If you’re trying to understand Gen Z better, this might help.
Sometimes you read something that just stays with you. John Higgs’ Stranger Than We Can Imagine: Making Sense of the Twentieth Century is a book like that, and it helped this Gen X’er understand what’s different about Millennials and Gen Z, in the context of all the generations that preceded them. The book is definitely worth reading in its entirety, but I thought I’d try and share just the arc of generational history I found fascinating.
It starts like this… For centuries, humankind boiled down to a guy (always) who decided things; and everyone else, who pretty much did as they were told. The Great War changed all that, tearing down the empires’ Decider Guys ruled, and ushering in a world where multiple perspectives mattered. We came to understand perspective itself as a relative rather than an absolute thing, and a generation of “Modernists” — people like Einstein, Picasso, and Hemingway — rebuilt the world on that idea.
The loss of absolute truth was liberating, but it was also hard on people. Modernism caved in under the weight of the chaos that ensued, eventually giving way to “Post-Modernism,” a mash-up of perspectives celebrated for its newness and despised for its shallow affect. Unhappy with the situation, the world needed a new God, and we found it, right here in America… it was ourselves.
The 20th century came into full fruition with the ascent of “Individualism,” a philosophy built on the mistaken idea that we can make ourselves happy if only we get everything we want, and everyone else out of the way. It was the American century, above all else, and it has ended in relative disaster with spiraling inequality, environmental disaster, and the coordinated rise of fascism, nationalism, and anti-Democratic movements around the world, including here. We children of the 20th century see this all around, and despair.
A new hope.
People born after the advent of widespread computer networks (Millennials) and especially in an age where that power could be held in the hand of a child (Gen Z) are throwing off the broken system they’ve inherited, to embrace a new god, and it is The Network. They see the power in connection, have a sense of empathy developed beyond that of any prior generation, reject the inherent corruption of centralized systems, and want to make the world anew. They are at their core a generation of pragmatists, comfortable embracing whatever system, philosophy, or worldview solves problems, and willing to abandon it just as fast. Some call them the “Meta-Moderns,” and they are — at least I hope — the last, best hope of mankind.
Here’s hoping. Hold on tight.