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Was Jodie Foster right about Gen Z?

Boomers, Gen X, Gen Z - what defines them? When sweeping generalisations are made about a given generation, like Jodie Foster’s recent comments on Gen Z, it’s worth asking whether such comments are valid, and where they come from.

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The actress Jodie Foster has recently generated some conversation over her comments about Gen Z; those born between 1995-2012.

In this interview with The Guardian, Foster both praises the authenticity of Generation Z, but also comments that “They’re really annoying, especially in the workplace. They’re like, ‘Nah, I’m not feeling it today, I’m gonna come in at 10.30am.’ Or, like, in emails, I’ll tell them this is all grammatically incorrect, did you not check your spelling? And they’re like, ‘Why would I do that, isn’t that kind of limiting?’” 

Her comments have raised, and perhaps furrowed, a few eyebrows – not least among Gen Z’ers. Is there really a meaningful distinction between different generations? Doesn’t every generation complain about those coming up behind them? The answer to these questions is yes and yes, and it’s worth exploring why this is the case. 

Jean Twenge is a psychologist at San Diego State University and author of seven books, including the recently published ‘Generations’. It’s the first book of ‘big data’ on the differences between different generations, and it explores what the catalysts for change between generations are. Twenge argues that the major driver of change across generations is technology, which changes not only the way people live and work, but shapes the shifting attitudes towards sex, gender, and family, among other things. 

Twenge’s book is a firehose of fascinating and sometimes alarming data, from which she argues that technology has facilitated a rise in individualism, whereby personal choice and freedom of expression have become almost sacred. This explains the emphasis on authenticity, and also accounts for the explosion of different genders and sexual preferences, as well as the declining number of people getting married and having children; both can be seen as freedom limiting. Among the various graphs and charts Twenge uses (many of which can be viewed here), one that gives particular cause for alarm is the astronomical rise in anxiety, depression, and suicide among Gen Z. Twenge writes that “almost 30% of American girls have clinical depression and it’s the same across the Anglosphere. The suicide rate for 10 to 24-year-olds has tripled.”  

The alarming rise in depression can be traced to the advent of the smartphone in 2011, which has rewired the way people live and grow up. Outdoor play and meeting up in person have been replaced by the disembodied medium of social media. Through the smartphone, many of the social challenges that previous generations faced could be circumvented, and the resilience baked into previous teenagers remains undeveloped – Twenge says that today’s 18-year-olds are in a similar stage in maturity and development to a 14-year-old last generation. (It’s worth pointing out here that the fact that not all Gen Z are like this does nothing to alter the fact that there’s an average). 

So, has this got anything to do with Jodie Foster’s comments about Generation Z being a bit, erm, whiney and flaky? It’s a common trope that every generation complains that youngsters are too soft because life is too easy for them. To this, Twenge says, “It might be because they were always right. With technology making life progressively less taxing for each generation, each generation is softer than the one before it. Just because something has been said before doesn’t make it wrong, especially if the change keeps going in the same direction.”  

Columbia Law Professor Tim Wu, writing in the New Yorker, cautions against technology that makes life much easier. He writes that “our will-to-comfort, combined with our technological powers, creates a stark possibility.” That possibility is a future like the one captured in the animated film, WALL•E; one which is defined by an “absence of discomforts.” Wu says that we “take seriously our biological need to be challenged, or face the danger of evolving into creatures whose lives are more productive but also less satisfying.” The need for challenge and resistance is baked into life across the biological spectrum; for example, trees require the resistance of wind in order to develop the inner strength to support their own weight at full height. 

If personal freedom and comfort are our primary goals, then we miss out on the satisfaction that comes through the challenges of life, especially those found in relationships. A life centred around preferences and desires might avoid a lot of awkward and challenging situations in the short term, but it will also be devoid of the growth and satisfaction that comes through them.  

If we’re interested in what it means to live a fulfilling life, we need to ask how technology or lifestyle choices are forming us.  The late English preacher, John Stott’s analogy, resonates here: just as a fish finds freedom in the limitations of water, humans discover their humanity in the relationships of love, with all the limitations and challenges they entail. In the quest for ‘the good life’, we should ask whether technology enhances or diminishes our souls rather than just affords convenience – especially when that technology is helping to raise a generation. 

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