Is Gen Z turning against Western civilisation?

Youngsters are losing faith in freedom and democracy.

Joel Kotkin

Joel Kotkin

Topics Politics USA World

The younger generations seem increasingly crazed. A worrying proportion of the young sympathises with those who launch terror attacks against Israel, supports the immediate elimination of fossil fuels or demands the wiping out of gender distinctions. All these positions are troubling in themselves, but they also reflect a deeper malady – a mostly apolitical breakdown of social norms, personal interaction, literacy and logical thinking.

No single issue has catalysed Gen Z, as the Vietnam War did for the Baby Boomer generation. Boomers were angry but did not generally despair about their futures, which turned out reasonably well, buoyed by the creation of new jobs, rising property and stock prices. In contrast, most younger people dread almost everything that lies ahead. The majority of them, according to a Lancet study, see the entire planet as doomed by climate change.

This negative take on the future shows that the young are being poorly served in numerous ways, notably by the economy. Only 36 per cent of voters in a new Wall Street Journal / NORC survey say the American Dream still holds true, a feeling that is even more pronounced among younger people. Currently, less than half of millennials are doing better financially than their parents were at the same stage in life. This is the first time a generation has fallen behind its elders in recent history. About seven in 10 Americans think that young adults today have a harder time than their parents’ generation when it comes to saving for the future (72 per cent), paying for college (71 per cent) and buying a home (70 per cent), according to a 2021 report by the Pew Research Centre.

The decline in homeownership – which nearly three in five young people see as an essential part of the American Dream – is especially damaging. Homeownership roots people in their community, forces them to mature and is closely tied to the desire to start a family. According to US Census Bureau data, the rate of homeownership among young adults at ages 25 to 34 was 45 per cent for Generation X. This has dropped to 37 per cent for millennials, the generation that should now be starting to have families. In the UK, house prices hit a record high last year, while the rate of homeownership among people under 35 halved between 1997 and 2017.

The trends are similarly worrying in the world of work. Despite labour shortages that are likely to get worse, real wages have not surpassed costs for most people living in the US, the EU, Japan and the UK. In the US, men’s labour participation is now lower than in 1940, when unemployment was three times higher. Labour-participation rates for young men have suffered a particularly steep drop from over 80 per cent in the 1980s to barely 60 per cent now.

These conditions demonstrate the erosion of ambition throughout the West and even in East Asia. Fewer millennials and Gen Zers seem to take work seriously. There is increasing evidence, according to recent Conference Board studies, that ‘work-life balance’ is more central to Gen Z than career advancement. Some even celebrate worklessness as ‘funemployment’. The overwhelming majority of American part-time workers have chosen to work part-time and are not seeking more hours.

Europe has the most ‘disengaged’ workforce in the high-income world. In the UK, employers fret about a diminishing millennial work ethic. Nearly 10 per cent of young Brits who are currently studying or out of work say they have no intention of ever starting work, while roughly a third doubt they will reach their career goals. This has gone hand in hand with young people delaying their transition to adulthood and having fewer children.

Similar phenomena can be seen in Japan. Even in China, a large portion of the young, including the well-educated, have taken to ‘lying flat’. They seek a way of living without commitment to a job, developing skills or achieving what were once considered the rites of adulthood – from owning a home to getting married or starting a family. Unsurprisingly, the birth rates in Europe, America and East Asia have dropped to record low levels.

Some see technology as the solution to youthful angst, but it seems to have made things worse. Although the digital revolution has made some Boomers and Gen Xers fabulously rich, it has mostly lessened the prospects for the next generation, a process that could be accelerated by the rise of artificial intelligence (AI).

Techno-optimists like the Brookings Institution predict a huge productivity boom from AI. Much the same was said about the rise of the internet. But, over the past 15 years, as economist Robert J Gordon has demonstrated, the web seems to have had little overall effect on productivity, which continues to lag, or on economic growth.

AI clearly has the potential to provide improvements in education and medicine, but it seems unlikely to create many new opportunities for all but the best connected entrepreneurs. The playing field is largely already set. By last summer, six tech firms accounted for half the value of the Nasdaq-100. These same Big Tech companies also seem likely to dominate AI. In 2022, much of the $32 billion invested into AI came from Amazon, Apple, Microsoft and Alphabet, Google’s parent company. The enormous cost of the processing power needed for AI will cut out smaller companies and start-ups. AI’s ‘primary value’, notes venture capitalist Martin Casado, is ‘to improve existing operations for incumbents that have the resources to invest at the required levels’.

Even more troubling may be the impact of AI on the future job market for the new generation. Over 80 per cent of millennials fear AI will reduce their incomes. According to McKinsey, at least 12million Americans will be forced to find new work by 2030.

