Does Gen Z Care So Little Because Millennials Care Too Much?

The roasting of earnest Millennials reflects an ancient, intergenerational war of feelings

Photo: Jason Connolly / AFP via Getty Images

There’s a moment from college that I remember with mortifying clarity. It was 2002, and I was sitting in a classroom, midway through a course on memoir writing as a form of social justice. This entailed a lot of personal disclosures from my classmates, all of which I found brilliant. Racism, sexism, homophobia; the war, which had recently started and which we vowed to end; the worst president in American history, George W. Bush. These issues concerned us, we cared about them, and more importantly, we were right about them every single time we opened our mouths.

“Its amazing,” I clearly remember thinking, “belonging to the first generation to see what’s wrong with the world. I guess we’ll be the ones to fix it.”

If I were given one chance to use a time machine, I would not use it to rectify any injustice. I would go right back to that classroom, where I’d promptly slap my younger self across the face. In 2021, millennials have not, in fact, fixed the world, which is more of a plague-infested garbage dump than ever. Now, our only distinction — being the youngest and coolest people in the trash heap — is about to be usurped as Gen Z comes of age, enters college, and begins roasting us mercilessly online.

“Y’all were supposed to be saving the climate, starting revolutions and shit,” goes one representative critique, quoted by The Walrus. “What did you contribute? Mumford and Sons? A craft brewery on every corner?”

Millennials, according to Gen Z, are overearnest, tender-hearted carelords. They like Hamilton and Hogwarts houses. They’re #GirlBosses who wear “Nasty Woman” T-shirts and stan establishment Democrats. They’re thirtysomethings who struggle with “adulting.” They’re thirtysomethings who say “adulting.” They drink coffee and wine, they eat pizza and avocado toast, they watch The Office and text each other cry-laugh emojis, and they do all these things earnestly, without any of the irony or nihilism or ennui required to make them cool. Millennials have feelings. Millennials like things. Millennials feel hope or get enthusiastic or try to fix problems. It’s terrible.

“When I think of millennials I think of a Twitter account with a bunch of [identity] labels in the bio,” TikTok star Serena Shahidi told BuzzFeed last June. “Gen Z kind of understands that no one cares… [it’s] because we grew up without the serious dreams that millennials had, and that we kind of grew up with this lack of hope, that we’ve learned to accept and make a joke out of it.”

Allow me to take a long sip of my single-sourced Ethiopian coffee, adjust my Elizabeth Warren T-shirt, turn down the soothing croon of Leslie Odom Jr., and explain — using my expertise as a writer on culture and politics, a representative sample of which you can find in the bestselling anthology Nasty Women — why the children are wrong. These stereotypes aren’t inaccurate, necessarily, but they are ahistorical. The war between millennials and Gen Z is only the latest manifestation of a tug-of-war between optimism and cynicism that has been ongoing for generations.

Millennials have feelings. Millennials like things. Millennials feel hope or get enthusiastic or try to fix problems. It’s terrible.

In the beginning (of our current conflict, anyway) were the boomers: Everyone’s least favorite cohort, currently enjoying the secure retirement no other generation will get in the homes no other generation can afford. Their exorbitant success — enabled by their turn into hard-right Reaganism — stings all the more because they started out as idealists: pie-eyed, rainbow-clad hippies who stuck flowers in gun barrels, pioneers who shaped the feminism and gay rights and civil rights and anti-war movements, rebels against conformity and emotional repression who embraced consciousness-raising and free love and crystal healing and primal scream therapy, people who made love not war and gave peace a chance and, in general, just did not see what was funny about peace, love, and understanding.

The people who saw what was funny about it were their successors, the exorbitantly cynical Gen X. Theirs was the generation of punk and post-modernism, apathy and irony, Slacker and “Loser.” At best, they were brilliant skeptics ripping a hole in boomer pieties. At worst, they were an entire generation that believed that caring about others was a waste of time and calling mainstream culture phony was the same thing as changing it. They were at their worst a lot of the time.

