New market pressures have led to the widespread and unfair blaming Generation Z for perceived social rot. So, what is the true state of Generation Z? Jonathan Compo explains.
In 2006, Professor of Psychology at San Diego State University, Jean Twenge, published Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled—and More Miserable Than Ever Before, tracking, as the title suggests, the decadence of the “Me” Generation: millennials. A decade later, she is at it again with iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy—and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood, published in September 2018. This time, her targets are those born after 1995, called alternately Post-Millennials, Digital Natives, Generation Z or by Twenge’s term: “iGen.” The brand of generational scapegoating exemplified by these two books is profitable and widespread, but it is also destructive. The reductionist framing of books like iGen erase the complicated and diverse perspectives of their subject population.
Angst about “kids these days” is old news. “They think they know everything,” Aristotle wrote in his Rhetoric, when describing fourth century BCE youth. Due to advances in data collection and shifts in market trends, though, scapegoating younger generations for societal faults is newly legitimized and profitable.
New kids on the block
When Aristotle was demeaning young Athenians, he did not have any data to support him. But thanks to a radical expansion of data collection capabilities enabled by the internet, elders’ worries may make new claims of empiricism and universality. This expansion is clear from looking at Twenge’s two books. Generation Me discusses just “Young Americans,” while iGen makes broader claims about “Kids.”
This increasing reach is coupled with increasing publishing pressure on academics. As chronicled by sociologist Robert A. Nisbet in his book, “The Degradation of the Academic Dogma,” the American university underwent an epochal shift in the 1970s, with the influx of federal and industry money. Education became big business. Professors became revenue sources instead of just scholars. With this shift, came increased competition and with increased competition came the mandate, so familiar to academics today: “publish, publish, publish.”
A social psychologist researching long term changes in mental health today, then, is pressured to sell their subject, to package it and advertise it. This is how we end up with books with titles like iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy—and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood published by people with PhD’s.
Things have gone too far
This pressure is understandable, and authors may be forgiven for succumbing, but, with the treatment of Generation Z, things have gone too far. I can’t say whether the coverage of my generation has been uniquely negative, but the negative coverage has been uniquely extensive and has been produced earlier in our lifecycle. The market imperative to increase production has led to more conversation about Generation Z earlier in Generation Z’s life span. The oldest millennials were thirty-five when Generation Me came out. In 2006, when iGen was released, however, the oldest members of that cohort, by Twenge’s delineation, were twenty.
Twenty-year-olds today may have an unprecedented access to social media, but we don’t have access to the legitimizing legacy media platforms in which we’re currently being discussed. Articles critical of Generation Z have been published in Vanity Fair, The Atlantic and elsewhere.
The issue isn’t just the negativity of the discourse; it’s that there hasn’t been an opportunity for a response from our cohort. The discussion about us, at least in traditional media, has unfairly left out voices from Generation Z. They can’t say anything nice, and we can’t say anything at all.
Well, except here. So, what is the true state of the generation?
I don’t know. Google it. It would be easy to put in my two cents here, but I’ll resist, because that has been done already by authors brighter and wiser and more interesting than me, and I’m not talking about the irascible Baby Boomers and Gen Xer’s who penned the articles and books above. The irony about how unrepresentative the mainstream coverage of Generation Z has been is that my cohort’s experience has actually been completely and publicly chronicled by us, just not yet in the more prestigious organs to which our critics have access. In blogs and vlogs and in scattered recordings across media forms almost as diverse as our demographic composition, Generation Z has already written its story.
And I know how it ends. Of course, I have an acquaintance with an abundance of young writers who are not yet published, and so not yet known to you. Know this, our come-back in the generational conversation is coming. For the moment, Jean Twenge may have the spotlight, but here’s a spoiler: her diagnosis is wrong. Our generation is not “Completely Unprepared for Adulthood.” Perhaps, even, adults should do a little more to prepare for us.