On the walk from the car park to my university building there’s a red telephone box, a classic K6 model. The other day, out of curiosity, I stepped inside and let the door thud behind me. It must be fifteen years, at least, since I last experienced 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, harassed by the pips that demanded more coins and the lonely finality of the purring dial tone when it cut me off. I was raised in a clunkier, analogue age, when long-distance communication felt precarious, interruptible.
I was an early inhabitant of the online world and remember using Netscape Navigator, one of the first web browsers, in a computer room at the University of Sussex in 1994. With mobile devices, however, I was on the other side of the adoption curve. I succumbed in 2004, with an entry-level Nokia phone; I still had it three years later, when Steve Jobs introduced the iPhone at the Macworld Expo. I now have a smartphone, but prod it ponderously and too emphatically. My students always have their phone in their hand; they are virtuosos of the swipe and pinch.
Most of this year’s new undergraduates were born between September 2003 and August 2004, the year the Hutton Inquiry reported and Channel 4 aired the last episode of Friends. They were two or three when Jobs launched the iPhone. In Gen Z, Explained: The Art of Living in a Digital Age (Chicago, £18), an anthropologist (Roberta Katz), a linguist (Sarah Ogilvie), a historian (Jane Shaw) and a sociologist (Linda Woodhead) attempt to understand this cohort of digital natives. They define Generation Z, or Zoomers, or post-millennials, as those born between 1995 and 2009. Even the oldest of them has no memory of a world without broadband. The book’s findings are mostly based on interviews with students at three institutions: Stanford University, Foothill Community College (a few miles from Stanford in northern California) and the University of Lancaster. Its central premise is that new technology has created entirely new ways of thinking and behaving. Gen Zers, they argue, ‘are shaped by and encounter the world in a radically different way from those who know what life was like without the internet’.
In an essay on the work of Jean Piaget, the child psychologist David Elkind used the term ‘cognitive alien’ to suggest just how differently very young children see the world – believing, for instance, that the sun and moon follow them as they walk around. For Elkind, the main problem in education is communication: a child’s mind is not a tabula rasa but a rival system for generating reality. Along with many other middle-aged teachers, I have experienced the related fear that my students now dwell in an unreachable mental landscape. But I’m not convinced that post-millennials think and behave in such a different way.
Katz et al point out that Gen Zers have had to navigate the new online reality without the guidance of their elders, and have created rich and hard-to-penetrate subcultures. What they mostly like to do, the book argues, is to collaborate in leaderless groups. They use digital tools to create shared documents, sync their calendars, write and read fan fiction, play games together. They use apps to organise lift-sharing, couch-surfing and political activism. The authors further ‘explain’ Generation Z by pointing to the intricate language and etiquette of their online lives. Post-millennials can quickly convey their pleasure or displeasure through memes. They use emojis as a ‘social lubricant’ and bracket words with asterisks and tildes for emphasis and irony. Whether they write ‘k’ or ‘kk’ to mean ‘OK’ is charged with meaning. The first is curt; the second is cheerful and casual, a way to temper the brusqueness of the single letter. These tonal shadings matter because post-millennials like to state their intentions clearly. Self-labelling, especially of fine-grained sexual and gendered identities, has become an ‘imperative’. They think it important to be themselves, to admit their struggles and vulnerabilities, to say what they mean. In the iGen Corpus, a digital data bank compiled by Ogilvie of seventy million words used by post-millennials, terms such as real, true, honest and fake occur far more often than in general language use.
According to Katz et al, in a world where so many things compete for their attention, the students they interview 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, but to help them concentrate. And yet nearly all the students interviewed for the book say that their favourite mode of communication is ‘in person’.
Every era believes its technology has changed everything. My students check their phones all the time, but I would too, if I were sent that many messages. Social networking has no doubt made young people more willing to make intimate feelings public. The students in Gen Z, Explained post pictures of their ‘depression meals’ to show that they are feeling low. But they also make clear that this kind of sharing is made possible by distance. One interviewee says 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 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 conscious of the paradox of having many digital forums for self-expression while feeling powerless to change economic and political systems.
In Generations: Does When You’re Born Shape Who You Are? (Atlantic, £20), Bobby Duffy argues that the discourse around generational difference is ‘a mixture of fabricated battles and tiresome clichés’. Age has been a definite political dividing line in issues such as Brexit, racial injustice and climate change. Social media can make it harder for generations to converse: half of post-millennials use Snapchat, but only 1 per cent of Boomers. But our fractious politics have created a false impression of a conflict between post-millennial woke warriors and Boomer reactionaries. Family links, Duffy points out, often remain stronger than links to our peers. Covid lockdown compliance among young people was high partly because they wanted to protect their parents and grandparents, and judging from the students and parents I see on open days and at graduations, the generation gap has, if anything, narrowed. Those interviewed in Gen Z, Explained say that they often call or message a parent – usually their mum – several times a day, or send them pictures.
Sociologists give three explanations for the change in people’s attitudes and behaviours over time: period effects, lifecycle effects and cohort effects. Period effects describe change across all age groups: the result of sweeping societal shifts. Lifecycle effects describe change resulting from the ageing process or in response to key events such as leaving home, becoming a parent or retiring. Cohort effects describe change that results from shared generational experiences. Duffy, a professor of public policy, argues that the current discussion 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 pattern as they age. Post-millennials are accused, like many 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. Gen Zers are also around twice as likely to say they feel lonely as older people, but they are at a stage of life when isolation cuts deep. My students will have to make their truce with email, not just because I insist on emailing them, but because it will remain the default form of communication in most 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 emerging in Britain since the 1930s, as attitudes towards divorce, illegitimacy, homosexuality, infidelity and mental distress have changed. Self-narration is now seen as key to psychological wellbeing and a healthy public life. Gen Z’s attitudes are part of a long-term trend towards valuing (or overvaluing) emotional candour and empathetic connection.
One symptom of this trend is the rise of the term relatable, a word I have been trying to get students to stop writing in their essays for at least a decade. Again and again, they commend a text, character or theme for being relatable, meaning ‘easy to relate to’. Relatable to what? I gruffly write in the margin. The word seems to demand that literature should always mirror our own lives, instead of illuminating the strangeness of other lives. My war against relatable has ended in defeat. Ogilvie’s iGen Corpus reveals much higher use of the word among young people, but they are always at the vanguard of language change. 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. I’m like Grampa Simpson in the meme: Old man yells at cloud. One of these days I may even start using relatable myself.
The most profound recent generational change, for Duffy, has nothing to do with technology: delayed adulthood. Important life stages, such as leaving home, getting a stable job and moving into a place of one’s own, are happening much later. This is in part because people are staying longer in education but is mostly due to the low wages, precarious employment, debt and housing problems created by austerity. 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 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 – 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. If young people demand a secure job and affordable housing, they are told to grow up and quit whingeing. If they can’t pay their heating bills, it’s because they have frittered away their income on Starbucks and Netflix. And if they have woke identity politics and Remainer attitudes, they must have been force-fed these views by their university lecturers.
The notion 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 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 of them is an adult – unbiddable, unpredictable and indecipherable. My students aren’t 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 a university teacher like me to be discombobulated by change, to feel that those younger than us are becoming harder to reach. 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.
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