Lapped up by senior administrators in their continual quest to appear cutting edge, Gen Z talk is the darling of academia right now.
People sure do have an obsession for cheap and sloppy categorizations and labels. Presumably they do this to enable studies and resultant ‘data.’ Shhh! Of course it’s data. Data is good in a capitalist economy. As they say in our favorite capitalist westerns, “There’s monetization in them there hills.”
The fairy tale of Gen Z
Once the three little pigs are numbered, (to hell with their names and genders) their needs can be examined. Here more straw, there more bricks. It’s an economy of neoliberalism and scarcity. Reciprocally we, those who own capitalist concerns, are always wiling to foster the little pigs’ further definition that will necessarily be dependent upon the creation of changeable desires. “What then?” They ask. “Of course we meet your needs with the product,” we answer. The genius political theorist Sheldon Wolin had a phrase for this sort of imagining, cough, reality: “managed circularity.”
Ring, ring. The 1980’s is on the phone.
There is stupidity found in the Gen-Z moniker just as there is stupidity in promoting the whole idea of a new generation needing naming. Well if it’s this outdated no wonder academic leadership loves it. In academia, change is dish most appealing when served stale.
I’m betting that right now there are rooms packed with academic leadership who are being exposed to real and digital presentations about Gen Z characteristics that offers a fair amount less than the Wikipedia page on Gen Z. “Money well spent,” they say. The idea must be this: maximizing our ‘understanding’ of Gen Z students will allow us to maximize recruitment strategies. “Maybe we need a consultant.” They will nod and hire. The name of the university will be tweeted out. It will be called a win win. Meanwhile, back to the presentation. The academic leadership, the same ones who had to learn about Gen Z’s, are sitting through the presentation. Dull-eyed, bored, they clandestinely send pm’s or texts, check their email, look up the facts presented, make lunch plans, and take a quick peek at the job listings at other universities. In other words they act exactly like their supposed unknown Others, the Gen Z’s. Yet, because academic leadership normally seem to have little ability for self reflection, this fact is not recognized. And so they sit and spin.
If we must define the group, and we don’t, we might use MMXXers, or we might say the pluralist generation since those in North America seem to currently love the myth of true plurality, or perhaps more realistically we could use what students at Stoneman Douglas High School started to refer to themselves as, “the mass shooting generation.” Tragically, seventeen students and staff were killed there on February 14, 2018 and I don’t add this lightly. Such shootings in part define the United States.
Iced-capps not ice caps.
The point is the shift is like the flu and none of us are immune. Willing or unwilling we all participate in this shift. We recognize it’s boom and bust, take what you can get, self pleasure, after all, we must have two SUV’s and twenty digital devices in our home and that’s just basic survival! To name this shift accurately: hyper-capitalism and hyper-neoliberalism. A case could be made about how undue focus on some mythical Gen Z actually is designed to draw attention away from the many ways Boomers, to use another demographic label, basically devastated everything they touched for following generations. But it’s really the same capitalist, neoliberal agenda that drove them too. It cannot realistically be localized to a demographic born between the mid 90-s to the mid 00’s. To go with a double negative, because one lived without the internet for a while doesn’t mean that person can’t quickly become more expert than the acned crowd. Toddlers multitask while language learning on Duolingo, just as do the elderly who update their Facebook while talking on the phone. Few demographics are immune by choice and by this I’m thinking the poor and subjugated who we might presume would still like the capitalist benefits they perceive form a distance.
Pragmatically, demographic characteristic cataloguing is market strategy, which if you think it through acts in opposition to diversity. How sad it is then that academic leadership does not question their acceptance.
The very characteristics they ascribe to Gen Z’s such as being curious or open minded or risk averse, etc, etc, are all such vague generalities that they’d fit about any demographic today. They’d say the same about their faculty, or their board, or even themselves. Instead they accept the illusion that knowing the characteristics of a supposed Gen Z will somehow affect what happens in the classroom? I hear them say, “Maybe we should cut the curricular side a bit in order to add more administrators to help the risk averse students navigate the frightful waters of registering for courses.” Where’s my box of tin medals?
