Together, the most important words of 2019 – those designated by leading dictionaries as their “words of the year” – tell a story. On Tuesday, Merriam-Webster selected the nonbinary pronoun “they,” which was only added to their dictionary in September, citing a 313% boost in lookups. Dictionary.com went with “existential,” inspired by climate change, gun violence and former Vice President Joe Biden’s remarks about President Donald Trump constituting “an existential threat to America.” Meanwhile, Oxford chose a phrase as its word of the year: “climate emergency,” which was “100 times as common” this year as it was in 2018.
What do these words tell us? That it’s Generation Z’s world now – and if it’s not already, then it should be soon. Generation Z, which the Pew Research Center defines as those who are currently ages 14 to 22, are inheriting a world nearing its “point of no return” from generations who failed to address sweeping – even “existential” – problems like climate change and gun violence. They are also, unsurprisingly, progressive on these and other issues. According to a recent Pew study, 70% of Generation Z want to see the government “do more to solve problems.” A majority – 54% – believe that human activity is causing climate change, as compared to a minority – 45% – of Baby Boomers. Generation Z also largely believes that diversity is “a good thing for our society” and almost a third of them personally know someone who uses gender-neutral pronouns.
For many in Generation Z, it seems, the debates that have divided previous generations look a lot more like closed questions: Climate change is real. Gun protections are necessary. LGBTQ equality? That’s a no-brainer. It’s no coincidence that 16-year-old Swedish climate crisis activist Greta Thunberg was selected this week as Time’s person of the year – or that she clashed with the 73-year-old President of the United States, who cruelly mocked her on Twitter (though she made it clear she can take care of herself and even has Michelle Obama backing her up). Could there be a starker demonstration of where our world stands right now than a teenager who is advocating for the survival of our species having to fend off criticism from a world leader who once called climate change a “hoax” and who is now withdrawing from the Paris Agreement? Generation Z wants to save the planet. If only we’d let them.
Each of 2019’s words of the year can be understood through that lens: According to Dictionary.com, “existential” describes “a sense of grappling with the survival – literally and figuratively – of our planet, our loved ones, our ways of life.” Generation Z has been grappling with its own survival from a very young age, running “active shooter” drills in their classrooms and hallways. They have been dubbed “generation lockdown.” A report from the American Psychological Association has even identified gun violence as a major problem for Gen Z, with 75% saying that mass shootings are “a significant source of stress.” No one with a heart could blame them: Since 2009, as CNN has reported, there have been over 177 shootings in American schools. Meanwhile, Congress continues to be gridlocked on gun legislation.
Oxford picked “climate emergency,” noting that this year it had become “the most written about (kind of) emergency by a huge margin.” That’s in large part thanks to the way in which a clear-eyed Thunberg was able to cut through the noise and put a voice to a truly existential problem. It’s no coincidence that the most influential climate crisis activist to date hasn’t even turned 18 yet: Thunberg grew up fully aware of the pending emergency, frustrated with the inaction of her elders, who have been caught up in petty tribalism. This September, when she told the UN Climate Summit that if world leaders fail to act, “We will never forgive you,” she wasn’t just speaking for herself but for “all future generations,” as she noted.The same sentiment was expressed more succinctly – and more sarcastically – last month in “OK, boomer,” New Zealand MP Chlöe Swarbrick’s unforgettable retort to someone who heckled her during a speech on climate change. (Swarbrick, 25, is barely older than Generation Z – but the point still stands.)
And while a singular gender-neutral pronoun like “they” might appear at first blush to be pulled from a different cultural thread than either “existential” or “climate emergency,” the words have more in common than one might think. Even as Generation Z has drawn awareness to pressing problems like gun violence or the climate crisis, they’ve been stereotyped by some as being “too liberal” or “too woke” – too concerned with issues that really don’t matter. (Transgender issues are often cited as proof that they’re caught up with silly or inconsequential things.) But anyone who thinks that is failing to see the writing on the wall: For Generation Z, issues like LGBTQ equality aren’t boutique or specialty concerns; they’re part and parcel of who they are.
Millennials already identify as LGBTQ at the highest rate in history, and all signs so far indicate Gen Z will match or exceed that rate: One study from a UK market research company even suggested that only two-thirds of Gen Z identify as “exclusively heterosexual” – although we’ll have to wait for much larger data sets to know for sure. (We do know from Pew data that only 23% of Gen Z believe that society is “too accepting” of non-binary people, down 41% from Silent Generation respondents. Those “too woke” arguments have an expiration date.)
Besides, it’s not like older generations have been more vocal than Gen Z on ostensibly serious political issues like climate change or gun violence. Apparently young people can walk and chew gum at the same time. They can support LGBTQ equality and try to stay alive. Gen Z knows what’s real – the threat of a warming planet, the lack of strong gun protections at a federal level – and what’s not: the socially-arbitrary gender roles that many of them are refusing to accept.
The words and phrases that grabbed our attention this year came out of the cultural collision between a younger generation that is calling things what they are – and older generations who are Googling to try to keep up. For Generation Z, “change” is too neutral a term to describe what’s happening to our climate: It’s an “emergency.” For them, the idea of getting shot in school isn’t the subject of a political debate; it’s an “existential” threat that they feel every day. For non-binary Gen Zers, “they” is about personal recognition but it’s also a powerful statement: They refuse to accept the staid notions of gender that older generations are trying to pass down.
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Generation Z isn’t just changing the way we talk about the world; they’re changing the world, period. This year’s words are proof.