Grunge and punk and “alternative,” with their quickly commodified anti-commodification, were Gen X. Anti-consumerist commercials are Gen X, particularly the ones that talk about being commercials; so are movies that talk about being movies. The “hipster racism” and ironic sexism of early Vice magazine were deeply Gen X, and so was the fact that the founder of Vice, Gavin McInnes, turned out to just be a regular racist. Fight Club and South Park are Gen X; Glenn Greenwald, Julian Assange, and Elon Musk are Gen X. Some of millennials’ most beloved pop culture was made under the influence: early seasons of The Office, with its misanthropic cringe humor and ironic bigotry, are very Gen X, and Jim Halpert, who keeps grimacing at how stupid his co-workers are while steadfastly refusing to contribute any solutions, might be the quintessential Gen X hero.

After enough of this, cynicism and irony no longer felt rebellious. They felt like the status quo. Enter the millennials, the people who decided that true edginess meant caring at the top of your lungs, about everything, all the time. We answered Gen X’s era-defining “Who cares?” with a resounding “I do!” and replaced their existential “Whatever” with a resounding “Yes.” Yes to sincerity, yes to vulnerability, yes to tenderness; yes to Jezebel and Feministing, yes to Tumblr and Twitter, yes to trigger warnings; yes to pop anthems about feminism, yes to rap musicals about American history, yes to explaining your feelings with Taylor Swift songs; yes to Marvel movies, yes to Disney movies, yes to basing your entire adult identity around a transphobic children’s book about wizards. “Yes,” as a matter of fact, “We Can.”

Of course, millennials’ radical vulnerability was often more like self-willed infantilization. The standard excuse is that millennials retain childlike attitudes because the financial crash of 2008 denied us a traditional path to adulthood, but let’s be honest: No amount of economic hardship could justify the Bronies. By rebelling against Gen X, we millennials have turned ourselves into a mirror image of what Gen X was rebelling against. We became boomers.

Millennials hate boomers only to the extent that millennials are boomers: We inherited their earnestness, their idealism, their trajectory from outsiders to ideal marketing demographic. We have their Me Generation architecture of self-help books and pop psychology and New Age mass-market spirituality holding together our easily broken hearts. Like it or not, there’s a direct line between boomer feminists deciding to change the world by making intersectional lesbian Tarot decks and me, the queer millennial with three separate astrology apps on his phone. Boomers and millennials both confused sensitivity for virtue; we thought that doing the right thing came down to feeling the right feelings. Both of us thought we were the first generation to see what was wrong with the world, and both of us thought we would fix it.

By rebelling against Gen X, we millennials have turned ourselves into a mirror image of what Gen X was rebelling against.

Gen X, Gen Z: These are not people who think about fixing things. Gen Z believes the only way to save the world is to burn it down; Gen X is lighting cigarettes with the parts that are already burning. Gen Z is actually “more radical than anyone else,” Shahidi tells BuzzFeed, but then again, Gen X claimed to be anarchists about half the time. How’s that working out? The kids whose ethos comes down to slouching on the sidelines and making mean jokes are always going to accomplish less than the squares who get in there and try, and though it’s true that millennial earnestness is the rebirth of boomer naivete, Gen Z’s self-conscious nihilism looks a lot like recycled Gen X pretentiousness to everyone else.

We’re caught in a cycle of overcorrection, the people who care too much giving way to the people who care too little. One generation sets out to save the world and fails, and the next generation sets out to do nothing and succeeds. The world gets a little bit worse with every change of the guard.

History favors the hopeless. It’s a long list of things that haven’t relieved all human suffering; no one, so far, has found the thing that does. Yet there is no reason for living conditions to have deteriorated as rapidly and apocalyptically as they have in the past four generations and no point to living in this plague-infested garbage dump if you don’t think it can improve. This cycle of generational warfare hasn’t accomplished anything, and if it keeps going, its only result will be Gen Z eventually having to listen to the next up-and-coming group of teenagers lecture them about how heartless they are. Turn back, Gen Z! Seek the middle path of, like, sort of caring! If you don’t, an unspeakable fate awaits you: Your children will be millennials like me.

Author of “Trainwreck” (Melville House, ‘16) and “Dead Blondes and Bad Mothers” (Melville House, ‘19). Columns published far and wide across the Internet.

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