Photo by Kirsten Hernandez/22 West Magazine

We Are What's Next

Current undergraduate students are the vanguard of Generation Z (or whatever it’s called)

By Jess Kung, Editor-in-Chief

Photos by Kirsten Hernandez, Editor

In an age of think pieces and a generational war that can be distilled by the precariously relevant SNL, I think we should reconsider the way we think of generational labels. Namely, what comes after millennials?

It’s 2019, and right now the youngest undergrads were born in 2001. No matter what year you were born, this campus is one of the clearest places to witness the start of this generational turnover.

A lot of mass media has taken it upon themselves to make their perception of millennials known with the deeply tired “safe spaces and avocado toast” tropes. A lot of the internet responds emphatically with their student debt and profound burnout. It’s been talked about to death.

We’ve barely come to terms with the fact that they’re like, grown ups now. Probably because they’ve so radically redefined what adulthood looks like. Why rush to get married, if you can even find another lonely soul to love you in the first place? Why own property, when urban centers are unaffordable without the pooled incomes of roommates? Why settle down if you’re probably going to hold between 12 to 15 jobs in your lifetime?

Three people, skin toned purple, with yellow scribbling their eyes out
Photo by Kirsten Hernandez/22 West Magazine

Why are we like this?

Baby Boomers are the only generation defined by the U.S. Census Bureau (people born mid 1946 to mid 1964), and even that’s more of an agreement than a fact. We’re all familiar with the narrative: our boys came back from World War II with the stability of the GI bill at their backs, they went straight to making babies, they got degrees, they moved to the suburbs and carried trauma that wouldn’t have a widely accepted diagnosis until 1980.

This narrative excludes a lot of meaningful experiences that contributed to the baby boom, even just within the U.S. The boom includes post war immigration and diaspora, the children of soldiers still disadvantaged by their race, people who followed the path opened by both illegal and legally imported labor (like the Bracero Program), children of internment. Baby boomers were hippies, tech visionaries, immigrant nurses. Bill Gates is a boomer. bell hooks is a boomer.

Like any label, “baby boomer” is not a monolithic identity. All of these disparate experiences are impacted by the same mass culture, the same major political events, the same economy. Our individual circumstances inform a lot, but they are affected by the same institutions.

Why did we do this?

Categories aren’t inherently bad or unjust. “Red” is a category with incredible variation in itself, but if you used a different name for every shade of apple in the aisle, you’d never leave the store.

But distilling experiences into broad categories is also used to like, create divisions and imbalances. Social categories inform your likelihood of facing violence, of being hired, other discrimination things.

People have made really strong arguments for the idea that baby boomers were formed by marketing. A huge wave of teenagers to cater products and content for! Rock and roll!

Distilling experiences into broad categories is also used to like, create divisions and imbalances.

The subsequent generations all exist relative to them. Gen X is the forgotten, disaffected middle child. Millennials are born of boomers. Gen Z is becoming the kids of Gen X. The youngest boomers are currently in their mid 50s, so it’s like, I’m sure they are not the dominant baby makers of the last 10 years (though I hesitate to say 20).

But like it also means nothing! The dominant media narratives for all of these labels rests on an insidious assumption about what an “American” looks like: educated, heterosexual, middle class, born in the U.S. to U.S. citizens.

When I think of what a baby boomer looks like, I’m not thinking about bell hooks or Sandra Cisneros. I’m remembering when my white-haired, ruddy-faced high school econ teacher told us that when he was an undergraduate at San Jose State, students picketed a five dollar tuition increase.

Who am I? Who are we?

Pew Research Center has decided that for their measurement purposes, millennials were born between 1981 and 1996. It’s a 16 year window, the same as Gen X. It may take a few years for an agreed cutoff to emerge, but until then, they’re using “post millennials” to describe anyone born in 1997 or later.

Even though I know that birth years don’t really mean anything, I felt a vague sense of indignance at being born in ‘97, right on the cutoff. It’s like being a teenager at the kids table. Most of the creators and artists I follow are 5 to 15 years older than me, and I’ve absorbed a lot of their sensibilities. But after taking a step back, I think it’s important to acknowledge the ways our formative years differ, and what that means for the literal children.

My flights have always been slogs through high security. My America has always been at war with Iraq.

So like, 9/11 and its fallout is the kind of thing that marks a huge, violent change in our country. If you were an adult when it happened, it probably disrupted your perception of the U.S. If you were a teenager, it probably informed it. And if you were a baby, you probably didn’t think it was that uncomfortable that “jet fuel can’t melt steel beams” was a meme.

There are certainly people younger than me that remember that day, but I do not. My flights have always been slogs through high security. My America has always been at war with Iraq.

I was 11 years old in 2008, when Barack Obama took office. In my America, 3.5 out of 4 presidents have been white (as opposed to 44/45) and I didn’t have anything to do with electing that half in.

I didn’t have to worry about my personal career during the Great Recession, because I was in fifth grade. The power of the youth vote and economic paranoia directly disaffected millennials. Without that, we shift to something new.

What does this mean?

I don’t think too many people are proudly identifying as Gen Z. It’s too unclear, too cluttered up with garbage that is within the standard deviation of teenage bullshit. Sure, they feed the popularity of brothers both Paul and Dolan. Fortnite is erasing the legacies of both Carlton and 2 Milly. They kept eating Tide Pods.

What’s coming up more and more though, is that the kids are pretty healthy? Ipsos, a market analysis company, surveyed people in the U.K. born after 1996 and found that they were largely drinking less alcohol, eating less sugar and more skeptical of what the internet says is true. Only a third of them identified as “exclusively heterosexual.”

Also, Generation Z is a bad name. So is post-millennial. And iGeneration. We really need to seize the means of description.

Regardless, this generation is a high tide of racial diversity. It is the March For Our Lives, it is transforming millennial cynicism into energy and action. We live in the gray area, and it’s never been more colorful.

Three people, skin toned purple with yellow scribbles over their eyes.
Photo by Kirsten Hernandez/22 West Magazine