Young people are extremely passionate about issues facing the United States, and they have become the face of movements aiming to create real change. As of 2020, young people between the ages of 18 and 24, also known as Generation Z, comprise around 20 percent of the U.S. adult population. The issues that they care deeply about are some of the most pressing problems facing society, including climate change, the gun violence epidemic, racial injustice, and the student debt crisis. They are digital natives who grew up under the first Black president of the United States, witnessed marriage equality become the law of the land, and were galvanized by the atrocities committed by the Trump administration. Generation Z is now entering adulthood and the job market against the backdrop of the Great Recession and COVID-19 pandemic, which has left many disillusioned with capitalism and frustrated by burgeoning economic inequality.
Young Americans are more racially and ethnically diverse than previous generations, and they are also more likely to be openly LGBTQI+. For these individuals, concerns over crises such as shrinking housing availability and climate change are compounded by ongoing and significant rates of discrimination against LGBTQI+ individuals. The LGBTQI+ youth of today face heightened rates of bullying in educational spaces, rejection from family members, and homelessness, among other concerns. Although the internet has created new opportunities for positive connection and affirmation, online harassment has also fueled mental health problems. Data from a nationally representative 2020 survey by the Center for American Progress and NORC at the University of Chicago* reveal that LGBTQI+ youth face high levels of discrimination in school, work, and housing, which leads to large-scale financial struggles and poor mental health. Overall, 57 percent of Generation Z** respondents reported experiencing some form of discrimination in the year prior to the survey, compared with 42 percent of Millennials, 30 percent of Gen X respondents, and 19 percent of Baby Boomers.
Mental health disparities
Compared with older generations, LGBTQI+ Gen Z individuals experience much higher rates of mental health issues, including symptoms of depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation. These general feelings of hopelessness, nervousness, or unwillingness to live stem from an array of factors, including financial and housing instability, lack of access to mental health services, employment uncertainties, and unaccepting families, all of which were exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Data from CAP’s 2020 survey capture some of these disparities:
- 82 percent of Gen Z respondents reported feeling so sad that nothing could cheer them up to some degree in January 2020, compared with 64 percent of Millennials, 46 percent of Gen X, and 30 percent of Baby Boomers.
- 95 percent of Gen Z respondents reported that poor mental health interfered with their daily life or activities to some degree in January 2020, compared with 88 percent of Millennials, 76 percent of Gen X, and 75 percent of Baby Boomers.
- 86 percent of Gen Z respondents reported that their psychological well-being was negatively affected to some degree by discrimination in the year prior to the survey.
- 67 percent of Gen Z respondents reported that their physical well-being was negatively affected to some degree by discrimination in the year prior to the survey.
The majority of Gen Z individuals are college age or younger, meaning that much of the discrimination faced by LGBTQI+ youth takes place in school environments. Compared with their cisgender heterosexual counterparts, LGBTQI+ students—particularly transgender students—face disproportionate rates of bullying. The frequency of harassment and discrimination in schools has led to significant mental health concerns, including suicidal thoughts or attempts, among this population. Additionally, such victimization also results in LGBTQI+ students being more likely to struggle academically and less likely to pursue postsecondary education. Patterns of discrimination can also be found in higher education. For example, religious exemption allows colleges to discriminate against LBGTQI+ students on the basis of their beliefs, despite Title IX anti-discrimination protections. CAP’s survey data outline these patterns of discrimination:
- 46 percent of Gen Z respondents who reported experiencing discrimination in the year prior to the survey suffered bullying, harassment, or discrimination in school.
- 80 percent of Gen Z respondents who reported discrimination in the year prior to the survey said that it has negatively affected their school environment to some degree.
- 35 percent of Gen Z respondents reported making specific decisions about where to go to school to avoid experiencing discrimination.
While 45 million Americans are currently saddled with student loan debt, it is more concentrated among young adults—and Black, Brown, and low-income people are disproportionately affected. Gen Z is on track to become the most educated generation in history, but it is also seeing the largest increases in student loan debt year after year. In 2020, young people’s average debt increased by 39 percent, which was a greater increase than for any other generation. Significant student debt affects many big life decisions, preventing young people from buying homes, moving to new places, getting married, starting families, reaching financial stability, and more. Young Americans, who have borne the brunt of multiple economic recessions in the past decade, also have a high reliance on minimum wage jobs and have long struggled to find success in an increasingly polarized economy. Meanwhile, LGBTQI+ Americans face unique economic struggles due to hiring discrimination, lack of access to generational wealth, and overrepresentation in service industry jobs, leading this population to face poverty at higher rates than their cisgender heterosexual counterparts.
