All we wanted for Christmas was a nap

By Pearl Benjamin | Jan 10, 2019

“Winter break” is a lie. Us high schoolers might get a “break” from going to our classes, but the promised snow-capped festivities and glistening ski slopes of relaxation are never a reality. For kids my age, winter break is a time to get a temporary job, study for final exams, practice winter sports, and scrape up enough loose change to buy holiday gifts for family members. During this time, we teenagers might get asked the question, “What do you want for Christmas?” I can’t speak for all of us, but for the majority of teenagers I know, the internalized answer to this question was “a REAL break.” Even though Christmas has passed, we all are still longing for a little less stress in our adolescent lives, however impossible that may seem.

Recently I was on a panel for Midcoast Women’s Collective Voices: Gen Z event, where members of the audience (mainly adults) had the opportunity to ask high schoolers about our generation. The point of the panel was to build a bridge of understanding across the generational divide. I think many of us walked into that event thinking that the source of the divide was going to be the difference in technology over the years, but we all soon learned that there’s much more to it than that. The moderator asked the panelists, “Do you think your generation experiences more stress than others?” The answer was a firm and resounding “YES” from one end of the panel to the other.

We went on to explain that attending college is now a more common expectation than it once was, and therefore most of our teenage years are spent preparing for college acceptance. But getting into college is far more complicated now. While wages stagnated over the past 20 years, the average tuition and fees at private universities jumped 168 percent, out-of-state tuition and fees at public universities rose 200 percent, and in-state tuition and fees grew a frightening 243 percent. Because of this massive decrease in affordability, students no longer simply compete for a spot at a good college. Now, many more compete for scholarship support, too.

In order to be a scholarship contender, students need to make themselves stand out. It’s no longer enough to maintain good grades, play on the varsity team, and have high SAT scores. Today, it’s not uncommon for students to juggle multiple Advanced Placement classes, do volunteer work, teach and coach, compete with state clubs and teams, maintain year-round jobs, and participate in an eclectic range of extracurricular activities, all while pursuing straight A’s. And for those whose goals hinge on getting into one of the elite private colleges or Ivy Leagues, the standards - and the pressure - are even higher.

If you’re still wondering how all this stresses us Gen Z–ers out, picture competing against 2.2 million hyper-intelligent, sporty, politically active, creative, charity-working young leaders of America. We’re all pushed to be outstanding students, but we can’t all get those scholarships, and we can’t all get into Colby or Princeton or Bates or Cornell. Kids as young as 14 are tasked with mastering the work-life balance before they’ve earned their first paycheck. We’re forced to one-up each other in potential, detaching us from the very people we need to keep us grounded and connected.

When my fellow panelists at Midcoast Women’s Gen Z event explained this to our audience, there were quite a few groans of disheartened sympathy. But I could sense an unspoken question lingering in the air. What about the kids who DON’T go above and beyond to get into college during their high school years? It’s fair to point out that the number of high schoolers who drink, use nicotine, and play loose with the rules isn’t that much different from past generations. We still have many partiers among us. It’s also fair to point out that everyone on that panel was the kind of person past generations might call an “overachiever.” We are all intelligent, hard-working young women who are active in our communities and have big dreams. We didn’t represent the members of Gen Z who don’t care too much about college and don’t have enormous ambitions. But because I know teenagers on both ends of the ambition spectrum, I can definitely say that almost all Gen Z teenagers experience the same level of stress.

Kids who don’t overachieve are still faced with those same societal expectations. Constantly compared to their peers, they learn that they aren’t good enough, even if they’re an average student with a decent work ethic. Teenagers who don’t break their backs trying to look good for colleges are told they don’t work hard enough or that they lack that special “stand-out” quality that colleges are looking for these days. Those kids eventually internalize the storyline that they aren’t good enough, lose sight of big ambitions, and seek out ways to have fun that distract and dull the stress. Of course, they get punished for that too.

I know, I know. You’ve heard a lot from us spoiled, complaint-filled adolescents. At least now you’ll understand why we didn’t spend enough time with you over winter break. Maybe now you know why we couldn’t manage to give you those cute homemade presents this year. We’re not asking for you to pity us, we’re just asking that you understand what truly separates our generation from others. You can stop telling us to get off our phones and enjoy the holidays, because we’re probably checking our grades or our work schedule. We don’t really have time to be on our phones anyway.

Pearl Benjamin is an 11th-grade student at the Watershed School.

Comments (1)
Posted by: Richard McKusic, Sr. | Jan 10, 2019 08:22

Thanks for the insight. Pearl, and many others are making a positive difference in our world by having the vulnerability to share where they really are. May they never loose that; as many of us 'adults' have. HUGS NOT DRUGS



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