By Justin Grosslight
Throughout, Gen Z, Explained does its best to help readers relate to its protagonists by placing them in Gen Z’s shoes.
Gen Z, Explained: The Art of Living in a Digital Age by Roberta Katz, Sarah Ogilvie, Jane Shaw, and Linda Woodhead, The University of Chicago Press, 280 pages, $22.50.
Born between the years 1995 and 2009, the generation known as Gen Z (also known as “iGen” and “Zoomers”) is coming of age. Arguably the most motley, computer savvy cohort to date, they have adopted social mores and work habits contoured to a digitally connected world. Yet to outsiders, many of Gen Z’s rituals appear unfamiliar, even downright bizarre. Seeking to “neither pathologize nor idealize Gen Zers, but rather to understand them in their own terms,” authors Roberta Katz, Sarah Ogilvie, Jane Shaw, and Linda Woodhead draw on illuminating insights from sociology, anthropology, linguistics, history, and religious studies to paint a multifaceted portrait of the group. Theoretical flourishes are grounded in research: surveys, analysis of a 70-million-word “iGen corpus” of Gen Z word usage, articles on Gen Z in Pacific Standard magazine, and, above all, interviews and focus groups with American and UK Gen Zers themselves. Throughout, Gen Z, Explained does its best to help readers relate to its protagonists by placing them in Gen Z’s shoes.
Central to the book’s argument is that technology profoundly colors Gen Zers’ lives. Born into an Internet-wired world, they must straddle the real and digital spheres in order to survive, adeptly using one to reinforce the other. Yet “[a]s technology evolves, so do associated social codes and behaviors.” Online access has nourished collaborative activity, fostered flexible working hours, and rejiggered how formal versus informal chat can be communicated. The generation has popularized memes, copypastas, and new slang — much of the new lingo borrowed from African American communities. More important, access to a smorgasbord of online information has helped young individuals explore their myriad interests and define themselves with nuance, from gender and sexual identity to cultural proclivities. The web has also provided them fluid entry to (and exit from) hard-to-reach niche communities in the real world. Still, Gen Z does not worship technology. In fact, Zers are highly wary of image manipulation, trolling, identity theft, and harassment. Most protect themselves online and speak out against fraud. Authenticity lies at the heart of their sensibility: their most intimate interactions occur off the screen.
What’s most interesting about this study is how it reveals the ways that Gen Zers have turned modernity’s hallmark institutions on their heads. Technological interaction is at the center of their world, and the result is that friends have become family and family have become friends. Serious dating and marriage take a back seat to casual relationships; Gen Zers are focused on individual goals. Many remain skeptical of organized religion as dogmatic, paternalistic, or authoritarian; in its place, unstructured spirituality has become popular via meditation, talismans, tattoos, and appreciation for nature. Organizationally, entrenched leadership is jettisoned and hierarchies flattened in pursuit of more democratic participation. Gen Zers understand that their seniors have handed them a world afflicted with climate change, job insecurity, police violence, and racial hatred. Persevering to mend the world it has inherited — one characterized by acclaimed experts, didactic truths, and rigid social and organizational structures — Gen Z is operating in fresh paradigms that feel foreign to older citizens. The authors suggest that this intimidating gap must be overcome; collaboration between the generations is a necessity: “Cross generational work will be needed to resolve effectively the tensions between old and new ways of thinking about identity, diversity, equity, and inclusion.”
Yet Gen Z, Explained is optimistic. Bringing readers up close and personal with their subjects, the authors show considerable empathy for them. In doing so, their book contrasts with (or perhaps attempts to answer) negative judgments that have been levied against this generation. Contending that, “For the most part Gen Zers are serious minded, even if they are not in the workforce or raising children,” the authors reject psychologist Jean Twenge’s claims that Zers are maturing too slowly or lack the skills for critical thinking. In showing that Gen Z valiantly defends safe spaces and intersectionality, eagerly advocates for mental health resources, and tirelessly strives to create a more inclusive conception of identity, the authors challenge the thesis of The Coddling of the American Mind (2018) — that Zers are cosseted and emotionally fragile. And, because personal anecdotes take precedence over illustrative tables and images, the book moves well beyond statistical analysis. Most important, Gen Z, Explained is open enough to admit that Zers can be a source of wisdom, for “as much as postmillenials have to learn, they have much to teach.” As the world becomes increasingly digital and Covid-19 has made face-to-face interactions problematic, Gen Z has shown its elders how to manage technology and thrive in a digital world.
