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Gen Z and Financial Nihilism
is it really different this time?
on changing times
This week I worked with David Lidksy on the cover piece for Fast Company - Why Gen Z is redefining the concept of job satisfaction. The piece walks through why Gen Z is thinking differently about work (something I’ve written about before) and how it’s ‘different this time’. I wanted to expand on the piece in this newsletter - talk about driving forces and where these forces might eventually lead us.
Bloomberg Opinion - If the economy is getting better, why are the vibes so bad?
The Evolution of Work Along Generational Divides
“This generation doesn’t care about anything” is a phrase that is bemoaned by each generation about the one younger than them - usually meant to express the idea that the youth are drying up without any sort of passion behind them, or if they do have passion, it’s the wrong kind of passion!
And if they aren’t drying up, they are being too loud, too obnoxious, not caring about the right things!
Generational tensions are a constant. Experience, which usually follows age, is one of the great definers of our lives. As we get older, we take on more of the world - and the world puts more on us. Duh. Of course. But what these experiences are composed of - and how we share them - matters. Generation Z - born between the late-1990s and the mid-2010s has had a lot of experience. The world has put a lot on them, on everyone, over the past few decades.
Everyone is Going Through It
Gen Z’ers parents were coming of age during the Cold War, the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights Movement, Watergate, and the development of the World Wide Web - an era defined by immense social, cultural, and political change. Gen Z’s grandparents lived through the Great Depression, World War II, the Holocaust, the Korean War, and so much more.
For Gen Z, the oldest were born during the dot com bubble and a few years later experienced 9/11 and a few years after that experienced the Global Financial Crisis, Arab Spring, the Syrian Civil War and a few years after that the global pandemic and the storming of the U.S. capitol, all amplified by social media.
Gen Z has lived through as many as three big economic downturns, despite only being alive for at most about 25 years or so. These crises occurred during their formative years, which shaped how they interact with the world, work, others, and themselves.
They’ve watched the American Dream rot before their eyes, as higher education becomes a luxury good, a housing crisis exacerbates the cost of living, all backdropped by political stagnation and rapid (perhaps even too rapid) technological advancement.
So we have all that going on - and the question that many ask - “Well Millennials were also raging at the world, felt robbed, etc and we are still here. So why would Gen Z (or Gen Alpha, or any other) change the world?”
It’s always dangerous to say it’s different this time but I do think that something is different this time - and it’s all based in relationships.
Relationship with the World
I want to highlight that although this essay focuses on Gen Z, the lessons apply for generations younger and older than them, with corporatism (wherein corporations do seem to rule the world) is being replaced by some sort of path towards independence.
There is frustration with the 9-to-5, with work not fulfilling the promise that it did for the Boomers and beyond. A starter salary is not what it used to be, and the way that we work and live has had to evolve around that.
This generation has to go about things differently. Gen Z seems to be searching for broader freedoms in a world dominated by corporations and advertisement and also if you have a feeling just medicate it and also student loans and also the housing crisis and also hyperindividualism and also the Earth is burning so there is nothing left to do but try and save it.
Everything is a bit, until it isn’t.
Relationship with Work
A lot of people will say “this generation doesn’t want to do anything anymore!” Which is fine! Maybe even valid. But it’s maybe not that they don’t want to do anything anymore, but rather they don’t want to do anything in the way that it’s always been done anymore.
The search for freedom, the trend towards some aspects of nihilism, the climate crisis, and broader influences of corporate ideology have all influenced how Gen Z works.
But other things - including economic downturns, the cost of higher education, the crisis in housing, and the stagnation of work have all shaped how everyone thinks about career paths.
But first, what happened? What shaped Gen Z?
Dot Com Bubble
The Dot-Com bubble was one of the first times that retail investors got in on the markets in a big way, and it was also one of the really spectacular blow ups that harmed a lot of people in a big way.
There were crises that preceded it -
The Great Depression of 1929
The Oil Embargo of 1973
The Savings and Loans Crisis of the 1980s etc
But those were shaped by the decisions of governments and banks, whereas the Internet crash felt much more localized, shaped by at-home speculation and venture capital mismanagement.
An early part of Gen Z’s identity was shaped by speculation and excess.
The dot com era was defined by big bets and little backing, with froth framing dreams.
Sky high valuations were the norm, based on future earnings rather than the actual financial performance of the companies - a thematic that is pervasive in markets across all of time, as we saw most recently with the crypto bubble and the aping of GME and AMC.
