Gen Z and Me

This is a longer version of the piece I wrote on Generation Z for the London Review of Books:

On the walk from the car park to my university building sits a red telephone box, classic K6 model. The other day, out of curiosity, I pulled at its heavy cast iron door, stepped inside, and let the door thud behind me. It must be fifteen years, at least, since I last experienced that strange dampening of the sounds of the street and that smell of stale urine and old takeaways. For a moment, the phone box became a TARDIS and I was a homesick student ringing my parents again, harassed by the pips that demanded more coins and the lonely finality of the purring dial tone when it cut me off. It reminded me that I am a digital immigrant, raised in a clunkier, analogue age, when long-distance communication felt fragile, precarious, interruptible.

I was an early inhabitant of the online world. I remember using Netscape Navigator, one of the first web browsers, in a computer room at the University of Sussex in autumn 1994. I have been an Amazon customer (its website reminds me) since 1999, longer than most of the students I teach have been alive. With mobile devices, though, I was on the other side of the adoption curve. No message seemed so urgent to me that you had to carry round the mailbox in your pocket. I bowed to the inevitable in 2004, with one of those entry-level Nokias, all rounded plastic and chunky buttons. I still had it three years later when I saw that film of Steve Jobs at the Macworld Expo, showing the audience his new phone. No one will want to search the web on something as small and fiddly that, I thought. It will never catch on.

Even now, I get so few messages on my garden-variety smartphone that I forget to charge it, or don’t look at it for days. Being mildly dyspraxic and very myopic, I prod at it ponderously and with great emphasis, as if expecting it not to respond. Often it punishes my lack of faith by disowning me, refusing to recognise my thumbprint and unlock itself. My students’ phones are often in their hand, usually on their person, and always within reach. They swipe, pinch and caress them like virtuosos.

Most of this year’s new crop of undergraduates were born between September 2003 and August 2004, the year Eats, Shoots & Leaves was published, the Hutton inquiry reported and Channel 4 aired the last episode of Friends. If you find this information as uncomputable as I do, you’re probably about my age. More significantly, these students were two or three years old when Jobs launched the iPhone. In Gen Z, Explained: The Art of Living in a Digital Age (University of Chicago Press), an anthropologist (Roberta Katz), a linguist (Sarah Ogilvie), a historian (Jane Shaw) and a sociologist (Linda Woodhead) try to understand this peer group of digital natives. They define Generation Z, also called Zoomers or post-millennials, as those born between 1995 and 2009. Even the oldest members of this group have no memory of a world without Broadband.

The key fact for Katz et al. is that Gen Zers have had to navigate this new online reality without the aid of their mainly clueless elders, and have thus improvised their own rich and hard-to-penetrate subcultures. What they mostly like to do is collaborate in leaderless groups. They use digital tools to create shared documents, synch their calendars, write and read fan fiction, play games together, and organise real-world lift sharing, couch surfing and political activism.

They have devised an intricate language and etiquette for their online lives. They can quickly convey their pleasure or displeasure through memes – such as the ubiquitous Drake Yes/No meme, made up of two stills from the rapper’s video of ‘Hotline Bling’, in which he holds his hand up to his face in disgust, and looks happy. They use emojis as ‘a softener and a social lubricant’, and bracket words with asterisks and tildes for emphasis and irony. Whether they write ‘k’ or ‘kk’ to mean ‘okay’ is charged with meaning. The first is purposely curt, especially if the sender has taken the trouble to override the default capitalisation, and still more so if they add a passive-aggressive full stop. The second is cheerful and casual, a no-sweat way to temper the brusqueness of the single letter.

These tonal shadings matter because post-millennials like to state clearly where they are coming from. Self-labelling, especially of fine-grained sexual and gendered identities, has become ‘an imperative that is impossible to escape’. They think it important to be themselves, to admit to their struggles and vulnerabilities, and to say what they mean. In the iGen Corpus, a digital data bank of seventy million words used by post-millennials and compiled by Ogilvie, words such as real, true, honest and fake occur far more often than in general language use.

The book’s findings are mostly based on interviews with students at three institutions: Stanford, Foothill Community College (a few miles from Stanford in northern California), and the University of Lancaster. In a world where so many things compete for their attention, these students worry about allocating their time efficiently. They dislike email, finding it laborious compared to texting and messaging. ‘If it’s a professor you don’t have a close relationship with, you have to say, hi professor whatever, I’m in your class or I’m interested in this blah blah blah,’ one student says. ‘You have to kind of frame it.’ Several of the students surveyed watch recorded lectures at triple speed – not just to save time, one of them says, but to help them concentrate.

All this is useful, if disconcerting, for a university teacher to get learnt. I was less convinced by the book’s basic premise: that the new technology so enculturates its young users that it has created entirely new ways of thinking and being. The book first emerged in a conversation between the authors on the Stanford campus in 2016, when they agreed that ‘incoming students were strikingly different from those from a few years before’. Gen Zers, they argue in their introduction, ‘are shaped by and encounter the world in a radically different way from those who know what life was like without the internet’.