Despite its successes, however, the text presents methodological concerns. While interviews and focus groups anchor the authors’ analysis, the locations of these engagements (Stanford University, Lancaster University, Foothill Community College) host a demographic that skews left politically. Undergraduates writing for the Stanford Daily openly acknowledge that the campus is liberal. High Flyers Research, an independent London-based market research firm focused on student and graduate recruitment, found Lancaster students heavily favoring the Labour Party in their 2015 Student Politics report. Meanwhile, commuter students to Foothill Community College largely hail from Santa Clara and San Mateo counties, where over 70 percent of votes cast are Democratic. Given this sensibility, topics such as gender fluidity are comfortably mainstream. Would students on more conservative campuses, like Liberty University or Imperial College London, hold similar beliefs? Is it fair to represent the core beliefs of Gen Z from discussions at three liberal sites in America and Great Britain? Rather than striving for political balance, the authors embrace the liberal as normal and are content to state that conservative youth “articulated their position as that of the outlier.”
I also wonder whether the venue choices were mainly based on convenience: Foothill College is less than 10 miles from Stanford’s Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences (CASBS), which hosted the project, and Stanford and Lancaster Universities are the home institutions of Roberta Katz and Linda Woodhead, respectively. Equally concerning is that, in meeting only with individuals aged 18 and above, the authors overlook half of the Gen Z cohort. Though interviewing minors could involve byzantine regulatory hurdles and no doubt cultivate some parent-inflected responses, these youngsters may have different views than their older peers. Making claims about the entirety of Gen Z based on a restricted age sample not only seems foolish, but also permits the authors to sidestep crucial investigation of how home environments have shaped Gen Z. The findings of a relatively recent study, Life at Home in the Twenty-First Century (2012), raises the question of whether American Gen Z children, who uniquely grew up with abundant personalized household possessions, might differ in significant ways from their counterparts elsewhere on the globe.
Beyond methodological issues, the authors could have done more comparison and contrast. For example, in chapter one, they note that some Gen Zers lament how rapidly their younger siblings in so-called Generation Alpha (those born in or after 2010) are acquiring technology and becoming dependent on social media. But what do Gen Zers think about their millennial compadres? Published attitudes about millennials are vast, ranging from disdain for their narcissism (e.g., “generation me”) to sympathy for their being trapped in the neoliberal economic order. It would be interesting to know what Gen Z thinks. In terms of their historical analysis, the authors acknowledge the mid-20th-century LGBT community and second-wave feminism as seminal players in broadening definitions of family and making the personal political. But they miss finding a cultural analogue of Free to Be You and Me in the United Kingdom; the children’s entertainment project brought a particularly American focus to the search for authenticity among ’70s youth. Additionally, the book notes that in the ’70s cultural factors encouraged schools to become more child-centered and families more democratic, influencing the values of Gen Z’s parents and, ultimately, Gen Z. But structural issues also played a relevant role. Examining fiscal data, economists Matthias Doepke and Fabrizio Zilibotti recently have shown that more permissive parenting practices flourish in settings with less income inequality: this was true not only in ’70s America and the United Kingdom, but also in other nations. In terms of the big picture, it would be fascinating to know if the traits that characterize Gen Z in this book hold for individuals hailing from countries that are culturally and structurally unlike the two nations examined in the study.
Still, Gen Z, Explained is a fascinating text. Although its members are less than a generation younger than me and Internet endeavors punctuated my adolescence, Gen Z’s vision, values, and parlance often feel alien to me. This study provides penetrating insight into how American and UK youth see the world — through their own words. By building “appreciation for the challenges they [Gen Zers] face,” the volume encourages older readers to recognize the strengths of their progeny, particularly to appreciate the importance of navigating an increasingly digital world. No other book available brings readers into more intimate contact with Gen Z . For this reason alone it warrants a careful read.
Justin Grosslight is an academic entrepreneur interested in examining relationships between science, society, and business. He has published academic articles in mathematics and history of science, book reviews on a wide range of topics, and several vocabulary development and test preparation books. A graduate of Stanford and Harvard, Justin currently resides in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, working as a consultant and mentor. He has traveled extensively throughout China and to all 11 Southeast Asian nations.