Or, All the World’s Anxieties
Just google the phrase, ‘Hard times create strong men, strong men create good times, good times create weak men, and weak men create hard times’. See how many people online have vomited it out of their mouths. Take a shot every time someone does, and then die of cirrhosis.
From Joe Rogan to Jordan Peterson, an entire ecosystem now peddles the message that something is wrong with today’s generation. That they are spoilt and soft, and (overly)sensitive. That they should be ‘tough’ and ‘stoic’ like their granddaddies, etc, etc.
Popular discourse is rife with intergenerational clashes. Some of it is light-hearted jokes about the trust-fund cherry-picked economic conditions Boomers inherited, Gen X’s edgy sulkiness, outdated Millennial trends; or all the ways Gen Z differ from the large cohort of older people scrutinizing them.
The discourse, however, takes a melodramatic and apocalyptic turn too. In re; Boomers’ having ‘destroyed’ the world's future, Millennials having a ‘victimhood complex’ and being ‘snowflakes’, and so on. Gen Z coming of age, and having inherited the present, are now under microscopic scrutiny. The current generation always bears the brunt of it. But probing a little deeper into such rhetoric, it becomes increasingly clear Gen Z slander is just a heuristic (mental shortcut to (over)simplify problems and avoid cognitive overload) to talk about the larger existential problems of 21st-century modernity.
Everything ‘wrong’ with Gen Z is just a projection of human existential angst in this particular space and time. The laundry list of ‘problems’ with Gen Z can be broadly whittled down to psychological problems (technological addiction, instant gratification, narcissism and gold-fish attention spans); the problem of being ‘extreme/misguided’ in socio-political views, and economic problems (of decreased work ethic, being entitled, and having no loyalty to employers).
Just ask ChatGPT.
That tendency of thinking like an old crank and going ‘back in my day…blasé blasé’, or ‘kids these days…’, is universal. The Overthink Podcast, run by philosophers Dr Ellie Anderson (Pomona College) and Dr David Pena Guzman (San Francisco State University) discuss the popular discourse around Gen Z by first pointing out the ubiquity of the same washed-out talking points of intergenerational criticism running deep through history.
Dr Guzman quotes a reader’s letter to Town & Country Magazine in 1771 about their opinion of the youth of the 18th century; it reads -
“the youth are quote, a race of effeminate, self-admiring, emaciated fribbles”
Whoever that was; they would be right at home ranting on Twitter.
The cesspool of technologically addictive 21st-century reality affects everybody. Books like Adam Alter’s Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology & the Business of Keeping us Hooked (2017), or The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World (2016) by Gazzaley and Rosen illustrate that it is not just the younger generation but everybody plugged into the high-tech world that is prey to such forces. Netflix’s The Social Dilemma (2020) is another piece of content diving deep into the issue.
Yes, Big Tech’s machinations affect Gen Z and the still-fledging Gen Alpha more because of their vulnerability as impressionable kids. But the ‘grown-ups’ fare no better. In any case, a Nielsen study found Gen X’ers to have addictive behaviour regarding social media too, another study observed a similar pattern amongst Boomers.
If only facts didn’t get in the way of these neat little pop discourse narratives. One study goes on to find that instances of delaying gratification amongst kids have actually increased in the past 50 years based on the results of the famous marshmallow test. But talk is cheap, at least that’s what they all say.
Regarding narcissism, in general teens and young adults are more self-obsessed because they are still trying to figure out how they fit into the world as individuals. It is a psychosocial trait seen as tempering out with age. There is, however, a growing perception that current generations are reaching signifiers of adulthood later in life compared to older times.
Neoliberal capitalism has been the de facto global economic order since the end of the Cold War. It is a fact universally known that real wages haven’t risen across the world since the 1980s, leading to a widening gap between the rich and the poor. Economic crises like the Great Recession of 2008, the economic fallout from the Covid Pandemic (that led to many people losing their jobs), and the rise of the gig economy have all led to this point in time. Thus, the attainment of home ownership, marriage and other such signifiers of adulthood are being delayed by people today given the general economic and financial instability of the past decades.
The traditional 9-to-5 40-year career of loyal service to one, or maybe a handful of companies, and then retiring with a safe pension is a relic of the past. The trend of remote working and juggling multiple jobs only accelerated due to the pandemic. Declining worker loyalty has even been commented on by the World Economic Forum, which has implications for workers of all age groups, and not just Gen Z - of whom only the older members are entering the workforce. Anne Helen Peterson’s The Burnout Generation (2020) shed light on how economic insecurity, employment instability, and the gig economy impacted the preceding generation – the Millennials.
That the current generation is socio-politically too extreme or misguided is once again a lazy heuristic. Gen Z came of age in the era of #MeToo, spiralling spates of environmental crises, and the ever-growing discontent with neoliberal economic conditions. Their politics are scaffolded upon the gains of the previous progressive movements.
Greta Thunberg’s environmental activism is criticized by people for being too hot-headed and impatient. They forget Emily Davison, the English suffragette who literally threw herself in front of horses racing for the right to vote, a century ago. Or the hunger strikes held by Gandhi, Mandela, et al. Protest and activism have always been loud because that’s the only way the powers-to-be listen. And the little girl is just using words, to be honest – so who’s being hypersensitive now?
For every progressive movement, there is also an equally visible reactionary conservative movement with the likes of Andrew Tate spreading misogyny and vitriol across cyberspace, and finding popularity amongst boys and men across generations.
We circle back to technology, and how it has changed the nature of socio-political theatre. Social media algorithms are designed to push radical politics to the forefront since incendiary content captures more eyeballs. Facebook and Twitter have been shown to proliferate political polarization, radicalization and disenfranchisement with electoral democracy Then there’s WhatsApp University. To think that 30+ year-olds are not the ones being implicated in these phenomena; well, that’s not really thinking.
Lastly, it would be disingenuous to ignore the fact that the abject generalization of Gen Z is based on trends specific to the West, North America in particular. In India, as elsewhere, the situation is categorically not the same. Child marriage still exists, and gender or LGBTQ+ equality is nowhere at the same level. And the fraction of Gen Z Indians able to partake in ‘global trends’ like working from home, or pursuing online entrepreneurial careers, are a privileged thin sliver of society. Internet connection is not even a done deal, although it may be getting there slowly. Gen Z is known as digital natives, but the quality of their ‘nativity’ differs ever so widely.
Popular discourse is fun, and important too. But its limits are evident - for anything critical and earnest, one will have to go deeper. To seriously contemplate why Gen Z is the way it is, and all things ‘wrong’ with them, you’ll open a pandora’s box. Which, at first, will tell you that no group is monolithic in taste or temperament. Then point to the more complex discussion of universal conditions of politics, economics and culture that shape not only the present but past and future generations too.