Gen Z, Between Optimism And Despair

Few topics of societal debate grip us more fervently than discussing the inner workings of newer generations. This has been a particular topic of interest for traditionally conservative thinkers since the counter-culture movements of the 60s. Allan Bloom’s “The Closing of the American Mind” immediately pops into our head, and perhaps with good reason. His deep critique of changing social philosophical preferences in a manner that distinctly breaks from the past is among the most powerful, though certainly not the first. I imagine that credit should go to French philosopher Julien Benda’s “The Treason of the Intellectuals”. Both works skillfully acknowledge that much more is at work than the simple change of attitudes a la mode that generally characterize the youth. The new marketplace of ideas is much too different and much more violently opposed to its predecessor than perhaps ever before in human history. While the progressive line of thinking sees itself as the natural step away from the aberrations of the past, the conservative one points philosophical fingers to Foucault and Derrida for building the ideological structure to undermine Western civilization and its values. Far from diving deep into historical and intellectual efforts needed to analyze the mechanisms of “why”, I propose we quickly take a look at some of the main conservative pain points with some support form the overly-simplistic “Gen Z, Explained: The Art of Living in a Digital Age”, that I recently picked up from a local library.

Roberta Katz, Sarah Ogilvie, Jane Shaw, and Linda Woodhead put together a work from surveys they conducted on Gen Z students in an attempt to bring a much more optimistic view on their perspective on the world. Unfortunately, I remain unconvinced and would like to do the opposite: highlight the problems that older generations have with “the youth” (I mean both Millennials and Gen Z, as I do not believe that the differences reside at the macro-ideological level I wish to discuss here) and try to point to the direction of possible consequences stemming from the predominant ideologies.

‘Abandon all tradition.’ The past is a continuous reminder of everything humanity has done wrong and its modus operandi needs to be discarded for the new vision of the future. This is somewhat to be expected, though perhaps not at the intensity we have seen for the last two decades, but the more radical the ideas one proposes, the more progressive. This direct-dependency logic leads many young people to not consider the proper role of tradition: that of providing models to be simulated that have passed the test of time. Its historicity is exactly its point. The argument of not having to perpetuate something just because it was “the way” done before is valid, but a gross oversimplification. Tradition binds people together in a coherent narrative of both social and spiritual dimensions. Without it, the task of putting something new in its place is herculean. And indeed, Millennials and Gen Z have failed at it.

A pervasive lack of trust in Authority (capital A. The Platonic idea, if you will) and institutions and the push for de-centralization (my blockchain enthusiasts, where you at?) where it doesn’t belong will produce effects similar to abandoning tradition: the complexity of human societies will become impossible to control, maintain, and scale without the top-to-bottom established model of authority and leadership.

Early modernity has also left its mark upon Gen Z, I believe, in terms of sexual promiscuity and the way they approach inter-personal relationships in general. Meaning, feelings, and seriousness seem to be left apart in favour of the so-called “hookup culture” of sexual liberalization. Even on an intuitive level one can see how quickly this can all go awry, but multiple studies have also shown how young people tend to suffer more on the long term due to the inability to form meaningful relationships.

I think special note needs to be given to the talking and normalization of weirder and weirder sexual kinks (and how “kink shaming” should somehow not be acceptable). Leaving aside the borderline inept argument of embracing deviation as normal, I think young adults have to embrace some unforeseen consequences of embracing and entering into their romantic lives much sooner than before. In pre-modern times, courtship and getting to know one another used to be a much more lengthy process, such that consuming the relationship in its sexual dimension happened (regularly) in a much more advanced (in time) and serious circumstance. Hooking up early leaves an immense “so what now?” that young people have to figure out. One needs to keep adding more boundaries to be crossed, more experiences to be had, more ways to experience sexual pleasure, more anything in an empty race that does not understand rewards are only fulfilling when earned.

