The Crisis of Gen Z: One teacher’s grim testimony

The Crisis of Gen Z: One teacher’s grim testimony. By Bruce Bawer. Generation Z consists of those born between the mid-1990s and 2010.

All too many of them experience the world largely through their devices, and to have trouble with real-life human contact. To an alarming extent, they’re prisoners of presentism, ignorant of and indifferent to history and hyper-aware of this week’s hottest fads, jargon, and pop-culture phenomena. Many are narcissists of the first order (if you don’t believe it, check out one of the countless online videos in which members of this cohort yammer on at heroic length about their pronouns and gender identity). They’re also, as the expression goes, so open-minded that their brains have fallen out, reflexively giving unreflecting assent to trendy ideologies about everything from climate change to transgenderism. …

If you’re a lost tourist in Gen Z-land, Jeremy S. Adams’s Hollowed Out: A Warning about America’s Next Generation is the guidebook you need.

These kids are lonely. Many take meals alone while staring at a screen. Many have no real friends. “[C]onditioned to fear the outside world,” they’re more comfortable meeting online than in person. They lack real-world skills — driving, doing laundry. And they lack the “existential anxiety” that might drive them to seek meaning, say, in great books. …

It used to be that you developed interests during your teens (or even earlier) that took you beyond yourself and gave your life fresh meaning — sometimes a very deep meaning indeed. Some kids had a sport that consumed them. Some, taking long walks in the woods or swimming in the local creek, communed with nature (though they might never have put it that way). Others fell in love with art or cooking or with some handicraft that made them feel connected to the artisans of previous eras. Or just plain fell in love. In my teens, I developed an interest in geology, and tapping away with a rock pick at stones in a New Jersey quarry I felt I was probing the earth’s very secrets; playing piano, I felt I was speaking a transcendent universal language.

Such stuff is a key part of growing up. But how can you have any sense of transcending reality when, thanks to your online addiction, you’re barely in touch with reality itself? Even as the Internet promises the world at your fingertips, what it provides for kids not yet acquainted with the world is a two-dimensional simulacrum of it, stripped of all but the most superficial aspects of real human contact.

Years ago, Adams recalls, his students found the story of his and his wife’s courtship sweet; today, they’re turned off by the notions of romance, sexual fidelity, and long-term commitment. Despite the unprecedented sexual freedom they enjoy, many of these kids are “incels” (involuntary celibates), frozen by “fear of intimacy and commitment”; others are able to enter into physical relationships, but flit from flower to flower, better at managing the carnal than the emotional. No surprise: in all the tons of pop culture they’ve consumed, there’s not one tender love song or love story. …

They’d love to be rich and famous – their lives revolve, to a depressing extent, around shallow mediocrities (many of them their own age) who’ve made fortunes by engaging in some ridiculous online activity that will seem silly and worthless in a year or so – but they aren’t enthusiastic about pursuing any line of work that might be personally meaningful and of long-term social or cultural value. For them, success is a blue Twitter check mark and the accumulation of “followers” and “likes.” …

Most of Adams’s students, he tells us, are incapable of being infected by his ardor for America and his joyful gratitude for life. Marinated since infancy in a toxic culture of “cheap cynicism,” they’re inclined to support the iconoclastic violence of Antifa and BLM but are immune to optimism or patriotism (they won’t pledge allegiance to the flag or sing the national anthem) or to the kind of romantic ideas about human existence that have taken possession of young people over thousands of generations and propelled them into lives of meaning, nobility, and consequence.

The advent of computers and the Internet has changed human consciousness. Our brains have three parts: a reptile brain stem for managing heartbeat etc, a mammal brain for emotions and nurture, and the large and uniquely-human neocortex for higher order thinking. Computers add a fourth part, a device for the drudgery of calculations and fetching information. When and if AIs evolve, they might become a fifth part.

Each part “built” the preceding part.