Sheldon Wolin has spoken of this shift in his book Managed Democracy. It started during and after World War II in the United States when corporations and the government became more or less a single entity. Contemporaneous was in increase in boundaries for citizens, managed by formal laws and institutions, by permission and censorship, in a society where everyone became tracked and surveilled. Wolin writes, “Those powers are also a means of inventing and disseminating a culture that taught consumers to welcome change and private pleasure while accepting political passivity,” (Wolin, 2008, p. xv). “Hey, I care and want to question the status quo but I I need to retweet this.” We take it for granted that we need the newest clothing/car/phone/movie, whatever. We seem to think it’s natural for extreme divisiveness within a two-party system of politics, and those weirdos who do complain do so only in ways that have no agency for real change by which I mean talk radio forums, op ed pieces, and slacktivist rallies. They, like academic leadership, cannot even see that, or how, they are being managed.
Notice I’m not talking change in the sense of Yellow-Vest protestors in France, who in their visibility are clear in wanting overhauls to unjust tax burdens, fuel taxes, and costs of living. We’re talking constant change under the aegis of and within the agenda of monetization.
For the most part our complicity has been seamless. But it can go wrong. Two flashpoints may be seen with Apple and EA Games. Both companies thrive on change defined as new products and product tweaks. Apple eventually admitted they were slowing down older iPhones. (1) It seems obvious for one to suggest that making an older device less than optimal helps future markets. Or you can attempt to monetize what you already have. EA Games did this with their game Battlefront II that according to Ilija Rolović cost $60 to buy and if you wanted to unlock all heroes and ships you needed to pay $2,100 in hard cash or put in 4,428 hours playing to get the required in-game currency. According to Rolović, this prompted boycotting and petitioning, a $3 billion dollar stock loss, the most down-voted post in Reddit history (638,000), and investigations by the USA and Belgium for illegally facilitating gambling. (2) That said, we assist. We must buy that new car. We must buy twenty t-shirts. We must have that new 5-G digital doodad.
Sorry Gen Z’s. The state you’re in, we’re in.
To draw upon Mark Fisher’s thoughts in his brilliant book Capitalist Realism, we see, “endlessly repeating vistas of replicating franchises” (Fisher, 2009, p. 31.) We continually move toward an economy of gig-jobs. Elderly work part time at Walmart to supplement insufficient retirement incomes, younger ‘entrepreneurs’ take whatever on-spec job they can get, aware that they have no job security nor benefits. The people we’re talking about, not just some demographic, all realize that the old ways are no longer valid nor sustainable. Again Fisher, “Their arrangement is temporary, pragmatic and lateral — they know that they are interchangeable machine parts, that there are no guarantees, that nothing lasts” (Fisher, 2009, p. 32).
The fundamental shift respects all demographics without bias, it’s just that as a marketing groups study which age groups spend the most money and adjust accordingly. But a penny here, a penny there, it all adds up to some multinational’s quarterly profits.
In this new economy, flexibility becomes central. Connections are lateral, think LinkedIn. Think not staying with one job and working up the corporate ladder. Networks, by which I mean those accessed online are central to our life and identity. The fact that the user’s data is mined is accepted this with good consumer passivity — “This is the price one pays for coexistence,” they say. One doesn’t have time (another benefit of a gig economy is one is always job hunting) or feel they have the agency (again the impotence forums and protests) with which to follow every creeping rootstalk to it’s end. The benefits of networking supersedes the drawbacks of privacy invasion, and worse as good consumers this remains unchallenged.
This whole bundle and all it’s related mindsets, attributed to Gen Z’s are in reality common to everyone. It’s not just that group of mythical Gen Z Machlyes trundling through the same landscape. The landscape itself has changed and all of us have reacted.
- Kharpal, A. (December 22, 2017). Apple sued after it admits to slowing down older iPhones. CNBC. Retrived online from https://www.cnbc.com/2017/12/22/apple-sued-after-it-admits-to-slowing-down-older-iphones.html
- Rolović, Ilija. (December 7, 2017). What Game Developers Can Learn From EA’s Failed Monetization Strategy. Medium. Retrieved online from https://blog.enjincoin.io/what-can-game-developers-learn-from-eas-failed-monetisation-strategy-6afc899a2feb)