On the political spectrum, Millennials and Gen Z are either left-leaning or downright on the far left (it’s remarkable how no one talks about this term, but we are all obsessed with labelling various individuals or actions as “far right”). They feel that capitalism has betrayed them by creating larger and larger inequality and, among other things but in no small measure, robbing them of the possibility of acquiring their own homes. Emphasizing the downsides and hideous aspects of capitalism comes easy to young people who either were not born long enough ago to have memories of the Soviet alternative and suffering that caused or were born in parts of the world that have never experienced the Communist destruction of the human soul and body.

On the far left side of the political spectrum we have radicalized progressives. An umbrella term for multiple, seemingly unconnected movements and ideological stances such as LGBTQ+ activism, virtue signaling, Cancel culture, Woke culture, radical feminism, cultural relativity and something I called “minority tyranny”, etc. All of these schools of social and political thought have common ground in their critique of traditional Western values and Western society and their incessant push of thought policing the public discourse. The latter is responsible for creating all sorts of absurdities from the safe spaces and historical revisionism variety. This represents the subjects of multiple books of essays on social sciences and philosophy and is incredibly too complex to analyze in a humble blog article. I do, however, believe that the umbrella of Radicalized Progressive Thought represents one of the greatest threats to human society. Its wide adoption among young adults should frighten any sane individual.

On the spiritual level, things are not much brighter. Millennials and Gen Z have adopted a sort of ambiguity regarding religion and spiritual living which has led to the emergence of inept movements, such as New Age, that are incapable of guiding people through their lives. This pseudo-pantheism of “whatever goes” will have the horrible consequence of leaving them confused about the metaphysics of Existence. Jung has highlighted how Nietzsche has proved (I am only flexing a bit here) that it is not clear whether or not humans are capable of forming coherent value systems from within, without the help of the tradition-based God. This is, of course, but a simple phrase in a much larger discussion. What I would like to bring attention to is the lack of intellectual depth and spiritual substance to the frameworks and vague ideas that have come to replace traditional religion.

Technology-wise, this has been an obsession of analysts pondering the subject, who, in my opinion, made the mistake of making this the sole or the center of their comprehension of young people. Much has been said on the topic, however, there are a couple of things worth noting. Since 2016, with Brexit, Donald Trump’s election, the Cambridge Analytica scandal, etc. it has been clear that contemporary democracy, with its much older roots, was not built to withstand the changes brought upon by the internet and social media. It falls to the newer generations to finds ways to navigate this particularly difficult issue and they are very much aware of it. In addition, it may very well be (and recent research on children seems to indicate) that the human brain too was not built to approach social media and the internet at the speed and quantity they are coming at us now. As a consequence, the instant gratification the new technologies bring seem to “wire” our brains into being unable to focus, to patiently wait, and to realise that all meaningful things in life require time.

Changes are coming to the workplace as well. I have personally spoken to HR managers and experts about the Gen Z candidates they recruit and work with. Generally, they seem to be ill content with their approach to work: they seem lazy and difficult to engage, or downright impossible to motivate. Surprisingly, I do not share this vision of gloom. A sentence in the book that caught my eye is “modularity and flexibility are two important aspects of contemporary collaborative work”. Gen Z may actually be the first generation that manages to successfully bring out welcome changes in the workplace, such as a focus on flexibility, awareness of the importance of personal time and mental wellbeing, and the creation of less stressful environments. I do not believe they are lazy or refusing to engage, so much as they have realised that the toxic obsession with productivity is damaging, that corporations are serving disgusting bullshit that they are all tired of, that no workplace truly cares about its people as they are all expandable pieces for the ever more furious pursuit of profit. I do, however, believe (having worked with quite a few of them myself), that they lack discipline. This seems to stem from the snowflake, failed parenting techniques, but that is a different discussion.

Gen Z and Millennials seem to be living in a “prolonged childhood” (Adrian Papahagi) that is at the same time both unable to respond to the harsh realities (past and present) of the real world and seeks to rebel against its mainstream ideologies. There are massive reactions from young people online (on YouTube, TikTok, Reddit, in most comment sections) that oppose most of what I have described here, including Radicalized Progressive Thought. So perhaps the authors of “Gen Z, Explained” were right and there is hope. Just not where they were looking.

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