She was just a girl standing in front of the leaders of the world, asking them to stop burning fossil fuels at an alarming rate and making our planet hotter and hotter.
When 16-year-old Greta Thunberg addressed the 2019 U.N. climate action summit on Monday, the way she excoriated world leaders for their inaction on climate change was striking. "You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words," she said. "We are in the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth. How dare you!"
Her speech was an unusual public display of raw emotion and candour, even for a teenager. It was distinctly Greta, however. Both she and commentators have drawn parallels between her Asperger’s syndrome and the passion she brings to her activism. She says Asperger’s, which she has called her “superpower,” has made her able to focus on a single subject and see the facts clearer, ignoring social cues to be “polite” and downplay the reality of the situation.
But the speech was also emblematic of the way her generation is responding to the burning world. Greta’s very Generation Z approach is a product of the mix of intense anxiety and impulse to act — out of dire need, not idealism — that has energised other activists of her generation; teens like Emma González, who made the “we call BS” speech shortly after her classmates were massacred at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL, in February 2018.
These young women’s resistance to societal pressures to calm down about the fact that so much is so wrong with the world — pressures which disproportionately affect girls, who are often taught to be well-behaved and polite in public — is part of what’s made them both so inspiring to many. You can see it in the huge numbers of young people who heard their calls, marching for gun reform in the wake of the Florida tragedy and then at the Global Climate Strike last Friday, protesting the response to the looming environmental crisis.
It’s also what’s made them “voices of their generation,” so to speak. Except in Gen Z’s case, it’s not so much a singular voice that has emerged. Quite consciously, neither Greta nor Emma seek attention for themselves as individuals. What animates them is an overwhelming sense of having been abandoned by the adults and needing to take matters into their own hands. Whether it’s gun reform or climate change, Gen Z is calling the offenders exactly what they are and not mincing words: greedy, corporate-backed officials who are trading the world for their own benefit.
These realities, according to psychologists, have also made Gen Z overwhelmingly stressed and anxious. "In the past year, 91% of Gen Z experienced one or more emotional or physiological stress-related symptom," B. Janet Hibbs, PhD, a psychology professor and co-author of The Stressed Years of Their Lives, tells Refinery29, citing an October 2018 report from the American Psychological Association. "Top among their list of concerns is climate change. This generational distress, exemplified in Greta Thunberg's passionate appeal to world leaders at this week's U.N. session, is hostage to the reality that they are inheriting the brave and frightening new world that the older generations seem numb to."
Not only are symptoms of anxiety and depression up among Gen Z, but they’re also more likely to be distrustful of the government and corporations, according to 2016 research by Noreena Hertz for The Guardian. They believe the system is rigged against the marginalised.
At the same time, 92% of this generation believes that helping others in need is important, and 70% say inequality worries them greatly. So they may be anxious and distrustful — but they’re young enough to pick up and actually do something about it. Another study, by Sparks & Honey, a cultural consultancy, found that 60% of Gen Z members say they want to change the world, compared to 39% of millennials. Commentators note that it’s more of a pragmatism than an idealism that inspires Gen Z to do so.
“The most common name this group is given is Gen Z; I call them Generation K, after Katniss Everdeen, the determined heroine of The Hunger Games,” Hertz wrote in The Guardian. “Like Katniss, they feel the world they inhabit is one of perpetual struggle — dystopian, unequal, and harsh.”
That’s the kind of energy Greta brings with her when she addresses a crowd (complete with long braid): urgent, pragmatic, humourless. It’s both terrifying and refreshing.
All of this has made more than a few adults uncomfortable. You see it in the way that some commentators, especially on Fox News, dismiss Greta as being fed talking points by her parents or derisively call her "mentally ill." They tell her to “go back to school,” not understanding that she very much wishes she could. Even the embattled president added a tweet to the mix: “She seems like a very happy young girl looking forward to a bright and wonderful future. So nice to see!” (Greta immediately trolled him back by making his statement her Twitter bio, showing that you simply cannot mess with teenagers online.)
Unwittingly and indirectly, Trump helped Greta make a point about Gen Z: That the days of “happy young girls looking forward to a bright and wonderful future” may be over because scientists are warning us — and have been for a long time — that we’re in for a climate catastrophe unless we work as a planet to drastically reverse course. While he’s trying to distract us from this fact, Greta is here to remind us whose tiny hands the future is really in.