What's Missing From the Cultural Narrative About Gen Z
Young people today display remarkable maturity under economic stress.
Much attention has been given to a recent study that analyzes the mores of a generation: the Zoomers, or Gen-Z. The study, in brief, shows that the Zoomers in high-income countries have become markedly risk-averse in all sorts of ways. They drink less, drive less, smoke less, and have less sex.
According to some commentators, these trends are evidence that Gen Z is stuck in a state of perpetual adolescence. Kat Rosenfield, for example, writes that Zoomers have “persuaded themselves that independence is too fraught with danger to be worth it.” She argues that helicopter parenting and over-exposure to the internet have left Zoomers coddled and unused to risk. Extrapolate from these influences, the argument goes, and you have explained the strange behaviors of this generation, which are a grave cause for concern. The Zoomers are a great shut-down generation, avoiding character-building risks of all kinds. They are retreating ever further into the parental bubble. In time, they may also become a failed generation, never reaching various “adult milestones” that members of the Millennial generation are struggling with too.
I believe that this narrative fundamentally misconstrues the issue. While I take aim directly at Rosenfield’s piece here, this is because it is a more than usually careful and compassionate account of Zoomer woes. Because it’s an essay of substance, and I disagree strongly with its conclusions, it demands an attempt to make an alternative case.
Also read: "The Illusion of a Frictionless Existence" by Kat Rosenfield, originally published by Boston Globe Ideas and republished in Persuasion.
First, if we dig into the evidence, many of the “aversions” being described here are not the result of coddling or puritanism, but are to a large extent adaptations in the face of economic trends. Second, regardless of the underlying causes, a great number of these abstinences should be applauded, not condemned. They represent major improvements in the quality and length of people’s lives: the fruits of a more conscientious generation and a sign of true maturity and adulthood.
Let’s begin with housing. Rosenfield labels the parental bubble with the rhetorical moniker “cocoon”—something protective that young people are increasingly unwilling to give up. But are young people really “less interested in ever leaving the cocoon”? On the contrary: the evidence shows that Zoomers want the responsibility of living independently. Studies from the United States, Britain, and Australia all show that around 80% of young people strongly aspire to own their own home. (Ironically, in a British survey of private renters from 2019, one of the few groups shown to be private renting because they “don’t want the responsibility of owning a home” were baby boomers.)
The problem for young people is that the current economic environment makes it extremely difficult for them to get on the housing ladder. The whole Anglosphere is gripped by a housing crisis. The United States is suffering from a shortage of roughly 3.8 million homes, while the figure in the UK stands at an estimated 3.1 million (proportionally much higher). The result has been a huge increase in house prices in recent decades. In the 1970s, the ratio of house prices to earnings in the UK was about 4:1. In 2020, it was about 9:1. In the United States the ratio is hardly better, particularly in the nation’s most productive cities: the San Francisco earnings to house value ratio is about 10:1. Generation Z and younger Millennials have been the worst affected. Many can’t afford to move out of their parents’ house. Those who take that step are either massively overreaching to get a mortgage, or—more likely—they are eking out what little is left of their earnings after rent. Little is left behind after housing costs for personal luxuries... or personal emergencies.
So, it’s not by choice that many Zoomers are staying in their parents’ homes. It is the result of cold economic logic. Living with mom and pop is not enjoyable—it is a considerable sacrifice. But it is perfectly sensible given the landscape of economic hardship and frankly, stress, that renting piles on the tenant. To say that Zoomers are missing out on “adult milestones” like getting out of their parents’ bubble is rather like saying that pigs are missing out on flight—technically true, but the implication is deeply misleading.
What about the other abstinences exhibited by Zoomers? The number of youngsters driving in the United States has halved since the 1980s, and the amount of sexual activity they report has also decreased.
