The Real Differences between Gen Z, Millennials, Gen X, Boomers, and Silents—and What They Mean for America’s Future
by jean m. twenge
atria, 560 pages, $32.50
The sexual revolution began not with the Boomers but with their elders. How would it have been possible, after all, had not biologist Gregory Goodwin Pincus (1903–1967), a member of the Greatest Generation, followed the advice of Margaret Sanger (1879–1966) to stop experimenting with rabbits and start experimenting with humans to engineer the hormonal birth control pill? Or had not the FDA, overseen by George P. Larrick (1901–1968), approved the Pill for the purpose of menstrual regulation in 1957 and then as a contraceptive in 1960, four years before its use was declared a constitutional right by the Supreme Court? Or had not Chief Justice Earl Warren (1891–1974) presided over the Court when it conjured the right to privacy in Griswold v. Connecticut (1965), which judicially sanctioned contraceptives in America in the form of the Pill?
Before it was a revolution in morals, the sexual revolution was a techno-political revolution from above. Those who came of age in the 1960s received a mechanized sexuality orally, under a doctor’s care, and responded to it with a false liberation: “free love.” This fact need not absolve the Boomers of the wreckage they have visited on this country in their devotion to the Pill. But perhaps they deserve at least some pity for being the subject of a mass experiment that, acting through their bodies, personal lives, careers, and public deeds, sought the full rewiring of human beings.
This particular story is not told in Jean Twenge’s Generations, which tracks nearly a century of social change through a sequence of profiles of the living generations: Silents (born 1925–1945), Boomers (1946–1964), Gen X (1965–1979), Millennials (1980–1994), Gen Z (1995–2012), and what Twenge calls—in a reference to the climate as well as to political polarization—the Polars (2013–2029, or thereabouts). But it came to mind as I closed Twenge’s chapter on Gen Z, which forms the heart of her book, for Gen Z, too, has been the subject of a mass technological experiment: that of the screen, which teaches devotion to one’s digital avatar and detachment from one’s corporeal self. Twenge writes: “Smartphones and widespread social media use have meant Gen Z conducts more of their social interactions online and less in the ‘meatworld’ of in-person interaction.” This digital entrapment has been executed by Silicon Valley magnates—younger Boomers, Gen Xers, and older Millennials, as Twenge shows—and those who facilitate their dominance over public and private life. Members of Gen Z have been lured by their elders into a dispossession of their bodies, and of their social natures, which are accomplished bodily. If the arc of the Boomers repeats, in time, this young generation will carry its dysphoric selfhood into the inner sanctum of American power.
What has Silicon Valley wrought in Gen Z? Gen Z is the only generation, we learn from Twenge, in which a majority believe that there are more than two genders. According to Twenge, one in thirteen eighteen- to twenty-two-year-olds has adopted a gender-nonconforming persona, a number that has recently surged: “Among young adults born in the 2000s, identifying as transgender jumped 48% between late 2021 and late 2022, and identifying as nonbinary leapt 60%—in one year.” This is part of a larger sexual ecosystem in which an astounding 23 percent of Gen Z are bisexual. This is mostly a female phenomenon, with about one in five high-school girls, as of 2021, claiming to be bisexual. Not unrelatedly, most adolescents today encounter pornography through their smart devices by age twelve, and in many cases at even younger ages.
This precocity should not be construed as sexual adventurousness. On the contrary, Gen Z is rigorously safetyist. Over the last year, three in ten Gen Z men aged eighteen to twenty-five had not had sex—that’s “twice as many” as when Millennials were that age, Twenge says. Members of Gen Z also drink less than prior generations and have waited the longest to get driver’s licenses. Twenge calls this trend the “slow life strategy,” characterized by taking time to grow up, and by an abundance of caution—to the point of avoidance—concerning the things that constitute adult life.
The slow life strategy is paired with an extraordinary emotional self-protectiveness. Notoriously, Gen Z university students have demanded that behavior and speech be controlled to preclude any hint of friction: No value, it seems, can be higher than “emotional safety.” Hence Gen Z is overwhelmingly opposed to the constitutional right of free speech, on the grounds that racist, sexist, and homophobic speech causes “harm” and should be deemed unlawful.
The obsession with “safety” makes more sense when one considers the genuine vulnerability of Gen Z: Their lives are inseparable from a digital superstructure that is designed to lure individuals into becoming brands. Social media is one giant marketplace, where the products for sale are one’s thoughts, one’s relationships, and one’s visage (as well as one’s information). Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the world’s oldest profession, in the form of online porn and OnlyFans, has flourished adjacent to social media. Both feed off the human person as a commodity.