Whether it is tulip bulbs or Internet companies, the same sort of energy persisted - people wanted in, they wanted money, and they wanted it now.
Being born into a time of market failure is formative. Most of Gen Z was too young to remember the bankruptcies and financial losses, but it indirectly influenced their attitudes towards investing and thought patterns around hype and speculation. These unprofitable Internet companies that raised millions of dollars defined a time of superfluity that would only get amplified in the coming years - as a much bigger financial crisis shortly followed.
2008 was much more impactful for most of the people in this generation. A lot of kids (myself included) saw their caregivers battle against uncontrollable economic forces. There were job losses, foreclosures on homes, a decimation of household wealth - almost no one was left unscathed (except the bankers that caused it).
For the younger generations, this impacted so many things. Millennials were furious. Economic stability, job stability, financial stability - all of that was a big question mark. They had just witnessed a system fail, but in a way that they couldn’t comprehend. Watching your parents hold their heads in their hands at the dining room table as they try to figure out how to pay the mortgage that month is an image that is seared into the minds of many.
Institutions are Sketch
This also impacted the younger generations through general skepticism towards systems and institutions. This would be the second time in ten years that they - and everyone else - watched things implode. It was a systemic failure that resulted in economic inequality and social disparities, and it didn’t seem like the consequences were there for those that caused it. The Golden Age of Grift had begun, and the first rug had been pulled - it was a world of fraud and deceit.
Around this same time, social media started to pop up. Everything was broadcasted to the world - for the first time ever, feelings became somewhat fungible - an interchangeable asset that could be traded for likes and retweets.
The younger generation has grown up without many physical third spaces - a place to go that isn’t work or home or school. The online world became the solution for that, a way to find and build community in a seemingly desolate landscape of individualism. So people started posting.
But that era was also defined by the rising power of the corporation. There were several laws passed in the 2010s that ended up turning the United States into three corporations in a trench suit.
This era gave a lot of freedom to corporations, but it also gave a lot of power to advertisers. Advertisement became the economic model for the 2010s!
Our entire nervous system became a profit machine for anyone that could serve a fast-paced pleasure-producing candy dream. Eyeballs became monetization tools, which created a strange layer of interaction between the consumer and the advertiser. You are really nothing but clicks in the grand scheme of Making Money, and they are going to make you click! Somehow!
And of course, all of the buildup from the dotcom bubble to the 2008 Crisis was exacerbated by the pandemic of 2020. For the Zoomers that were still in school, online learning replaced in-person lectures and shifted socialization. For the Zoomers that had just begun their careers (like myself) work from home became the only option. And of course, death was the only constant during a time of immense uncertainty.
This shifted how a lot of people thought about work and life.
People that we titled as “essential” workers still had to go into work, those in service, medical, transportation, agriculture, etc. Everything that was wrong from before the pandemic only got worse during the pandemic.
For the past forty years, we have seen productivity increase, but wages have remained relatively stagnant. The minimum wage hasn’t picked up at all.
The cost of living has skyrocketed, especially during the recent inflation crisis.
And then we all watched this horrific treatment of “essential workers”, who were the people that kept food on the table, who worked in the meat packing plants, who staffed the hospitals for those that were sick.
We all bore witness to the eventual degradation of that treatment - the nurses didn’t have enough PPE and had to wear trash bags, the factories were overrun with COVID, yet workers were still forced to come to work, the teachers tried to keep kids safe in a world that seemed increasingly built to kill them, and countless more examples.
All of that is going to shape how anyone thinks about work.
When we started getting to the other side of the pandemic, the narrative quickly became about getting people back into the office. The labor shortage. The need for more Workers, Now. We never stopped to grieve. Instead, it became all about getting the economy booming again.
For education, there are a lot of gaps in the steps between education and work, for both trade school and university education. For trade school graduates, there is a tendency for employers to not want to train employees up because of cost (along with a myriad of other problems with getting new people into trade roles). For university graduates, there is no real guarantee that you will find a job, especially not a job in the major you studied. In the United States, healthcare and benefits are tied to employment, which is kind of bonkers. There is no real safety net - if you stumble, you can fall pretty hard.
Traditional work hasn’t really worked over the past decade or so. Hence, the rise of the gig economy and other income streams to try and plug the economic gap. People are trying to put together puzzle pieces that never really fit quite right.
Relationship with Others
There are a lot of things that influence how we interact with each other, but in recent years, the domination of Brand has been a big one. The rise of DTC and e-commerce in the 2010s really shaped how people consumed and how they participated in online spaces.