The book’s title carries this sense of interpreting to non-initiates the behaviour of a separate tribe, albeit one whose habits are increasingly being adopted by other age groups. While I was reading it, a phrase of the child psychologist David Elkind’s sprang to mind: ‘cognitive aliens’. Elkind was discussing the work of the Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget, which revealed how contrarily young children see the world – believing, for instance, that the sun and moon follow them as they walk around, that anything that moves, from clouds to cars, is alive, and that dreams fly in through their window at night. For Elkind, Piaget’s work suggested that the main problem in education is communication. The child’s mind is not a tabula rasa but its own rival system for generating reality. Every middle-aged teacher has had a related fear that their students now dwell in an unreachable mental landscape. But the stories in Gen Z, Explained don’t always sustain its initial claim that post-millennials think and behave in very different ways.

Nearly all those interviewed for the book still say that their favourite mode of communication is ‘in person’. Every era thinks that its technology has changed everything utterly, but human instincts, after 300,000 years of evolution, must be pretty resilient. My students check their phones almost as often as they blink, but isn’t that just because we are inescapably social animals? I would check my phone all the time, too, if anyone ever sent me any messages.

Social networking and the smartphone do seem to have made young people more willing to make intimate feelings public. The students in Gen Z, Explained post pictures of their ‘depression meals’ (which can range from a comforting Deliveroo order to a mishmash of whatever food they can find) as a signal that they are feeling low. But they also make clear that this kind of sharing is made possible by distance. One interviewee says that he can post to strangers without ‘worrying that you’re adding some emotional toll to them … whereas your friends are sort of obligated to help you’. Post-millennials are perfectly aware of the boundaries between online and offline life; they just draw them in subtly different ways. A surprising finding in Gen Z, Explained is that it is now a common courtesy to ask permission from friends before posting a picture in which they appear. Those interviewed are also well-attuned to the paradox of having more voice than ever before online, while often feeling powerless IRL (‘in real life’) to change economic and political systems that seem ‘locked, inaccessible to them, and wrongheaded’.

Everyone looks like a maestro when they’re using technology you’re unversed in. If a time traveller from the 1990s arrived in the present, they would marvel at the effortless aplomb with which people of all ages manipulate their touchscreens, talk to their digital assistants and wave contactless cards at readers (unless they are Rishi Sunak, who finds the last one difficult). In a mere fifteen years, smartphones have become the central technology of daily life around the world. I had a colleague twenty years my senior who retired to Portugal and went wholly and impenitently offline, with not even a mobile number to reach him on. The audacity of it! In our age of hyper-connection, he might as well have sailed off the edge of the world.

In Generations: Does When You’re Born Shape Who You Are? (Atlantic Books), Bobby Duffy argues that our currently polarising discourse about generational difference is ‘a mixture of fabricated battles and tiresome clichés’. Duffy, director of the Policy Institute at King’s College London, likes to use an abundance of quantitative statistics and qualitative surveys to challenge common stereotypes and perceptions (his previous book was called The Perils of Perception). Generations thus avoids a charge that could be levelled at Gen Z, Explained – that its conclusions mostly rest on a selective and overeducated sample (although itdoes supplement its student interviews with a representative online survey of 2000 young adults in the US and UK). Duffy’s book is not as alive with anecdote and illustration as Gen Z, Explained, but it deploys a barrage of data to reveal the messier and more interesting reality behind popular myths.

It’s true, he says, that age has become more of a political dividing line, over issues such as Brexit, racial and gendered injustice and privilege, and climate change. It’s also true that social media’s silos can make it harder for generations to converse with each other across that line. Half of post-millennials use SnapChat, but only 1 per cent of Baby Boomers – although some apps, like Facebook and WhatsApp, do better at cutting across age divides. But our fractious politics and online squabbles have created a false impression of post-millennial woke warriors and baby-boomer reactionaries at war. Family links remain stronger than our links to our peers. Lockdown compliance among young people was high partly because they wanted to protect their parents and grandparents from the virus. If anything, as I see on open days and at graduations in the sweetly close bonds that students have with their parents, the generation gap has narrowed. Those interviewed in Gen Z, Explained say that they often call or message a parent – usually the mother – several times a day, or send them pictures, especially of meals.

Sociologists use three explanations for why people’s attitudes and behaviours change over time: period effects, lifecycle effects and cohort effects. Period effects are when change happens across all age groups, because of sweeping societal shifts. Lifecycle effects are when change happens because of the aging process, or in response to key events such as leaving home, becoming a parent or retiring. Cohort effects are when change happens because a generation is socialised by the same experiences. Duffy thinks that the current discussion of generations attributes too much to cohort effects and not enough to period and lifecycle effects.

Generations that seem atypical when they are young tend to revert to a familiar life course as they age. For instance, post-millennials are accused, like many cohorts before them, of being individualistic and materialistic. To the extent that this is true, it is a lifecycle effect, a youthful trait that people grow out of as they take on the responsibilities of work and family. Post-millennials are also around twice as likely to say they feel lonely than older people, but we need to remember that they are at a stage of life when socialising feels compulsory and isolation cuts deep.

