Ask Colin: Generational Concerns

I have been thinking about this question a lot for the past few years as I’ve witnessed the Gen Zs reach adulthood. The social differences between us astounds me. I have a mild case of aspergers and I approach social situations with an academic attitude. The social rules never came naturally to me. I had to make a huge effort to learn them. Yet, to my eyes, many of the Gen Z seem way more socially stunted than I. It shocks me that a mere 5 years can make such a difference. Some of the worst social cases I know are even closer to me in age. Only 3 years younger and from the same socioeconomic situation.

A Gen Z couple in my family have recently had their first child. I’m on my second at the moment, so I try my best to connect with the wife. She seems so disconnected from the real world. And all the men in my husband’s family are constantly trying to figure out the husband. The young man is doing very well financially, but the obvious social immaturity makes some family members down right concerned. Especially for the baby.

This man has a brother a few years older with 2 children. He is right on the cusp of the Millennials and Gen Z and while he is certainty better socially, he and his wife are also so attached to their phones that their 3 year old daughter is barely capable of speech. She hears so little of it at home. I often encounter this at public parks. My son attempts to chat up other children his own age and they cannot communicate. They also seem confused about how to use playground equipment. The parents inevitably strike up an uncomfortable conversation with me when we stand near our kids on the swing and they comment on how inferior their child’s verbal skills are to mine. This makes me supremely uncomfortable because I am not a competitive mom. I don’t know what to say to them so I always go back to “Everyone learns on their own schedule.” Meanwhile, most of the other young parents are on their phones at the park.

I have loosely followed a recent case of a college boy who committed suicide supposedly at his girlfriend’s bidding. Some of the nasty language that was shown in her texts have become very common amongst Gen Z. It is offensive, but it is also beginning to become normal in toxic relationships.

The girlfriend’s lawyer argued to the jury that you cannot comprehend the degree to which these’s student’s lives are spent on the phone. Not an exact quote, but the point was similar. That got me thinking. He is correct. I cannot even imagine the degree to which an entire world curated to exactly what I want to view could at the same time hyper-sensitize my own sense of rightness and importance and simultaneously completely dehumanize other people. I cannot understand how easy it was for that girlfriend to send those nasty texts. How distant any sort of consequences might have been in her mind. She got her shot of dopamine and moved on in her virtual world.

I cannot bring myself to see these young adults as merely selfish. I truly believe that there is something different in their brains. A difference that, a decade ago was only usually observed in drug addicts and workaholics. And I wonder what can be done to rebalance these brains. To minimize the damage that these young people can do to the other people in the real world and to themselves.


Hey T-

Your concerns are warranted, but I do think there are complex issues intersecting with those concerns that might add some nuance to them, and perhaps even make them seem a little less inherently disconcerting.

The world we live in, today—all of us—is layered with social and e-social contexts. We have real-world lives, and we have e-lives that are informed and defined by different sets of incentives and variables, and every day those online realities seep into our real-world realities a little more profoundly.

Said another way: whereas once the online world was something more akin to playing a video game, with each of us controlling an avatar that is perhaps completely distinct from us and our personalities, today our online personae are tethered to our real-world identities, and thus, the two worlds are increasingly intermingled.

This is the result of social network rules and standards, the shift of many commercial activities to the digital world, and the relegation of a great deal of our day-to-day communication, even with people we know in real life, who perhaps live next door or in the same house as us, to our devices—to chat apps and social networks.

This online migration is neutral: neither inherently positive or negative.

There are consequences that can be construed one way or the other, based on your priorities, ideals, and adherence to a different status quo. But in general, this is a thing that is happening, and it’s something that’s affecting all of us, but the effects vary from person to person, culture to culture, and circumstance to circumstance.

One of the broad-based impacts that many of us are feeling to some degree is the creep of online-world incentives into the real-world, including the influence of dark patternsattention-mining, and click-based hedonic treadmill running. Which in practice means there are a great many ways our online activities can be used against us to keep us buying, clicking, and engaging with content in various ways. These levers and buttons can also be used to manipulate us into behavior patterns that are beneficial for the bottom lines of economic and ideological entities, but not necessarily great for those of us who are doing the clicking, buying, and “engaging.”

