As a new cohort of Americans begin to reach adulthood, the country again faces the search for finding a new moniker for the next generation. So far the frontrunner seems to be Gen Z, but “iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy–and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood–and What That Means for the Rest of Us” by Jean M. Twenge, a PhD psychology professor, has made quite a splash. She describes the newest group of Americans as being shaped by technology, making them less rebellious, less happy, less prepared for adulthood, and radically different from the rest of the American population. Sociologists and cultural commentators have reinforced these fears, blaming smartphones and the social media for the myriad woes that have arisen within American society. However, this is the wrong view to take.
Looking to the past, it’s easy to see that human characteristics themselves are rarely changed by technological progress. The industrial revolution didn’t make humans prefer cities and close quarters living, it merely changed the way that the world economy functioned. And the same happened with the spread of globalization and the creation of a new market engine: the “knowledge economy.” This new system has rapidly offset the manufacturing sector of the American economy.
Instead, monetary success depends on getting into college, getting a degree, and then inserting oneself into an increasingly unstable and unprotected job market. Instead of a manufacturing job with full benefits that could be obtained without a college degree, we have degree-prerequisite jobs where the average pay has not kept up with the rate of inflation, and a world where most of the onus of retirement funding is on the individual. And this change has only increased, year by year.
And no, Gen Z isn’t filled with naive idealists or immature and spoiled children. The new knowledge economy has, in fact, created a vast cohort of strategic and intellectually aggressive young people who have understood the stakes since they were old enough to understand what college admissions require. Members of this generation are very familiar with the fates of old factory towns and manufacturing areas, which couldn’t conform to the new economy. They were rapidly hollowed out through job loss, and now a vast number are a symbol of inequality and despair.
Events like this have helped Generation Z to understand full well the necessity and cost of a college education in achieving life’s goals. Although few of Gen Z or younger Millennials are adults or have children, far more of them are waiting to have kids until they are in their 30’s. This isn’t a sign of immaturity, instead it’s another reminder of how much of life now revolves around an educational career and paying for it.
Thus the issue: Gen Z isn’t different from past generations because of technology, they are different because they are coming of age in an entirely different economic structure. Of course kids will be less social when they have to run home and complete endless hours of homework just to meet the minimum requirements of higher education. Of course they will be less skilled at building cabinets when they are incentivized to fill their time with intellectually enriching extracurricular activities, instead of learning handiwork skills. And of course they will be more anxious, depressed, and lonely when their life revolves around the endless academic circus that is college admissions.
If our country actually cares about its young people, then maybe we should avoid the easy scapegoat that technology makes, and instead examine the much more problematic economic situation we have let run wild without competition. For all the blame that has been heaped on Gen Z, maybe we should hand out a little praise for the kids who are doing everything they can to succeed in a world that is unfairly biased against their success, while the rest of society does nothing. At least Gen Z has the courage to face the facts. Maybe America should too.
Atticus Hickman is a Better Utah policy intern