The oldest member of Gen Z is turning 26 years old this year. Which means for this generation, it’s time to grow up: they’ll be required to carry their own health insurance for the first time.
Which begs the question: how healthy is Gen Z? And how do they compare to their elders – millennials?
Gen Z is defined by the Pew Research Center as anyone who was born after 1997, whereas millennials are anyone born between 1981 and 1996. This means members of Gen Z span a wide variety of life situations, from students in middle school to workers getting their first internships and jobs out of college.
For Gen Z’ers, life has always included the internet or a smart phone. They are coming of age in a time where there’s an app for everything – including seeing a doctor or a therapist. Using social media is like breathing air for Gen Z; where millennials are old enough to remember a time when their parents weren’t on Facebook.
From Dr. Google to Dr. TikTok
Dr. Angela Seabright, family medicine physician at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, says she finds often millennials and Gen Z can share some similarities in their approach to health care.
“Millennials and Gen Z have a different outlook with health care: they look more for convenience, using digital technology and apps,” Seabright said. “Older generations may have a long-standing relationship with their doctor. They’ve built trust and loyalty, so they’ll go to them first.”
But the use of social media is truly what sets millennials and Gen Z apart. While younger generations are more likely to seek out their own health care information in general, they are getting it from different sources.
Seabright sees it as the shift from “Dr. Google” with millennials to “Dr. TikTok” with Gen Z.
“Younger generations are going to turn to social media and search a hashtag, like #longcovid,” Seabright said, explaining they are more apt to try out an unproven supplement or home remedy they hear about from a peer versus going to a professional.
Dr. Seabright says she sees younger generations as more comfortable talking about their mental health and seeking help than older generations.
But while Gen Z may be more aware of their mental health, their generation is also facing some of the biggest hurdles.
The COVID pandemic interrupted many critical milestones and traditions for members of Gen Z – as many schools cancelled social events, pushed classes to online learning and delayed graduation ceremonies. Some students started college online, instead of in person. For Gen Z, the future was put on pause – and early research indicates it took a toll on their outlook.
A recent Gallup and Walton Family Foundation report found less than half of Gen Z individuals (47%) consider themselves as “thriving” in their lives – the lowest rates among any generation in the U.S., and a lower rate than millennials at the same age.
Additionally, Gen Z rate their mental health lower than their older peers: 36% of Gen Z consider their mental health “fair” or “poor,” compared to 27% of millennials.
The U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention has been tracking health behaviors of teens and young adults since 1991 in its Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System survey. This report shows significant declines in some of the behaviors experts consider to be risky when comparing millennials to Gen Z.
Overall, risky behaviors adolescents engage in are on the decline: which means members of Gen Z are smoking less, drinking less, having less sex and using cannabis less than millennials did when they were that age.
Here are the direct comparisons of members of Gen Z who were in high school in 2021 to when millennials were in high school in 2001, taken from the CDC’s survey:
Ever had sexual activity:
- Millennials: 45.6%
- Gen Z: 30%
Used cigarettes in the past 30 days:
- Millennials: 28.5%
- Gen Z: 3.8%
Used alcohol in the past 30 days:
- Millennials: 47.1%
- Gen Z: 23%
Used cannabis in the past 30 days:
- Millennials: 23.9%
- Gen Z: 16%
Vaping – which was not an option for millennials during their high school years – is a concern for Gen Z youth. About 18% of high school students said they actively used electronic vapor products in 2021.
There are several indications that millennials are more physically active than members of Gen Z. The latest State of Our Health report from Murphy Research indicated exercise rates among Gen Z dropped from 2019 to 2022 – and in the first three months of 2022, less than half of people ages 18 to 25 exercised at least once a week.
Rates of type 2 diabetes and obesity
Experts with the CDC believe the number of young people under the age of 20 with type 2 diabetes is likely to increase more rapidly in future decades. This forecasted trend is based on how rates of type 2 diabetes have increased among young people in the past 20 years, including both Gen Z and millennials.
This is closely linked to rates of childhood obesity and obesity.
More than half of Gen Z adults – about 56% of Americans ages 18 to 25 – are overweight or obese. Being overweight or obese puts individuals at a higher risk for many chronic conditions, including type 2 diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressures and some cancers.
Some consider millennials to be one of the heaviest generations. In the U.K., researchers found at least seven in 10 people born in the millennial generations will be overweight or obese before they reach middle age. Baby boomers only faced rates of five in 10.
Yet millennials are already seeing the impact of obesity on their health. Research funded by the American Cancer Society found the risk of cancer is increasing for millennials – with some cancers only typically seen in elderly individuals increasing among younger adults.
Experts are closely watching how the all-digital Gen Z copes with the pressures and anxieties of being a young adult after a global pandemic. As they become the next generation of health care consumers, they will drive innovation and change.