OK Z: A letter to an ageing generation

Dear Generation Z, try to guess the generation: They’re self-centred and narcissistic. They expect the world of others while taking little responsibility for themselves. They may dream of marrying the perfect prince or princess, but they’re much too immature for real romance. Work? They choose play, thank you very much. Overwhelmingly, they still live with their parents. Which generation are they?

No, it’s not you, Generation Z, nor your Millennial parents. It’s the new kids on the block: Generation Alpha. Of course, even the most geriatric among them are currently only 12 years old, but soon they’ll be coming for your social media, your pronouns and your global health crisis. And if you think that disparaging the tastes, interests and aspirations of the younger generation is something only your insufferable Generation X grandparents would do, don’t be surprised if you hear it coming out of your own late-teenage mouth soon.

Why? Because, Generation Z, just as your Millennial parents discovered around 2011, you won’t stay young forever. It’s always the next generation that inherits the earth, and the clock is ticking on yours. Generation Alpha will be cooler than you, more technological than you, and be absolutely convinced that your growing pains, e.g., the once-in-a-generation worldwide economic crisis of the late 00s, are nothing compared to theirs, e.g., the once-in-century global pandemic. In return, Alphas will predictably get labelled as more self-centred and narcissistic than the preceding generation – you’ll probably even say it yourself on TikTok, in between your dance routines and singing sea shanties (though Alpha, off traipsing through the Metaverse, won’t be around to listen).

From the Lost Generation to the Silent Generation, the Greatest Generation to Baby Boomers, Generation X to Millennials, the one constant is that every generation at some point finds themselves stuck on what you could call the Generational Anxiety Hamster Wheel – and it’s a conflict-generating machine.

It goes something like this: a new generation is born, or at least lumped together by marketing trend forecasters, psychologists, and journalists. Let’s give this hypothetical generation a name: Generation Glurk.

Glurkers are viewed with hope and optimism until the age of 16 or so, that is, until their tastes in music, style and more go public. Their choices are met with incomprehension, dismay, and vocal disapproval by their elders throughout town or across the internet, many of whom, like all adults ever in the history of time, have magically forgotten what it means to be young, and imagine that their lives were immune to the inanities of today’s youth. Kids these days! The kids, of course, dismiss these elders as old and out of touch, dinosaurs on the brink of extinction.

When Generation Glurk first tries navigating the world of adults – university, jobs, property, stable relationships – they face the full fury of the generation they’re about to dethrone. In thousands of tweets, articles, and state television documentary specials, Glurkers are described as self-centred, frivolous, unrealistic, confused; the least-ready, least-serious, least-good generation since Cain and Abel. We do not approve, is the sub-text. The world is still ours, and we’re not giving it up without a fight. The wheel spins round and round.

But does it have to be this way? With the singular exception of the Baby Boomers, generations are rarely defined by demographics. Generations are fluid, and the boundaries we put on them, arbitrary (you’ll feel this especially keenly if you started life as a late-X, became a Y, and are now dismissed as a geriatric Millennial). These definitions exist only on paper: there’s no one empirical Us against one empirical Them, and there’s little reason for the conflict.

So, Generation Z, although the temptation to keep spinning will be strong, you could choose to step off the Generational Anxiety Hamster Wheel. You could choose to welcome the new kids, despite their funny tastes and clothes, and help them get a leg up in a world that will no doubt present fresh, if not entirely new, challenges. You could help them brush off labels like “selfish” and “narcissistic”, just like you had to, because that’s how young people always get labelled. And you could be the truly unique generation that doesn’t choose to pursue generational conflict with the next. The day is coming – but you can still make the choice not to imitate your parents, and grandparents and great grandparents.

OK, Z?