States.

Never been so lonely

At the onset of the report, Springtide confirms that Gen Z is experiencing record levels of loneliness – the “loneliest generation,” as others have called it. Nearly 40% told Springtide they feel, at least sometimes, they have no one to talk to and that no one really knows them well. The study’s major finding, however, is that the loneliness and purposelessness young people experience can be mitigated greatly by relationships with trusted adult mentors.

Of those who said they have no adult mentors, 24% feel their life never has meaning or purpose. However, for those with even just one adult mentor, this number dropped to 6%. The same correlation held true for loneliness: 58% of those with no adult mentors reported having no one to talk to at least sometimes, but this number dropped as respondents reported one mentor (48%), two to four mentors (37%) and five or more mentors (24%) in their lives. “The correlation is undeniable,” the report asserts. The best kind of mentor relationships, Springtide discovered, are those that model “relational authority,” combining the sharing of wisdom and expertise with the practices of listening, integrity, transparency, and care.

Springtide then asked respondents to identify the adults they could turn to if needed. Three-quarters (74%) said they could turn to their parents, while 45% said a close friend, 33% said a sibling, and 31% said another family member or grandparent respectively. Notably, significantly fewer said they could turn to an institutional representative like a teacher (17%) or religious leader (8%) in their time of need.

Differently religious

This isn’t necessarily a surprise. Numerous studies have found Gen Z to harbor exceptionally distrustful attitudes toward major institutions in the United States like the government, the media, and the education system. However, fewer studies have looked more deeply at Gen Z’s distrustful relationship with religious institutions, which received special focus in Springtide’s study.

Gen Z has been called the “least religious generation,” though some studies have suggested that the rising tide of religious “nones” is leveling off with Gen Z – to the delight of religious leaders. Others aren’t so sure; Elizabeth Drescher, religion scholar and author of the book “Choosing Our Religion: The Spiritual Lives of America’s Nones”, concluded that young people aren’t becoming “more or less religious,” but rather, “differently religious.” In other words, they are carving a new path that places a high premium on ethical, authentic spirituality while holding religious institutions with an open hand.

Springtide confirms that while young people are religiously unaffiliated in record numbers – with 40% indicating they are agnostic, atheist, or nothing in particular – terms like “affiliated” and “unaffiliated” cannot fully capture the complexity of religious belief and practice for young people today. For example, a whopping 63% of those claiming affiliation with a religious tradition also reported little to no trust in the very religious institutions with which they identify (rating trust at 5 or below on a scale of 1-10: no trust to complete trust).

Furthermore, 60% of the unaffiliated – including 42% of atheists – said they are at least slightly spiritual. Interviewees shed additional light on this finding. “I do not attend any church, but I still consider myself someone of faith who has spiritual affiliation,” Chris, 19, told Springtide. This sentiment was echoed by Monica, 23: “I guess if you have to put a label on it, I’m Christian, but with everything in today’s world … I don’t know. I just think I’m spiritual, maybe?”

Keeping the faith

Though many in Gen Z are not engaging religious institutions and leaders, they have found ways to maintain and even grow in their faith during the COVID-19 pandemic. In the early months of social distancing and shutdowns, nearly half (47%) said they experienced no change in their faith, while a much higher percentage reported their faith becoming stronger (35%) than those reporting greater doubt in their faith (11%) or losing their faith altogether (7%).

Perhaps spirituality served as a comfort as the loneliest generation became even lonelier, with 60% reporting they felt very isolated as social distancing and shutdowns began.

During this complex and unprecedented season, it seems that what Gen Z needs is not another disempowering stereotype, but genuine care from transparent, trustworthy adults who are willing to listen. With the presence of each trusted adult – whether it be a parent, teacher, or religious leader – the feelings of purposelessness and loneliness that have defined Gen Z become less prevalent.


Kevin Singer (@kevinsinger0) is a PhD student at North Carolina State University studying higher education, a professor of religious studies at two community colleges, and Media Relations Specialist for Springtide Research Institute.

[Editor’s note: This story originally was published by Real Clear Religion.]


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