Job prospects, in the short run at least, are especially bleak for the non-college educated, who make up roughly two in three young people in advanced countries. Young white-collar workers may not fare much better, either. Two thirds of business leaders, in a recent survey, suggest AI will lead to large white-collar layoffs in the next five years. One study predicts this could particularly affect office assistants, sales executives, HR managers and accountants. Even many creative-industry jobs – such as actors, writers and journalists – could be threatened. Actors and writers could find their identities and creations copied or simply used in derivative products, as AI relies on past work to develop its products.

Even the tech geeks may be vulnerable. Firms like Meta and Lyft have announced major layoffs this year, warning that some positions are unlikely ever to return. IBM has put its staff hiring on hold while assessing how many of its mid-level jobs can be replaced by AI. Similarly, recent studies show that within months of AI’s emergence, freelance work in software declined markedly, along with pay. On the other hand, those few gifted enough to write AI programmes will be highly compensated – until they too are replaced by machines.

The younger generation’s immersion in social media may prove even more damaging. Author Cathy O’Neil, in her chilling Weapons of Math Destruction, suggests that social-media algorithms use a ‘secret sauce’ that is perfectly designed to lure customers and keep them distracted. The ultimate effect of excessive social-media use is that it severely reduces genuine human interaction with people from different classes and backgrounds. The popularity of social media has also been closely tied to rises in personal anxiety, particularly among young women.

The emerging picture is dismal. A recent AEI survey found that Gen Zers are far lonelier and are less likely to have had strong romantic relationships or even just strong friendships than previous generations. An EU study showed that at least one in four young Europeans reports feeling anxious due to social media. Similar patterns can be seen in the UK, particularly for girls. So atrophied are young people’s in-person communication skills that some colleges now hold remedial classes to address this.

Sadly, the current education system, rather than helping young people to adjust to these challenges, seems likely to make matters worse. Youngsters know increasingly little about the world. American school children are remarkably ignorant of US history – only 13 per cent of eighth graders achieve proficiency in the subject. Whole centuries, notably the 19th century, seem to be vanishing from European classrooms in the drive to ‘decolonise’ the curriculum. Those raising banners for Hamas likely do not know much about the history of Israel, the Middle East or even the Holocaust.

In today’s educational environment, where woke ideology reigns, promoting basic literacy and cognitive skills is increasingly passé. According to the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress, two thirds of American fourth graders lack basic proficiency in reading. A full 86 per cent of 15-year-olds are unable to tell the difference between opinion and fact. IQ and academic-test scores have all fallen in recent years.

This lack of education, made worse by the pandemic, not only makes these young people less capable – it also empowers propagandists of the extremes to twist history for ideological purposes.

Political pluralism has now been all but extinguished on many university campuses. Liberal-arts faculties at elite colleges are overwhelmingly left-leaning. Among professors, registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by 20 to one. In some fields, like sociology and English, this ratio is more than 40 to one. This is not just an American phenomenon. As David Goodhart notes in The Road to Somewhere, although half of British voters lean to the right, less than 12 per cent of academics do. Similar ratios are common across Europe and in Canada.

With their ideas facing little pushback in this environment, young people are increasingly Manichean and authoritarian in their worldview. Pollster Nate Silver has found that support for free speech is all but disappearing among the young, especially among those who identify as liberal or left-wing. Similarly, a major survey covering 160 countries from the University of Cambridge’s Centre for the Future of Democracy found that support for democracy to be lowest among 18- to 34-year-olds.

For years, so-called progressives have imagined that this uniformity works to their long-term advantage. After all, many young people support strident leftists like Bernie Sanders in the US or Jean-Luc Mélenchon in France, while nearly two thirds of young American adults told Pew Research in 2022 that they don’t view capitalism positively – the highest share of any age group.

But many young people are also turning to the right. This is true particularly for male, working-class voters, from the US to Europe and Latin America, as epitomised by the success of the Netherlands’ Geert Wilders, France’s Marine Le Pen or Germany’s AfD. Even Donald Trump, who lost the youth vote overwhelmingly in 2020, has spied an opportunity in courting the young. He is running neck and neck with Joe Biden in current polls. White youngsters in particular may also be reacting to affirmative-action policies at companies and on campuses that seek to restrict their prospects, whatever their economic class.

Some liberal media outlets, like the Guardian, blame Biden’s stance on Israel-Palestine for his loss of the youth vote. But this can hardly be the main driver, given that Trump is far more pro-Israel than Biden. One doubts that many young Hamas sympathisers will flock to The Donald. The economy is far more likely to be the main driver.

It is now painfully clear that we are failing younger generations. We should not shy away from denouncing their craziness. But we must also focus on restoring economic mobility, entrepreneurial opportunity and, most of all, faith in the essential values and worth of our civilisation. If we fail in this, we will leave behind a world that is far darker and uglier than any of us have known.

Joel Kotkin is a spiked columnist, the presidential fellow in urban futures at Chapman University and executive director of the Urban Reform Institute. His latest book, The Coming of Neo-Feudalism, is out now. Follow him on Twitter: @joelkotkin

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