When does a generation really come of age? Is it high school graduation? Is it when they turn 18-years-old? Is it when they graduate from college and enter their careers? It seems the real answer is something far less than a specific life event. It seems the answer is when enough media and pundits decide your generation has reached a point where it can be attacked.
The last couple of weeks have seen a few news stories and news show hosts take time to focus on Generation Z. From Bill Maher to Fox Business, there is an emerging trend that it is open season on Gen Z. Let's take a moment to look at the blistering attack Bill Maher launched on the age group in a recent episode of his HBO show Real Time. Always one to push his observations in his New Rule segment, Maher took time to call out Gen Z during a discussion called “Ok, Zoomer.” He opened by attacking us for the disparities in followers on Instagram between Greta Thunberg and Kylie Jenner. He went on to attack Gen Z with the energy he once reserved for the worst in our world when he said:
"The cognitive dissonance between planet-destroying conspicuous consumption and planet-saving rhetoric is breathtaking. You say you love Greta and her message but everything else you love is a climate disaster. Far from rejecting consumerism, young people are so obsessed with labels.
When Kylie’s lifestyle becomes uncool and unpopular and you stop loving Bitcoin and stop thinking that stuffing your face is harmless, then I’ll take you seriously. Until then, shut the f*** up about how older generations ruined the planet. I wish your generation was better than mine. I really do. The sad truth is, we’re completely the same. Lots of talk, and at the end of the day, hopelessly seduced and addicted to pigging out on convenience, luxury and consumption."
I wish your generation was better than mine. But the sad truth is, we’re completely the same."
First Bill, a quick data point. 61% of Instagram users are ages 25 and over. Gen Z's oldest person is just now turning 25 while most of us are younger. So I am not sure what demographic group or generation globally is making up the followers for Greta or Kylie. Since Kylie is age 24, and she started her Instagram account 10 years ago, it would be interesting to see how her followers grew over those ten years and what generation they are from. But who cares about data and facts anyway.
Beyond that, Bill's words on Gen Z were so much to take in. Especially from such a trusted source of insight that spent his life engaging in comedy to address the important issues of his generation. Who doesn’t remember his historic comedy march on DC. His “I Have A Joke” routine at the steps of our nation’s Capitol helped galvanize his generation into action that led to the end of racism in our nation’s criminal justice system, ended toxic masculinity and sexism, ensured quality education for all children, and all the other issues that plagued our world. We should listen to the man who has been faithfully married for decades and raised his own children to lead by example….oh wait, he did none of these things. But okay Bill, we will listen to your wisdom built on personal excess and self indulgence. Gen Z, are you taking notes?
I wish we could say this was the only example of an attack on Gen Z. Yet Bill was not alone in his attacks the past couple of weeks. Less than two weeks after Bill’s New Rule segment, an episode of Kennedy on Fox Business launched a new game segment called Word On The STREET. Kennedy created the game to ask a group of older white men to define common terms used by Gen Z. The segment lasted for six minutes and of course, played to their Boomer demographic audience. One contestant took pride in not knowing any of the terms and losing.
The very next day, the New York Post ran a story with the headline "Gen Z Makes Up 25% of the Workplace—But do Most of the Complaining." This work of compelling and surely Pulitzer Prize-winning journalism focused on the “frustration” of Human Resources professionals about Generation Z members bringing their grievances and misunderstanding at work to them. Yes, the story goes on to share the complaints that HR professionals have for Gen Z workers. Of a personal point of interest, I wonder if the writer pointed out to their “fellow Human Resources professionals” that they were taking their grievances about Gen Z to a newspaper for publication? I think I understand who taught us this process.
All jokes aside, the reality is that there seems to be a collective feeling among many journalists and media show hosts that now is the time to attack Gen Z. So the question for Gen Z is; why now? What has changed?
In the very same story about Gen Z published by the New York Post, they share in the opening sentence the reality that Gen Z members, whose oldest members turn 25 this year, now makeup 25 percent of our nation’s workforce. Yes, you read that right, our oldest Gen Z members turn 25 this year but we make up 25 percent of the nation’s workforce.
This is why it is open season on Gen Z. It's not that we graduated from college or got married, it is because of the growing influence our generation is having right now on issues from the workplace to politics. The reality of it is that Generation Z is now a growing economic, social, and political force that is forcing corporations, brands, and politicians to rethink how to market and what issues matter.
Why does this matter, you ask? Just take a look at a common thread among those who decided to take a swipe at Gen Z. What does Bill Maher, Lisa Kennedy Montgomery, and Greg Giangrande have in common? The lack of diversity of those speaking out also reflect a growing frustration that older generations seem to be demonstrating towards the overwhelming diversity that makes up not only Gen Z but the next generation of Americans, Gen Alpha. Are the underlying issues of this sudden concern for Gen Z a demonstration of the fact that these older generations of Americans are facing a future where they will have to, for the first time ever, take into consideration the life experiences and expectations of Black, Latino, Asian and Pacific Islanders, and Native Americans?
Just think about all the discussion across our nation about critical race theory. A week before his “real” words for Gen Z, he had an exchange with Michael Eric Dyson on the outcome of the Virginia Governor’s election where he said parents were right to be concerned about CRT. Maher expressed he understood the parents' concerns because kids were being separated into groups of the “oppressed and the oppressor. That there are children coming home being traumatized by this”. Even conservative Fox News did a segment on the exchange between Maher and Dyson.
Those words of Maher demonstrate how uneasy older generations are becoming about the diversity of Gen Z and what that will mean for our society. It is amazing to watch Maher, who many consider an ally, express his honest reaction of students being traumatized for learning the truth about America. If only Maher had his own children, maybe he would understand that being Black and a student in America has always meant learning about oppression, having to be uncomfortable at school, and traumatized (?) by the truth that we lived.
Gen Z, it's time to be aware of what is being said around us. Be aware that our collective experience, unlike any generation before us, is one that many older Americans will never be unable to understand. We must be “real” with ourselves and stay focused on how we not only navigate our society but put our values in place to create the positive change we all want to see.
Haley Taylor Schlitz is 19 years old and in her third year at SMU Dedman School of Law. In May of 2019, she became Texas Woman's University's youngest graduate in history when she graduated with honors with a Bachelor of Science degree from Texas Woman's University College of Professional Education. She is also the host of the online show Zooming In w/Gen Z. Follow all her endeavors on Instagram and Twitter.