- 28 percent of Gen Z respondents reported receiving some assistance from unemployment in the year prior to the survey, compared with 23 percent of Millennials, 23 percent of Gen X, and 12 percent of Baby Boomers.
- 63 percent of Gen Z respondents who reported discrimination in the year prior to the survey said that it negatively affected their ability to be hired to some degree, compared with 57 percent of Millennials, 60 percent of Gen X, and 43 percent of Baby Boomers.
- 47 percent of Gen Z respondents who reported discrimination in the year prior to the survey said that it has negatively affected their financial well-being to some degree.
Because most young Americans still live with a parent or guardian, particularly in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, they face unique pressures in maintaining positive relationships with biological or legal family members. These concerns compound for LGBTQI+ individuals, who often experience rejection from family because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. Staggeringly, LGBTQ youth and young adults are 120 percent more likely to experience homelessness than their straight and cisgender peers, in part because of high rates of family rejection.
Additionally, LGBTQI+ youth living on their own face the strains of an unstable housing market, low wages, and historically little access to wealth, contributing to low rates of homeownership. These factors, combined with widespread housing discrimination against LGBTQI+ Americans writ large, all contribute to the high rates of housing insecurity among LGBTQI+ individuals.
- 34 percent of Gen Z respondents reported that their ability to rent or buy a home was moderately or significantly affected by discrimination, compared with 29 percent of Millennials, 28 percent of Gen X, and 10 percent of Baby Boomers.
- 23 percent of Gen Z respondents who reported experiencing discrimination in the year prior to the survey said they experienced it in an apartment community, compared with 22 percent of Millennials, 16 percent of Gen X, and 10 percent of Baby Boomers.
- 27 percent of Gen Z respondents report having moved away from a rural area to avoid experiencing discrimination, compared with 24 percent of Millennials, 21 percent of Gen X, and 17 percent of Baby Boomers.
One result of the high levels of discrimination faced by Gen Z LGBTQI+ individuals is that this generation is more likely to go out of its way to avoid further discriminatory experiences. Although U.S. support for LGBTQI+ rights has increased, a significant portion of these individuals remain in the closet out of fear of experiencing discrimination or retaliation. Gen Z individuals are also the most likely to identify as transgender and nonbinary—groups that face disproportionately high levels of discrimination in housing and health care and in public spaces.
- 45 percent of Gen Z respondents reported avoiding law enforcement in order to avoid experiencing discrimination, compared with 36 percent of Millennials, 24 percent of Gen X, and 16 percent of Baby Boomers.
- 42 percent of Gen Z respondents reported avoiding public places such as stores or restaurants in order to avoid experiencing discrimination, compared with 37 percent of Millennials, 31 percent of Gen X, and 23 percent of Baby Boomers.
- 35 percent of Gen Z respondents reported avoiding doctor’s offices in order to avoid experiencing discrimination, compared with 23 percent of Millennials, 14 percent of Gen X, and 9 percent of Baby Boomers.
LGBTQI+ individuals who are part of Generation Z reported some of the highest levels of discrimination across CAP’s 2020 survey. These concerns were most prominent in housing, education, and economic advancement and had a marked impact on respondents’ mental health and behavior. As more and more young LGBTQI+ individuals feel safe living as their authentic selves, it is all the more imperative that lawmakers address the myriad disparities LGBTQI+ youth face and ensure they are protected from discrimination under federal law.
*Data throughout this column are from a nationally representative survey of 1,528 LGBTQI+-identifying individuals, jointly conducted in June 2020 by the Center for American Progress and NORC at the University of Chicago, which has been weighted to account for both U.S. population characteristics and survey nonresponse. Unless otherwise indicated, all comparisons between white respondents and respondents of color are significant at the 0.05 level.
**Generation Z respondents include all those from ages 18 to 22. Millennials include respondents ages 23 to 38; Generation X includes respondents ages 39 to 54; and Baby Boomers include respondents ages 55 and older.