The Kids Aren’t Alright: Gen Z’s Forced Role as Both 2020’s Scapegoats and Saviors

Millennials’ older-sibling-like custody over Gen-Z is eerily similar (though less mean-spirited) to baby boomer’s charge of millennials as their avocado toast munching, diamond market destroying, adult-children. What keeps this dynamic of generations alive is how they interdependently function as currency in an increasingly tedious social climate and characteristically unstable economy. This has made the kids of today, a generation of people born from the mid 1990s to early 2010s, especially not alright. Not solely because of the societal imbalance that surrounds them but because of how they are forcibly costumed as both scapegoats and saviors in a theater plotted with problems they were born into, rather than took an active role in causing. 

There is no recent instance more obviously showing how detrimental the way older generations relate to Generation Z than that of 16-year-old Claudia Conway becoming liberal millennial America’s national treasure after offhand comments she made on a personal TikTok account. Claudia is the daughter of former White House counselor Kellyanne Conway and George Conway, cofounder of the anti-Trump political action committee, the Lincoln Project. She boasts 1.4 million followers on TikTok, has been trending on Twitter several times, and a google search of her name returns 17 million results and countless articles with diverse takes on her sudden recognition.

Her claim to fame comes in the form of “lol” saturated videos and comments posted to her TikTok account about the condition of her mother and the President who both tested positive for the coronavirus after a super spreader event in late September. During a time when information released about the condition of the President was at best intentionally confusing and at worst blatantly misleading, the internet began to cling to morsels of commentary from the 16-year-old’s unabashedly unfiltered content like moths to a flame. 

 On October 5th, soon after President Trump left Walter-Reed hospital, Conway posted on a TikTok thread, “Guys lmao he’s not doing ‘better.” Despite being a casual comment characteristic of a speculating teenager, the words were hailed as “whistleblowing,” and she herself as an “excellent reporter.” Unironically, a Twitter user with 120,000 followers dubbed her worthy of a Pulitzer Prize for her accurate reporting and for being the first person to break the news that Kellyanne Conway had contracted the virus. 

Even though the young Conway’s comments were especially opportune, they should never have been taken with more than a grain of salt. Conway is a teenager, and it is condemnable that her words were taken so seriously, so eagerly, by adults across different circles and spheres of the internet. To be abundantly clear, Conway is not at fault here. The unwarranted responsibility thrust on her is the echo of a much larger problem: the way adults treat Generation Z. Gen-Z has been politicized, romanticized, lauded, and vilified- as has any other generation. The problem isn’t in these interpretations of the generation but rather that even when the takes are at odds with each other, Gen-Z is constantly being made responsible and liable for the contemporary presentations of societal problems they played no role in causing, providing a degree of attention that both assumes and imposes responsibility.

The most insidious detriment of a larger conversation that treats kids less like kids and more like future martyrs of movements they’ve been forced to the forefront of is how it causes adults to take even less responsibility and charge. Greta Thunberg, a then 16-year-old Swedish activist who gained recognition as a household name for her leadership in global climate marches, chastised the United Nations in 2019 for their inaction saying “This is all wrong. I shouldn’t be standing here. I should be back in school on the other side of the ocean. Yet you all come to us for hope? How dare you.” 

Thunberg’s sentiments have been echoed by a teenage leader of the March for Our Lives Movement, Emma Gonzalez, who along with 9 of her peers became an overnight activist after surviving a shooting at her high school that left 17 people dead. Addressing hundreds of thousands of people at a march in Washington D.C. a month after the shooting, Gonzalez admonished the inaction of lawmakers, “we are up here standing together because if all our government and President can do is send thoughts and prayers, then it’s time for victims to be the change that we need to see.” 

In contemporary youth-led movements, anger at adults is characteristic and expected. The response of adults, especially that of adults in positions of lawmaking or capital power (most commonly seen as admonishment, unacknowledgement, and performative action) versus that of adults in everyday social stations (a response most commonly seen as either reverence or infantilizing chastise) is expected then in an exchange of proprietorship over youthful rebelliousness in accordance to gains that would benefit themselves. The buying and selling of Generation Z’s activism and rage as generational capital occurs colloquially and in digital environments. 

For example, millennials tend to treat Generation Z as a younger sibling, a generational relationship that maintains the power of scapegoat while also encouraging millennial feelings of admiration and abnegation of responsibility. When millennials interpret Gen-Z activism positively, it tends to be in the form of relief and reverence – take the now recurring media and interpersonal outpour of “the kids will save us” discourse that follows any instance of Gen-Z activism. Interpreted negatively by millenials, Gen-Z activism is gaslighted into “performance.” It is chastised as naive, infantile, and improbable. Other recent examples of Gen-Z activism being quickly condemned by millennials include:  Greta Thunberg’s “radical” climate change ideologies, that time hundreds of seats at a Trump rally were reserved only to be left largely empty, and the critiques of youth support for increasingly left-leaning politicians such as AOC and Bernie Sanders. 

The malleable nature of Gen-Z in the eyes of millennial’s is a focus point for a larger problem, the normalization of discourse that lets adults exchange Gen-Z’s activism and identity in ways that benefit themselves while either ignoring pressing societal problems or effectively encouraging generation Z to solve it for them.  This detracts from the capital and power that all adults possess that comes along with immense and undeniable responsibility.

In this evolving discussion over the dignity of a generation made up largely of children, it’s necessary to recognize the role privilege plays in activism- especially youth activism. March for Our Lives’ board is 55% white, Sunrise Movement was founded by 3 college-educated men with a $30,000 grant and free office space, even Thunberg’s climate activism is sometimes critiqued as classist and tone-deaf (critics cite her school strike as she attended a highly sought after private school for children with special needs and her choice to sail across the Atlantic ocean in a solar-powered yacht to address the United Nations instead of taking a plane). 

What rings true for most widely popular youth activist initiatives and nonprofit groups is that there was at some point a degree of privilege afforded to them that is foreign to leagues of marginalized youth activist groups in the USA and abroad who have often been working twice as hard for twice as long. It’s important to be cognizant of this dissonance because while privileged Gen-Z activists are just now expressing rage for being liable to fix things like gun violence and climate change, marginalized youth have had the same pressure put on their shoulders for decades – often facing harsher exposure to these issues in the first place and far fewer funds and space to work towards finding solutions.

The kids do still have a shot at being alright. A majority of both millenials and Gen-Z-ers agree that the earth is getting warmer due to human activity, according to a study from the Pew Research Center1. According to the same study, Gen-Z-ers and millennials are equally as likely to say that Black people are treated less fairly than white people in America. While generational strife is prevalent, Gen-Z-ers and their older siblings may be just the alliance we need to work towards building a better and brighter future. In addition to that, there are a myriad of practical things Gen-Z-ers can do to learn how to engage in activism in healthy ways, like reading up on historical movements led by youth and bringing an awareness of privilege and marginalization into their work. 

As members of the most ethnically and racially diverse generation yet and the generation least likely to drop out of school and most likely to be enrolled in college, improving how we interact with activism  can be exciting rather than daunting. Adults also play a crucial role in our collective future. Reframing thoughts of Gen-Z responsibility and uplifting instead of discouraging youth activism, helps prevent youth activist burnout and pushes the ultimate responsibility onto the folks with the most means to solve problems: adults. 

1Source: surveys of U.S. adults ages 18 and older conducted by Pew Research Center September 24th-October 7th 2018, and U.S. teens ages 13-17 conducted September 17th-November 25th 2018

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