We’re still talking about Gen Z the wrong way

Art by Gianne Encarnacion

So, we have to make something clear. Millennials aren’t… the youth anymore. Shocker.

That’s just how it is. Young STAR is a youth publication, and we all decided at one point, without even meeting about it, that we aren’t a millennial publication anymore. For a long time, we were. But time moves forward and eventually a new generation rises to shape the world in ways that those that came before them couldn’t. And for now, they’ve been saddled with the awkward but it’ll-do-for-now title of Generation Z.

We haven’t quite reached a consensus for what defines Gen Z, but the press sure is trying. What’s saddening to see though is we in the media are still making the same discursive mistakes that TIME magazine made with that cover in 2013. This article by Esquire begins from the same boring assumptions. This BusinessMirror article treats youth slang like indecipherable code. Even open-minded pieces eager to call Gen Z the future still fall into the trap of demographing young people as mere workers and consumers, instead of confronting the larger cultural and political picture.

 

Even open-minded pieces eager to call Gen Z the future still fall into the trap of demographing young people as mere workers and consumers, instead of confronting the larger cultural and political picture.

 

As a millennial who has been at the business end of many a lazy generalization, I don’t want the next demographic cohort of movers and shapers to go through that same discursive BS. Every generation literally ever has called the generations that come after them apathetic, entitled, what-have-you, and I don’t intend for millennials to be guilty of the same crimes. I can’t overstress how important it is for us to reevaluate our usual modes of generational thinking — we get it right, that’s one step closer to making meaningful social change. So let this piece be a solution, or at least an attempt — a list of suggestions for companies, media outlets, and grumpy old people for how to talk to and about Gen Z, without blindly repeating history.

Okay. Talking to companies and media outlets again. The big umbrella rule is to think critically. These pointers are specifications of that rule. They will occasionally overlap with their concerns and goals, but are enumerated thusly for the sake of nuance.

Respect, don’t pander.

Part of the experience of being a young person means wincing at the attempts large corporations make to look young in the interest of maintaining relevance. There are clumsy, condescending ways to do this — look no further than any company or congressman that assumes branding their campaign as woke lit af bae is enough to get clout. You just end up driving your target audience away. You really wanna get the attention of young people? Treat them for what they are and for what they will eventually become: young adults. People who are more than their slang and the social media platforms they like to be on. Also, hashtags aren’t as powerful as they used to be, you may as well kill them now.

 

Understand, don’t generalize.

However loosely we define what kind of demographic falls under which generational label, that demographic will be made of a diverse set of individuals with their own beliefs and principles. Same goes for millennials, Gen X-ers, and Baby Boomers, with no single generation being perfectly ideologically unified.

A handy text to acknowledge here is Karl Mannheim’s The Sociological Problem of Generations, in which he states that a generation is not a group or a club, and is not perfectly united by specific beliefs or likes, or even a social bond, but is full of people occupying unique positions, negotiating their reality in different ways. (That would explain why even among millennials, some of us strongly criticize the president, while some of us don’t.) So if we are going to make generalizations, they must be self-reflexive — sociological instead of stereotypical. It would be right to say, for example, broadly speaking, that Generation Z, born into the digital age, navigates present technology differently from the rest of us. It would be wrong to say that young people don’t know how to read books anymore.

Sympathize, don’t condemn.

I’m willing to bet that Gen Z will be responsible for the death of a bunch of industries and the dismantling of many shitty systems. And when that happens, it won’t be because of malice, but because they’re uniquely responding to a social paradigm they might disagree with, in their quest for fulfillment and self-actualization. In a video essay for PBS Idea Channel about millennials, host Mike Rugnetta states that “What one generation sees as natural, the next generation sees critically.” We can extend that to every other wave of new young people that comes after us.

Some of us in Gen Y may have fancied ourselves once as individuals who challenge the system, but it would be reasonable to say that some of us have either become a part of it or even empowered it. We shouldn’t be surprised when we are challenged for that reason. So if Gen Z end up killing shit we hold close to us — it’s too soon to say which — it’s our responsibility to try to understand why, before we make any judgments.

Be charitable, not harsh.

This is a little similar to the last one in that it calls for the first impulse of consideration and not anger. But what I want to emphasize here is that Generation Z is so, so young, and in the middle of (or even the beginning!) their intellectual journeys. Millennials are at this point more ensconced in the mold of adulthood than before — the jobs, the marriages, the kids, the taxes, the life lessons accumulated from being on earth for a certain amount of time. So I am afraid, what with how time pulls us further away from youth, and the online tendency to shame people with misguided opinions instead of educating them, that we will forget that young people — of all generations — don’t start with a whole, mature view of the world. A 16-year-old with crappy politics is nothing controversial, and we would do well to go easy on those kids, instead of cheering for their cancellation. That’s another discursive challenge we have to confront.

Be flexible, not rigid.

I’m writing with the admittedly prideful goal of setting an ultimate standard for how we talk about young people, but honestly, conversations about society and culture evolve and morph and are always in flux, which means that maybe the frameworks and isms we’ve grown accustomed to might eventually become inadequate. Society transforms in ways that are hard to predict, and with that, the way young people respond to those changes. With that in mind we have to always try to be discursively ahead of the curb, instead of locking ourselves away in a past filled only with the things we’re used to. That’s a mistake grumpy old people make. Let’s not do the same.

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