We might even ask: Are transgenderism and the nonbinary identity a defensive response to that superstructure? Do young people seek to become “fluid,” or at least difficult to define, as a way of dodging forces that seek to transform their very personhood into a consumer good? If so, it is a tragic response, since it ends up subjecting them all the more to exploitation. Dysphoria is a booming business: Just ask Big Pharma.
In any event, Gen Z is not a happy generation. Twenge assesses their precipitously declining mental health scores: “The [negative] trends are stunning in their consistency, breadth, and size.” Eating disorders, loneliness, feeling left out (even when in the presence of friends), general negativity, anxiety, depression, self-harm, suicide attempts, and self-poisoning all have skyrocketed in Gen Z—especially since 2012, when, Twenge notes, smartphones became standard equipment for basic lifestyle, even for kids.
The crisis afflicts the body, too. Adolescents are exercising less than ever. In 2019, the number of teens saying that they rarely exercise reached an all-time high. Their body mass indexes rose as their physicality declined. “By late 2020,” Twenge says, “43.4 percent of 12- to 15-year-olds were overweight or obese.” They spend more time at home and less time in-person with friends. Compared to the 1990s, today, kids in eighth and tenth grade are going out about one day less per week with friends. And, Twenge adds, “college-bound high school students reported spending an hour a day less socializing and partying with friends than Gen X’ers in the 1980s.”
Twenge is sympathetic to Gen Z, whom she sees as victims of technological reengineering by Silicon Valley. Her portrait of them is, however, frightening. The Boomers, the most idealistic generation in modern American history, have wreaked havoc. But even they might be outdone by one of the saddest generations in human history.
If the members of Gen Z have fanned out across the gender spectrum, that is no surprise: Social media has encouraged them to believe that identity is self-constructed. They have at their fingertips applications that can reconstitute digital images—say, to remove blemishes, change the lighting, turn the subject into a boy, a cat, or any other form. This projected self is, in turn, reinforced by other users, who “like,” share, repost, or retweet the altered image, which, in being positively circulated, becomes the grounds of the subject’s social membership. When the projected self—bent into any number of shapes in response to community nudging—becomes more valuable to the user than his or her actual self, it may demand that “real life” be reconstructed to meet the specifications of the online avatar. The digital world’s grip on the real world will only tighten in the years ahead, when kids can pop on the Oculus and drop into the metaverse, where AI will make for them worlds without end.
This is not inevitable. Just like the impunity we granted Silicon Valley to rewire adolescents through social media, the next phase, which seeks to penetrate even further into human consciousness, is a choice masquerading as a necessity. We can and must unmask and unchoose it. But how? There is only one way, and it is entirely unpalatable for those raised to believe that the essence of liberty is the freedom to consume. That way, I am afraid, is politics.
Politics in the age of the metaverse can be superficially baffling, but what is needed is not new, only difficult. The goals are twofold: to inflict acute pain on any company engineering the enthrallment of American adolescents and, more importantly, to liberate kids from addiction to their devices. The methods for attaining these ends are likewise twofold: intense public pressure (backed by the sincere threat of boycott), and public policy crafted to leverage severe financial penalties on social media platforms for non-compliance with efforts to get kids offline.
The Catholic Church’s veto over the content of Hollywood films from 1934 to 1954 provides an example of how public pressure can influence media and, I venture, social media. During the Golden Age of Hollywood, unsurpassed in excellence in the history of American cinema, the Church was effectively granted the right to supervise what audiences viewed and to remove any content that might endanger the flock, including plot, imagery, and dialogue. This process was conducted through the Production Code Administration (PCA), led by the devout Catholic Joseph Breen. The Church, acting through the PCA, wielded extraordinary power to define what was fit for the average American to consume: If the PCA disapproved of a picture on any grounds, it was axed. Hollywood studios could not risk the possibility that the Church, coordinating its hierarchy and lay faithful, would organize a mass boycott.
Public unease, in short, is not enough to exert pressure on the media: That unease must be channeled by a coherent institution acting on behalf of its constituency. This is what political parties are for. But as this example shows, such political action may be conducted through other, ostensibly nonpolitical social organs—and so it should be.
In recent years, the Catholic Church has lost credibility in the eyes of the broader public because of the sexual abuse scandals and for being out of step with secular liberalism. However terrible and troublesome, this fact should not stop the Church from doing its duty. The Church still has power; it still has the obligation to use that power for the common good. It should call on the faithful—as a political act for reshaping public life—to refrain from consuming and investing in certain products. Withdraw your money and your appetites.
Imagine what such a campaign could achieve. First, social media platforms would come under serious pressure to remove their most addictive design features, such as infinite scroll, and to stop surveilling their users—including adults, who are not immune to algorithmic charms. Then, having practiced the art of reshaping our technologies by concerted political action, the Church could apply this pressure to AI, virtual reality, the metaverse, automated vehicles, gene editing, and other nascent technologies that have designs on our way of life and on our children.