But if we dig into the data, the story is complicated. Many of the factors behind the decrease in driving are economic. For many young people, driving is simply too expensive. This attitude is correlated with a decline in disposable income, living with parents longer, and a decline in private home ownership. Fear of “risk” barely makes an appearance in surveys. And, regardless of the underlying causes, a reduction of vehicles on the road is hardly a bad thing. Road vehicles have eliminated many of America’s historic neighborhoods and segregated its cities; their emissions are enormous, accounting for about 15% of the planet’s total CO2 pollution. By moving their dollars and pounds away from cars, young people are inducing demand for clean and safe public transport—which benefits us all.
Then there is the reduction in Gen Z sexual activity. Studies attribute this to a series of causal factors—and it turns out that at least some of them are just concomitants of what I’ve discussed above, such as living with parents. In other words, the declines in driving and sex are, at least in part, a predictable response to economic pressures that have been decades in the making.
Rosenfield puts much of the blame on Zoomers’ obsession with sexual consent. She writes: “one gets the sense that relationships are not so much an exciting chance at romantic connection as a terrifying midnight sprint through a minefield full of rapists.”
It is undoubtedly true that an increased concern for consent among younger generations has reduced the frequency of sexual contact. And I can imagine some kind of hypothetical situation where anxiety over the nuances of consent becomes so debilitating that no two people try again. I don’t think we’re there yet. One study of high schoolers found that those who held strong beliefs about consent were just as likely to have had a sexual experience as those who didn’t. And in any case, isn’t consent worth taking seriously? Perhaps we are witnessing a generation attempting to understand that consent requires a concerted attempt to communicate, to pay attention to one another’s words and expressions. If a renewed concern over these questions is a new experiment, it seems to be a pretty ethical one. I don’t see this wariness as a danger of getting used to “frictionless living,” but as quite the opposite: a very adult sensitivity to the frictions of living.
A similar case can be made for Gen Z’s other abstinences. One of the most striking is their reluctance to indulge in alcohol. Zoomers should be applauded for this, not condemned. Like smoking, the scientific studies which condemn alcohol have been piling up. Ethanol is not only a toxic carcinogen for all parts of the human body that it touches, but the first metabolite of alcohol, ethanal, is also a toxic carcinogen. In other words, in the human body’s attempt to rid itself of one poison, it produces another.
The truth is that avoidance of excessive risk is a characteristic feature of adulthood, not of adolescence. It is associated with a more developed prefrontal cortex, as well as a decline in juvenile crime. Those on snowflake watch would do well to remember this. Because, for the most part, the Zoomers are not parasites upon their parents, they are not cowards who excessively avoid risk. They are a generation behaving—perhaps for the first time—like adults.
Alfie Robinson is a heritage consultant who has written about housing, liberalism and cultural history.
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Thanks for this thoughtful and clear response to the earlier essay about Generation Z. I read that earlier analysis and was bothered by it, but couldn't have responded as astutely as you did. As the mother of 2 Gen Z'ers I can say I agree with you completely about the impact of economics on their decisions. For example, my daughter, who is a professional architect, has lived independently (both with a partner and alone) ever since obtaining her first professional job. She could afford to live in San Francisco and Seattle, two of the most expensive cities in the US. My son, on the other hand, is an artist, and makes way below minimum wage. He lives at home only because he cannot afford the alternatives. He also doesn't drive because he can't afford a car, and insurance, etc. and would rather use public transportation anyway. Neither of them drinks heavily because of alcoholism in their families of origin, and the destruction they have seen it cause in peoples' lives. I have always taught them this is a wise decision. What's wrong with it? Same with consensual sex. What's wrong with that? My children are both independent people, independent thinkers, and they live their life the best they can with all the economic constraints on them. I just think that the conclusions of the earlier article were way off base. Thanks for setting the record straight with an alternative interpretation.
Thank you for an excellent refutation of some popular gripes about Gen Z. I would add one thing. Until the past several decades, multigenerational households were normal, even normative, in the West, and they still are in many parts of the world. The idea that leaving ones natal home is a natural part of maturation misreads much of human history and culture. I'm more likely to believe that it's Boomers like me who grew up during a cultural anomaly, and that it's my generation that warrants scrutiny for its odd ideas about what is or isn't a 'normal' human life.