Teenage Girls: Angst-Ridden Changemakers

04/30/2015 12:55 pm ET | Updated Jun 30, 2015
Marco Regalia

I spent the beginning of the week road tripping to colleges with my daughters, 15 and 17, and ended the week at the Women in the World Summit in NYC. When I listened to economist Noreena Hertz's talk about Generation K and her recent survey research with thousands of teen girls aged 13-20, I thought: "Wow. You know my girls." She could have just as easily been in the back seat of our car. Chatting. Texting. Napping. Taking selfies.

Of course, Generation K refers to Katniss Everdeen, the heroine of The Hunger Games series. Here is a cohort of girls coming of age in full immersion with technology; who are experiencing the effects of a major economic recession during their childhood; in a world where terrorism has no boundaries.

"For Generation K, the world is a dystopian nightmare." She portrays our teen girls as super anxious. I would also add to this a companion legion of overly anxious, hovering and controlling parents. And who can blame them?

One observation is how this generation communicates. According to Hertz, they relate to the world through images, symbols and smartphones. For a typical girl today, identity is largely influenced by the technology she consumes. Hertz notes that for a girl it's more like "I connect, therefore I am."

Any parent of a teenager knows this to be true. On this trip we easily exceeded our family mobile data limit no matter how much I said, "Look outside!" They may take selfies but they are not selfish, said Hertz. Yet, Hertz's observation of the importance of visuals for these young women made me wonder just how the deluge of photos, videos, sound bites and emoticons affect their brains? The human brain doesn't know the difference between a live event and an image on a screen. No wonder this generation is angst ridden given the relentless news cycle of dramas and disasters.

What do my daughters worry about as they come of age?

I thought about this and their concerns map what Hertz found in her research.

Future. Getting a job, making a difference and doing the right thing. My girls, like so many young people, want to make an impact, but worry that the chances may not be in their favor.

Finances. It hadn't occurred to me the extent of my daughter's concerns. Of all the things to chat about with a prospective college coach -- favorite position, team records, love of the game, GPA or majors -- the one question she asked was about tuition: "Is there scholarship money left?" It made my heart sink. Later, she said she doesn't want to be strapped with college debt; she is already anticipating the burden she will bear.

Existence. They worry about the world: planet and people. My younger daughter was stunned driving through New Jersey. "What is this place? It's like out of some movie." Like the precincts in the Hunger Games maybe? (To be fair driving on I-95 is not a balanced view of the state.)

Terrorism. Sadly, over the course of their young adolescence -- I'm talking between the ages of 12 and 15 -- shocking events took place: the mass shooting of school children and teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, which is just next to the small town where I grew up; the mass shooting in the Aurora movie theater full of Batman fans; and of course, the Boston Marathon bombings. Indeed, two years ago our city was in a lock down over spring break.

Fast forward. Two weeks ago their high school was in a lock down in response to a young man carrying a gun. The girls track team barricaded themselves in with lacrosse sticks through door handles. For two hours the girls were in a dark locker room because they were trained to turn off the lights during a lock down. My ninth grader didn't appreciate "not knowing" since there was no cell phone reception on the lower level of the school; nor did she tolerate the "nasty BO" of the girl she was squashed against.

When she retold the experience at dinner she was very articulate about all the thoughts that went through her mind: about death, not saying "I love you" enough and never going to bed feeling angry. She was shook up. She also regretted asking her dad earlier in the week: "What would it feel like to be shot?" This question was in response to the all too frequent news videos showing cops killing black men. And in the human way we all want to make sense out of senseless things, her magical thinking was that maybe if she didn't ask the question there wouldn't have been an actual person carrying a gun at her school.

Her older sister, a student leader, commented on how well trained they are with lock down drills. "Now they tell us to fight back," she reported. "When students and teachers fight an intruder it lowers the number of casualties."

Seriously? We live in the suburbs. But no matter; no place is safe. This is what today's kids grow up with. More news access, more visuals and a heightened awareness of the randomness of the world.

What do Gen K Girls Value?

According to the Hertz survey, our anxious teen girls also value being unique, the most frequent word used by the girls. They also value diversity and co-existing in a fair and just world.

Hertz (thankfully) ended on a somewhat hopeful note. Digging into her surveys' stats and individual interviews with 25 teens, revealed that these girls will not tolerate inequality - in opportunity or pay. They may be fearful, but they are also feisty. They're thinking ahead about career and family (35% say they don't want or are not sure if they want children). They are pragmatic and proactive.

I thought to myself: Here is a new generation of girls who are truly unique in time and place.

My daughters are two of them. Go girls.