The Church need not be the only public body to advocate on behalf of its people. Any institution with a duty to protect the young should take political action—the moment demands nothing less. Just recently, on January 6, 2023, Seattle Public Schools filed a lawsuit against the parent companies of TikTok, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and YouTube, arguing that they should be held liable for the mental health crisis they have induced in Seattle’s students.
We must fight in the culture as well as the courts. To mount pressure on Big Tech, civic groups should urge—or wherever possible, require—their members to stop buying smartphones and close down their social media accounts as an article of group participation. With their hands free, parents and loved ones can better keep children from falling prey to Silicon Valley. Complicit adults entranced by the light of the screen are not fully useful in the battle for the souls of our children.
But public pressure, however necessary, will not be enough. We also need public policy, and here some recent legislative victories in the states can model action on the federal level. In March 2023, Governor Spencer Cox of Utah signed into law a pair of bills, collectively known as the Social Media Regulation Act, with numerous requirements for social media companies. The bills aim, first, to restore parental authority; second, to limit teens’ contact with social media to the greatest extent possible; third, to reduce the potency of the platforms; and fourth, to hold Big Tech accountable for its failures to protect minors.
The anchor of the legislation is its requirement that social media platforms raise the age of eligible users to eighteen. (Current legislation governing the online activity of minors, signed into law in 1998, well before social media even existed, sets the floor at age thirteen—a stricture Big Tech ignores anyway, because there is no enforcement.) Critically, social media platforms must conduct a serious effort at age verification, lest they be held liable for heavy fines. (This can be done a variety of ways, including by requiring the user to upload a government-issue ID or by means of two-factor authentication using a credit card.) These companies, furthermore, may allow a minor to open an account only with verifiable parental consent, and, in that instance, the parents receive administrator-level access to everything their kids are doing online. If the platforms fail to live up to their obligations to protect kids, they can be sued by parents and fined by the state.
Federal legislation can improve upon this bill. Utah left state administrators to decide on the permissible methods of age verification; it would be better to rule out biometric data, such as eye scans and thumb prints and facial verification, since big tech companies cannot be trusted to use such images responsibly. Also, congressmen should give state attorneys general serious enforcement powers, since attorneys general can act quickly and punitively, providing Big Tech with an extra incentive to comply with the letter and spirit of the law. So far, this issue has been a bipartisan one, and as legislative action in California attests, there is currently no sign that these companies would catch a break in either blue states or red states.
Age verification works. Utah’s law won’t go into effect until 2024, but we know already from anti-porn legislation in Louisiana, Mississippi, Utah, and Virginia that age gates placed on pornographic sites diminish traffic. In May a spokesperson for Pornhub, commenting on Louisiana’s age gate, complained that traffic from that state had fallen by 80 percent.
As for social media, a clean ban prohibiting all users under the age of eighteen would be best, but there is presently no appetite for it among legislators. In lieu of such a move, putting power back into the hands of parents—rerouting access to these platforms through parents and making it simple for them to receive a full account of what their kids are seeing and doing—would transform the online world.
A pessimist might object that such laws come too late. The social lives of kids have been almost fully relocated to the online world. It is not a given that once minors have been set free, they won’t hunger to return. When they reach the age of eighteen, or whatever age Congress chooses, what’s to stop them from ducking back into the cave and rechaining themselves to the wall?
Just as institutions must fight for children and pressure parents to give up their own devices, they must also build communities that reteach a love of reality. This, of course, is the hard part. One nonetheless hopes that a rump of Generation Z will be taught to love what they find in “the world beyond our heads,” as Matthew Crawford memorably put it.
The painful truth is that in most cases the mechanization of Gen Z is already complete. The oldest members are twenty-eight and the youngest are eleven. Only a small minority of the younger wing have known a childhood substantially free of the Machine. Time is short for those who are entrapped, and their liberation will be limited. Social media and smartphones have already regrooved their brains, and they may never be fixed.
Whatever limited salutary benefit we might seek for Gen Z, it’s the Polars (2013–2029) who will be the real beneficiaries of this rescue operation. If Gen Z has been fashioned by Silicon Valley into a revolutionary force for global dysphoria, then perhaps the Polars can be formed into a counterrevolutionary force for wholeness and ordered liberty. God willing, our nation will survive the wreckage that the Zoomers will visit upon it long enough to see the Polars ascend. Let’s give them a fighting chance.
Michael Toscano is executive director of the Institute for Family Studies.
Image by Karolina Grabowska, public domain. Image cropped.
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