Brown: The Last Generation

Generation Z faces unprecedented challenges as it comes of age.

by Matthew Brown | 4/20/17 12:25am

I was recently informed that I’m no longer a millennial. The inexact art that is generational studies has apparently rechristened those born from 1995 to 2012 from the ever-aging “Millennial” generation to a new, vastly different “Generation Z.”

I admittedly rolled my eyes when I first heard this assertion. I don’t deny that thinking of populations with a generational lens in mind can help contextualize many phenomena in society, but all generations have their fair share of geniuses, creatives, idols and do-nothings — it’s how these people manifest in the environments they grow up in that matters. When you consider that many of whom we are calling Generation Z are not even out of elementary school, and that their lives will be impacted far more by CRISPR-style gene editing, virtual reality and artificial intelligence than the social media that impacts us today, I anticipate that future generational studies will reclassify this group once more.

Still, the Generation Z reclassification did make me think about how different my childhood was from that of the 30-somethings in my life, and how despite our similarities and shared slang, there are clear differences between the Snapchat and “Finstagram”-using teens of today and their older Facebook and Myspace-using cousins. If I, a 20 year old, could already see a divergence in how my peers and I interact versus how adults in their late twenties interact, then I imagine that the differences between a middle schooler and the latter group are tremendous.

Much of the literature and media on the nascent Millennial/Generation Z divide, however, is focused on what I consider superfluous differences. The business and marketing worlds, who have naturally been the first to take notice of the nuances of America’s young people, color popular opinion on the new divide. Where the Millennial is supposedly outgoing, self-righteous, idealistic and financially unstable, Generation Z is independent, reserved and hyper-conscientious of the world. Analysts like “generational expert” David Stillman turn analyses of these different generations into a business model, arguing that Generation Z’s supposed qualities are the product of more cynical Generation X parenting styles, as opposed to Millennials, who were largely raised by the much more lenient baby boomers. This assessment has appeared in most of the early media and literature on the topic.

Yet beyond different parenting styles, people are the products of their circumstances. Any meaningful delineation between Millennials and Generation Z-ers must also consider the socio-political context that each generation grew up in. Millennials, classified as those born between 1980 and 1994, are old enough to remember 9/11 and were at least young adults during former President Barack Obama’s first election. Generation Z, by contrast, will have no concept of a world without smartphones, nor The Patriot Act and Edward Snowden; needless to say, very few have any memory of 9/11. While parenting style influences how different generations respond to events, the events themselves heavily influence each generation’s eventual attitudes.

Personally, I only have foggy memories of a day that may have been 9/11, but I definitely have no memories of living in a country not at war. Many of the people who make up Generation Z were born after al-Qaida was founded and have grown up knowing of U.S. involvement in Iraq. Some of the oldest members of this generation — including peers of many Dartmouth students — are now fighting in a war that started when they were in elementary school.

The backdrop for this new Generation Z is a world significantly more uncertain and open-ended than the one occupied by previous generations. The impact of issues such as terrorism, climate change, globalization and social movements such as Occupy Wall Street and the Movement for Black Lives will form the backdrop of the Generation Z psyche. Most members of Generation Z will only have Obama and President Donald Trump as references for what a president should be. If this emerging generation is different from those prior, it’s simply a response to the capriciousness of the society it’s found itself in, not some pragmatic inter-generational parenting.

Generation Z would also be the most diverse generation in American history, something that analysts evidently take for granted. I wonder to what degree the attitudes of Generation Z-ers will be informed by the fact that many are children of immigrants, many of different religions, in a time when race and class are at the forefront of the American conscience. It’s all but guaranteed that the youngest batch of Americans will continue the urbanization seen for the last century, and given our already hyper-connected qualities, I wonder what implications such trends will have on our national future.

All of this is under the assumption that such divisions will even matter five years from now. Personally, I still think that my peers and I have more in common with the 20-somethings of today than with a fifth grader or even a high schooler, but perhaps that’s just part of the art of generational studies. I do believe, however, that if Generation Z is to be a coherent group, it’s going to be a generation far more important than their Millennial predecessors. These are the young people coming of age during the advent of many technological changes, the precipice of social change and the turning point for our efforts against climate change. Boiling down the Generation Z impact as marketing gimmicks would be insincere to how pivotal the kids of today will be for our future. With that much riding on the latest cohort of citizens, I believe it’s important to entertain the implications of the latest, but hopefully not last, generation in America.