Thursday, June 8, 2017

Gen Z

I’ve taught for about nine years, and middle school for the past three. My first year of teaching them they were fine, tractable. I could impart moral lessons on them and be all teacher-y. And last year was... okay. But I was increasingly concerned about the cohort that they seemed more...“depressed”? This year? Straight up nihilists. They seemingly believe in nothing. It is all pointless, all lies, all doomed.

Trump won? Okay - democracy clearly doesn’t work. Global warming? Great - didn’t want to live past 25 anyway, and now it’ll be too hot to do so. Media a joke? Don’t care to watch that crap since clearly *someone* is always lying and the fact that it makes it on television shows the need to just tune it out. SJWs? Great, I guess, whatever. They’re pretty good on equal rights and tolerance except for all the people getting shot.

Interestingly, though, they are excited by one thing (besides slime/Rubik's cubes/fidget spinners/yoyos and other vaguely spectrum-y forms of stimulation - which, mind you, is not a bad thing but a *very* interesting development. Even the “mean girls” and popular kids have spinners and Rubik's cubes, for cripes’ sake. That, to me, is extraordinary.) namely they are interested in their identity and appearance, whether that materializes in Instagram or fandom membership, or some other form.

And before y’all get “IT HAS ALWAYS BEEN THUS” on me - no. I study world history, I know already all the Victorian and 1960s and Adam Conover you want to throw at me. Instead of getting defensive, please just listen to someone very much on the front lines of the rising generation - I have taught thousands of students (class sizes!) and this is the culmination of what the 90s began. 

In the pre-Instant Messenger days of middle school you had to watch ‘The Simpsons’ so you could show you were cool the next day, and got the jokes. There was very limited fandom to choose from, compared with the infinite vastness of the internet, and Simpsons was essentially king. But as Mike Rugnetta so expertly pointed out:

“Nothing you [The Simpsons] depicted was normal - because normal doesn’t exist. Normal is a lie invented by politicians and jerks to help them sleep at night. And this was a thing we needed to understand - desperately. Your authority figures - your Chief Wiggum, your Monty Burns, Principal Skinner and ‘Super Nintendo Chalmers’ - though vested with power, suffered their own significant shortcomings; they were fallible and human. And so my own teachers, directors and coaches came in to focus as multi-dimensional people who wielded the power they had not because of that power’s benefits, but sometimes in spite of it... Your media elite are incompetent, confused, or con artists - completely oblivious or operating on some very thinly-veiled agenda. You damn every cultural institution - politics, religion, media, family - as an effort of haphazard though purposeful manipulation by people just barely in control.

And then we all grew up and became teachers. And parents. And, entering our thirties, increasingly powerful figures. Our middle schoolers of today grew up in a world where the curtain was already pulled away, where the adult generation decided that if it they were going to be CEOs they would wear hoodies while doing so. Religion is declining among the Millennial bracket. As per Camus or Sartre, without a cause, like God, for explaining suffering and stupidity and absurdity life hurls at us we just have to navigate our complicated and arbitrary existence as best we can. Due to the economic collapse these kids grew up during and which we graduated into, we’re not starting families, buying homes or diamonds or whatever (too much avocado toast clearly) and frankly - we just aren’t like earlier generations. The Millennials abhor convention, as Rugnetta gets at, and, as new teachers, we had no compunctions in sharing Howard Zinn and “Lies My Teacher Told Me” to our students. Millennials don’t believe in the old narrative: “go to school, college, good grades, good job” - so why should their kids? The 90s kids who got married out of high school have kids whom I now teach in 6th and 7th grade. They are the first wave of this. 

But as a consequence those same students have even less faith in their world than we did, who previously held the record low. Our middle school kids are comparable to nihilists. With us raising them, modeling behavior, and teaching them, it’s not that surprising. Growing up with every taboo being broken before our eyes it’s only reasonable that we would do the same for the kids we encountered. It depresses us, because we saw the curtain torn away from us. But for Gen Z it’s absence is a given, and the conclusions they draw appropriately reflect the reality that Oz is not a great and powerful wizard.

However, as pointed out, the fact that they care about themselves, their fandom, and their social media, may be a cause for hope. Real nihilists (if that’s even possible) presumably wouldn’t care about dank memes, SpongeBob references (really? still?), Magic the Gathering, Flight Club’s sneakers or... fidget spinners. It’s very consumerist, which I find worrying, but it’s something. They only have faith, and only believe in, themselves.

That may be the greatest difference between their generation and ours.

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