These influences are having an impact on all of us to varying degrees, but they’re more obvious in some groups than others, because those groups are growing up with these incentives already powerfully in place—and thus, some of these technologies will form the foundation of their habits and traditions, rather than having been added on to more fully formed social and habitual structures, later.

As a result, many people who are growing up with smartphones in their hands will have different social mores than you and me, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re stunted: it means they’re optimized for different environmental conditions and incentives. Some of these incentives will be generally negative, others broadly positive, most essentially neutral—but it’s worth considering that pretty much every generation scares the preceding generation because they fail to fall into lockstep with existing norms and standards, and, so far at least, this has generally resulted in iteration and evolution, rather than devastation.

Said another way: what we perceive as inferior behaviors or stunted sociability could actually be superior behaviors and improved sociability for a more digitally connected world, where the most valuable and integral interactions occur on virtual mediums. A change in metrics equals a change in what success looks like—much to the confusion and disconcertion of people who play the same game by different rules.

Looking at this situation from a different angle, generational labels can sometimes be useful shorthand, but they are not real in the sense that one’s age (the time-measured period between today and when we were born) is real.

We could call someone a Baby Boomer, for instance, because they were born in the United States sometime between 1946 and 1964, but there are countless variables that influence a person’s life, beyond the time-centric milieu that is thought to shape them in a statistically significant way.

Thus, such labels can be useful to compare and contrast certain measurable, average attributes of groups of people living in specific places at specific times, but we’re just as likely to be wrong as right. Generations are organizational labels that we made up to help us make broad statements about causes, effects, and behaviors. And as with any generalization, there’s often a self-serving bias in how we use these labels—we’re more likely to see other people as adhering to the traits of their supposed generations, while perceiving our own labels as incomplete or inaccurate.

This is the result of our knowing more about ourselves than we know about other people. We can see the distinctions that make these labels flawed in our own case, but we cannot see the full complexity of another person to achieve that same perspective. This seemingly obvious bias, though, is almost always ignored, because we humans tend to enjoy sorting things into easily comprehendible boxes, and are psychologically predisposed to ignore information that doesn’t fit within our rigid, invented structures.

This is something that all of us do: even those of us who are fully aware of the existence of this bias, and the fact that we’re likely succumbing to it on a regular basis.

The application of such labels, unfortunately, is incredibly useful for some entities, from census bureaus to marketing companies wanting to collect data about a country or wanting to sell brands on techniques that might help them reach particular demographics more effectively.

It’s in the best interest of many industries and individuals, in other words, to reinforce the value of these labels, because without them, they’d have a harder time flogging their wares.

It’s also useful for many facets of the news and entertainment media, which tend to play up the presumed distinctions between age, economic, racial, and other groups because it’s a convenient way to frame a story, and a great way to stir up controversy, and consequently, ratings.

Generations are heavily slanted toward certain sub-cultures and economic classes, they’re often non-representative between countries, or even between dominant sub-groups within a particular portion of a particular country, and they make broad-stroke assumptions about a great many things.

Much of the data that seems to support generational groupings are also prone to the same issues that plague sociological and psychological research in general; including the tendency to focus on so-called WEIRD groups: an acronym that stands for Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic.

People who have these attributes tend to be at the center of the lion’s share of research into everything from mental illness to consumer behavior, and as a result, a lot of our supposed understanding about such things slants heavily toward the preferences and tendencies of a very focused, globally non-representative group of people.

Now, none of this means there aren’t changes happening. They absolutely are, and they’re fairly dramatic, or at least dramatic-seeming, perhaps in part because we’re all more aware of each other and what’s happening over the fence these days due to the new technologies to which we have access and their associated social norms.

That said, the shift so-called Baby Boomers are currently going through as they adjust and are adjusted by Facebook social norms is arguably just as worrying as what’s happening with younger generations.

But the adjustments teens and young twenty-somethings are experiencing are even more dramatic-seeming from the perspective of those of us on the outside of that group because of how rapidly social norms have changed as dominant communication technologies have changed, amplified by how focused older generations tend to be on people in younger age groups. This is thought to be the case because we worry about them and their health and well-being, but also because teenagers and twenty-somethings tend to be the focus of youth culture, which presages and informs the rest of culture. So what the youngs are doing now may be what the rest of us are doing in a few years—which means there may be a somewhat selfish element to these concerns, as well.