The puzzle pieces were what you were wearing - but also why you were wearing what you were wearing.
The economy is built around consumers. Consumer spending is 70% of GDP, meaning that it's the core driver of how the economy moves and grooves.
And of course, the consumer is designed to consume!
We live in a world driven by fast fashion and nanosecond trend cycles. Because of the focus on consumption across most aspects of our lives, it ends up being a defining feature of the younger generation. It’s subculture on top of subculture. A way to identify with several different groups simultaneously. In the era of the Internet, you can be anything and everything.
Who am I?
It (of course) isn’t this way for everyone, but there is a hyper-online aspect to existence that influences how and what we purchase. But this freedom can end up being restrictive.
If you can be everything, if you can completely define yourself - but only through the lens of the content that you consume - who really are you? As social media demands a curated (albeit not perfect) self image, are we our Selfies - and do our Selfies represent us at all?
Online spaces have really become where we hang out. Reddit, Twitter (rest in peace), Instagram, Tumblr-pre-Yahoo-acquisition, YouTube - you are what you do on the Internet, at least to a certain extent. Which is good! I certainly love the online world. But it also creates a sense of individualism because we are never really together - we are sort of talking to figments of our imagination.
This is a thread of hyperindividualism, something the United States is already really well known for. We crave community, and online spaces offer aspects of that! But not in the way that we might need it to. That’s shaped how younger generations interact and talk to others, with a preference for digital interface vs actual face to face.
And that shapes how we all interact with ourselves.
Relationship with Self
Politics is a game show. Reality is entertainment. Baudrillard watches with intensity. The panopticon of observation. Vulnerability is our greatest asset and our greatest risk.
The youth are growing up in a time of political minefields. Their attention spans are destroyed, but that is because the youngest generation is exposed to 30 different things from gut wrenching to wonderous in the span of 1 minute.
How can anyone retain attention in that sort of environment? The constant scrolling tells us that nothing is worth remembering, nothing is worth reflection, nothing is worth production because the act of consumption is simpler.
If you just keep scrolling, maybe that weird disjointed feeling will finally go away.
And algorithms end up building themselves around you. We have our “real selves” and then an “algorithmic identity” that ties into the online space. It can be hard to parse out the difference at times.
We all want to be informed. There is a feeling between knowledge and action, that we know all these things but we can’t parse any sense of reality out of them. When you watch blood spill from a fellow human out of the screen from your magic glow box, it creates a sense of distance. We are always pixels away from disaster, yet it creates an impassable chasm.
The Attention Economy
This is a function of the broader attention economy too, where every act of violence, every beautiful thing, is the opportunity for you to become a star. Somewhat ironically, the eyeballs for monetization model works for how we interact with each other too. Whether it’s something ephemeral like Internet points in terms of numbers of likes we collectively base a lot of self worth on the idea that it is only worth something if we post it.
Because we are all constantly exposed to horrors beyond our wildest dreams, we tend to treat the images of suffering as doing something about the suffering we bear witness to.
And that’s the thing about younger generations. They have seen suffering, images everyday that are similar to the ones of the Holocaust and war that shook Susan Sontag so hard she ended up writing a book denouncing photography entirely.
The younger generation has grown up in a time of economic turmoil, an unwritten redefinition of the standard of living, and interconnectedness that at times is painfully restrictive. It's wonderful to have the entire world at the tips of your fingers, but you also have the entire world at the tips of your fingers!
When we think about how this younger generation will go into the workforce, they will go in with purpose, because they have to. They are open-minded, accepting, and have steadfast values. Work for them needs to dovetail with passion - and if it doesn’t, that’s okay too, because they will pursue that passion on the side. Fulfillment is broad - and the younger generations will create a world around that.
People ask what the ‘revolution’ will look like, and I don’t know the answer to that exactly. But I think the way that we think about work is evolving - whether that be work-from-home, dumb terms like quiet quitting, side jobs, or people giving themselves space to find what they care about. We need to support people. There is a weird American thing where it’s like “if you’re not suffering, you’re not living” or something, but I personally believe social safety nets and support for all workers (and people) is how we reignite passion, and therefore, the world. Perhaps that is naive, but perhaps it really is different this time.
Thanks for reading.
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Disclaimer: This is not financial advice or recommendation for any investment. The Content is for informational purposes only, you should not construe any such information or other material as legal, tax, investment, or financial advice.