When you factor in lifecycle and period effects, generational changelooks more nuanced. My students will eventually have to make their truce with email, not just because I tiresomely insist on emailing them, but because it will remain the default form of communication in graduate employment. A cohort effect will become a lifecycle effect. What Gen Z, Explained claims as a cohort effect – the value young people place on being open and authentic – seems to me more of a period effect. In her book Family Secrets, the historian Deborah Cohen argues that a ‘modern age of confession’ has been slowly emerging in Britain since the 1930s, as attitudes towards divorce, illegitimacy, homosexuality, infidelity, mental disability and other aspects of life once kept as shameful secrets have changed. Transparent self-narration has come to be seen as the key to psychological well-being and a healthy public life. Generation Z’s attitudes are part of a long-term trend towards the valuing (even over-valuing) of emotional candour and empathetic connection.

One symptom of this trend is the irresistible rise of relatable, a word I have been trying for at least a decade to get students to stop writing in their essays. One day they all just started using it at once, as if there had been a meeting about it in my absence. Again and again, they commended a text, character or theme for being relatable. Easy to relate to, they meant. Relatable to what?, I would ask in the margin, perhaps too gruffly. I did not care for this voguish word, which seemed to demand that literature should always mirror our own lives, instead of being a portal into the implacable strangeness of other lives.

Needless to say, my war against relatable has ended in bitter defeat, with my pedants’ army routed and fleeing for the hills. Ogilvie’s iGen Corpus reveals much higher usage of this word among young people, but that is surely shifting. When I saw an interview with Patti Smith (born 1946) in which she described her song ‘Because the Night’ as ‘very relatable’, I knew the game was up. Fair enough. Language is always changing and young people are always at the vanguard. Anyone trying to counter the hegemony of relatable calls to mind the Grandpa Simpsons meme used to mock baby boomers railing against change: Old man yells at cloud.One of these days I may even start using relatable myself. That is how language works, and how cohort effects become period effects.

The most profound recent generational change, for Duffy, has nothing to do with technology. It is the phenomenon of ‘delayed adulthood’. Key life stages, such as leaving home, getting a stable job and moving into a place of one’s own, are happening much later. This partly stems from people staying longer in education but mostly stems from the low wages, precarious employment, debt and housing problems created by austerity. An emblematic contemporary figure is the university graduate sleeping in the single bed of their childhood bedroom. Duffy quotes one 28-year-old who has moved back in with her parents: ‘It’s hard to feel like an adult when you’re living with the people who used to brush your teeth.’ The huge growth in private wealth compared to growth in income, largely down to the long housing boom, ensures that advantage and disadvantage will be passed down the generations. Duffy suggests that this betrayal of the intergenerational contract – the promise that each cohort will have a better life than the one before it – is ‘a key reason why people of all ages are more likely to question whether our economic and political systems are working’.

Those with an interest in maintaining the status quo, meanwhile, prefer to treat post-millennials as children. This involves much less effort than addressing the structural causes of delayed adulthood. If young people have the temerity to want a secure job and affordable housing, they are told to grow up and quit whingeing. If they can’t pay their heating bills, it is because they have frittered away their income on Starbucks and Netflix, having failed to learn the grown-up art of delayed gratification. And if they are consumed by woke identity politics and metropolitan Remainer attitudes, then they must have been force-fed these views by their university lecturers.

This now common idea of universities as indoctrination camps for impressionable young minds would not survive long in a university classroom. Why would my students pay attention to my views on Brexit, when I can’t even get them to stop using the word relatable? Teaching is an uncertain affair, full of such humility-inducing failures and miscues. Students have their own ideas about what is worth knowing and retaining, not because they are a tribe apart, but because each one of them is an adult human – unbiddable, unpredictable and, ultimately, indecipherable. My students are not relatable, and neither am I.

We expend so much anxious thought on generations because, as Duffy says, they are ‘interwoven with the fundamentals of human existence and societal change; while individuals are born, live and die, society flows on, changed a little or a lot by our cohort’s presence and then its absence’. It is salutary for people in positions of privilege, like me, to be discombobulated by change, to feel that those younger than us are becoming harder to reach as they pull the rug from under the reality we have helped shape. In his memoir Teacher Man Frank McCourt writes about the thirty years he spent teaching English in New York high schools. The experience confirmed the truth of what his old professor of education had told him, that ‘it is the function of the young to get rid of their elders, to make room on the planet’. A teacher’s role is to pass something on and get out of the way – to make themselves dispensable.

Still, if you are a teacher of the humanities, you have to believe this: the journey from one brain to another may be the most difficult and circuitous in the universe, but there is still a basic commonality to human experience, and in a classroom you can search for that commonality together. Even cognitive aliens are, in Elkind’s words, ‘emotional countrymen’. If I need reassurance that this is true, I remind myself that I am in all essentials the same person as that homesick student in a phone box: stubborn, needy, self-absorbed, socially unconfident, intellectually arrogant. Since then, I have dumped many once cutting-edge bits of tech in landfill but, in the words of the Tracey Thorn song, the heart remains a child. Now I am an old(ish) man yelling at clouds. But nothing has really happened to me except the passing of time, and no one consulted me about that.

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