I find it useful, when trying to understand changes and trends within groups to which I don’t belong, to try to figure out where the folks I’m assessing are coming from, what variables might be influencing the way they’re behaving, and how I might feel had I shared their circumstances.

Almost always, this helps me empathize with the decisions they make and what they must be feeling, even if I don’t fully, completely get their choices on a more intuitive level.

Likewise, I find it useful (and quite challenging) to question my own judgements about these other groups, and to check in and see if part of why their behaviors make me so uncomfortable is that I feel threatened or left out in some way.

Do I feel like I’m no longer the most important component of my culture zeitgeist? Do I feel like I’m being left behind? Do I feel like I’m being replaced by these punk kids who haven’t experienced and seen all the things I’ve experienced and seen?

Fortunately, I’ve met people in their 60s and 70s who have put effort into remaining mentally and psychologically malleable, and as a result have managed to keep up with the times—to understand what “kids” today are doing, even better than I, someone who is closer to them in age, can manage—and that gives me hope that it’s possible to maintain an enthusiasm for, and openness to, such changes. It’s possible to perceive these shifts as natural and interesting, and as things that I can participate in to some degree, rather than as things that are inherently threatening and worrying and bad.

It’s not easy to maintain that kind of equanimity, but it’s possible to remain “young” in that sense, at any age. It’s just a matter of deciding to do it, and then tweaking your internal analytical reflexes so that your natural inclinations shift from perceiving novelty and change as disconcerting, to instead perceiving such shifts as rich with possibility; as things we can participate in and perhaps even shape in some way, should we choose to do so.

This also, importantly, puts us in a good mind space to rationally sort the truly dangerous or harmful stuff from the stuff that merely makes us uncomfortable due to its novelty.

That last point is important, I think, because a vital component of this discussion is that of judgement.

We are encouraged and incentivized by both external and internal factors to judge and worry about others rather than engaging with and learning from them. This is part of what nudges us toward batching them together into easily defined, but often inaccurate, groupings, and it’s part of what makes criticizing foreign-seeming behaviors feel so good in a weird, hard to define way.

This tends to be the default, because if we didn’t have self-perceived rightness on our side, we would be faced with an increasing sense of impotence to influence the world around us as we grow older, and as our priorities shift to (in many cases) exploiting the advantages we’ve built throughout our lives, seeking more stable foundations for ourselves and for our loved ones, rather than exploring and taking more risks—as we’re inclined to do when we’re younger.

Just as we tend to favor, on a biological level, the music that was created and played when we were teenagers and twenty-somethings, so too do we tend to favor the social norms, societal expectations, habits and routines, technologies and fashions, of a previous age.

We romanticize the era when we were in our biological and social prime, and thus, the bits and pieces that shape the experience of kids and young adults, today, seem wrong. We then post hoc justify that sense of wrongness by seeking out differences and coming up with reasons why these things are objectively bad as opposed to just being different.

Young people today face a vast array of issues, very much including the ones that you pointed out: changes in social norms, the fact that many of their common spaces are owned by corporations and other such interests, the reality of always-on, always-accessible mobile internet, which in many ways incentivizes them to be always-on and always-accessible themselves, because their social channels, their relationships, are built upon those networks and that world of backlit screens, blips and bloops, vibrating gadgets, ad-based ecosystems, and relationships shaped by likes and shares and finstas, and the timeless difficulty of figuring out who they are as individuals in a world in which they’re always being watched and tracked and rated and generalized based on by standards that are always changing and influenced by potentially harmful metrics.

I suspect we’d all benefit—these younger people, and those of us who are watching them grow up under very different circumstances than we did—from figuring out how to reliably avoid judging others too harshly for the circumstances under which they’re coming of age.

Even better, I think, would be figuring out how to continue to grow and learn, our own minds as open and primed as possible, so that if and when we have the opportunity to share some of what we’ve learned, some wisdom or perhaps just an outside perspective, we might have something valuable to teach—and might be open to learning something new, as well.

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