Will Gen Z Save the World?

As a college professor for over 35 years, I’ve gotten to know three generations of students: Gen X (born between 1965 and 1980), the Millennials (1981-1996), and now Gen Z (1997-2012). And because I teach rhetoric, I’ve read thousands of their papers, providing substantial insight into the way they think.

To be sure, each generation has had its share of good kids and bright minds. In general, however, I found that Millennials presented unique challenges. They were, as a group, the most entitled, judgmental, and arrogant of all the students I’ve taught, often basing an inflated sense of self-importance on scanty evidence.

Essentially, they are the “participation trophy” generation, the unwitting victims of countless artificial “self-esteem building” experiments by the education establishment, not to mention their own parents. These are the kids who were told from kindergarten on how special they were—and, unfortunately, they believed it.

Their essays and verbal comments were characterized by poor reasoning, shoddy arguments, and the elevation of pathos over logos, along with a deep-seated, quasi-religious certitude. Apparently, they felt no need to support their positions with evidence. They were right simply because of who they were: the smartest kids ever. Hadn’t their parents and teachers always told them so?

I’m generalizing, of course. As I said, I had some excellent students during those years, including many I still keep in touch with. Nevertheless, what I just described is reasonably accurate, based on my experiences with thousands of Millennials.

Thus, I have not been surprised to see what’s happening in our country right now, with those “kids” in charge of government, industry, education, and most other aspects of life. Given what I observed among my Millennial college students, today’s post-rational, fact-free culture, with its toxic mix of ignorance, arrogance, and utter cluelessness (think Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez) was inevitable.

We should not, however, despair, remembering that everything is cyclical. The Millennials will not necessarily have the last word. This may be their time in the sun, their opportunity to tear down our civilization temporarily unimpeded, but that moment (as always) is fleeting. There is another generation of bright young people—Gen Z—following right on their heels and therein may lie our temporal salvation.

In comparison to their Millennial predecessors, my Gen Z students tend to be more open-minded, more interested in facts and logic, more inclined to question the status quo, and more amenable to free markets. They also take a more nuanced view of history and are inherently distrustful of ideologues on either side. (Again, I’m speaking generally.)

Recently, for example, I led a class discussion about Christopher Columbus. The consensus among my Gen Z students was that, while they didn’t necessarily condone all of his actions, the explorer also had some “great” qualities. More importantly, they recognized that he was a product of his time and must therefore be judged in that light—not solely by our modern-day standards and mores.

After dealing with Millennials for more than a decade, I found that rather refreshing.

Gen Z may be more socially liberal than the Baby Boomers (though perhaps less so than Millennials), accepting things like same-sex marriage and transgenderism as facts of life. But as a group, they seem almost libertarian in their desire to be left alone.

They are not, by and large, activists. When you see Antifa and BLM rioting in the streets, those are not primarily Gen-Zers. Beneath the masks and hoods, you will find mostly disaffected Millennials—30-year-old losers still living in their parents’ basement. Or young(ish) college professors.

That’s why I was thrilled last weekend to see all those Gen-Z students making a statement on national TV, as they crammed into college football stadiums and cavorted joyfully for the cameras—with zero social distancing and nary a mask in sight. “We’re not afraid,” they proclaimed by their actions, “of a virus that is less dangerous to us than many other diseases, not to mention some of the stupid behaviors in which 20-year-olds routinely engage. We just want to live life to the fullest.”

I found the sight positively inspiring—the most hopeful sign I’ve seen in months. It was basically a large-scale, televised revolt against fearmongering, pointless, oppressive restrictions, and creeping authoritarianism. And I believe it has the potential to be far more powerful than any adult protest at a school board meeting, as important and admirable as those might be.

As I write, we don’t yet know what will come of this youthful rebellion. It’s possible, even likely, that “cases” might “spike” in many of those college towns. But I sincerely doubt large numbers of young people will get seriously ill, become hospitalized, or die, for the simple reason that that hasn’t happened for the past year-and-a-half, despite frequent “spikes.”

And if I’m right, then COVID is effectively done. Sure, absent dire outcomes, the government-media complex will no doubt hyperventilate about “cases.” Pay no attention. If very few kids are going to the ER, much less dying, then infections are a good thing, pushing us ever closer to endemicity and herd immunity.

That has always been the case, and we’ve known it since at least April 2020. Unfortunately, we did exactly the opposite of what we should have done, which is what Sweden (and, to a lesser extent, Florida) did: protect the vulnerable while letting everyone else go about their business, free of government intervention. If we had followed that strategy from the beginning, we would be in a much better place right now.

But perhaps it’s not too late. After all, as Gen Z has so publicly demonstrated, the government can’t prevent us from living if we have the courage to do so.

Image: Mask-free, Gen Z Wisconsin Badger fans. YouTube screen grab.

UPDATE: An earlier version of this article referred to Gen Y as the generation born between 1965 and 1980. In fact, that is the Gen X generation. The post has been updated to reflect that fact.

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