People Born After 1997—Are They Just Better?

The way everyone talks about Gen Z is weird.

Erik Carter/The Atlantic; Getty

Early on Wednesday morning, while I was scrolling through Twitter in order to learn the midterm-election results in the most piecemeal and confusing fashion possible, I noticed something a little off.

On the lists of “historic firsts” and “barriers broken,” which logically included such victories as those of Massachusetts’s Maura Healey and Oregon’s Tina Kotek, the first openly lesbian governors to be elected, and that of Wes Moore, Maryland’s first Black governor, journalists were also citing the win by Florida’s 25-year-old Maxwell Alejandro Frost, the first member of Gen Z elected to Congress. These firsts are inarguably all firsts, but they’re “historic” in different ways. In the former cases, historic refers to the historical context that makes the win notable—a context of longtime oppression or marginalization or underrepresentation. In Frost’s case, although he will also be the first Afro Cuban member of Congress, the word historic is being used more literally, to refer to the passage of time. A few years ago, members of Gen Z—people who now range in age from roughly 10 to 25—were too young to be elected to office. Now some of them are old enough. So the barrier being broken is, in fact, not being broken, because it is impossible to break; time marches on, always, no matter what. People get older.

“I decided to run to represent my district, my home. I didn’t run to be the first Gen Z member of Congress,” Frost told me in a call. But he guessed that people were excited about it because he is so young. “It’s surprising that there was a first Gen Z member of Congress this early. It might not have been such a big thing if my generation wasn’t represented until we were 40 or 50 or 60.”

This is not to pick on Frost or on Frost-headline writers. Wednesday morning also brought an outpouring of gratitude toward Gen Zers in general, and an exultation of their presumed role in preventing a Republican sweep. THANK YOU GEN Z was trending on Twitter in the afternoon, and my own timeline was scattered with progressives celebrating everyone in the United States who is between the ages of 18 and 25. Though exit polls showed young voters coming out in large numbers to support Democratic candidates—and there is other evidence of higher-than-average participation from 18-to-29-year-olds—data from the Associated Press suggest that Election Day turnout was higher in older counties, and an analysis of early voting by the University of Florida professor Michael McDonald shows that just 5.2 percent of registered voters under the age of 26 cast a ballot before Election Day (compared with 11.1 percent of voters from 26 to 40, and 41.7 percent of voters from 41 to 65).

Even so: “Gen Z saving us from the world we’ve given them,” the Game of Thrones actor Pedro Pascal wrote on Twitter, with one broken-heart emoji and two regular-heart emoji. “Gen Z voted like a generation that has done active shooter drills since elementary school told that they aren’t allowed to read books by anyone who isn’t straight and white,” the author Frederick Joseph tweeted. “In doing so, they saved the election.” The latter tweet suggests that members of Gen Z were somehow able to vote with more drama and force than other people who voted—their voting acts were not just quick chores run before work, but somehow cinematic. (It also suggests that they all voted the same way.)

This is kind of weird, no?

It has always been desirable to be young, and youth has often been interpreted as an identity. Today, though, youth is saddled with the expectation of moral authority and benevolence. Gen Zers are cheered by some progressives as righteously angry and so good-hearted that America doesn’t deserve them. But it would be surprising if an entire cohort was “just kinder” than all others that came before. (Scientifically surprising, even!) And though younger people are generally more progressive, they are not a monolith.

All of this weirdness isn’t the fault of young people. It is the fault of older people who talk about them, and who ask the question—in The New York Times and on Quora and everywhere in between—“Will Gen-Z save the world?” This is a question bolstered by internet-y tropes: In the summer of 2020, during the Black Lives Matter protests, the entire generation was conflated with activist K-pop fans and with TikTok users. In the past few years, some advocates of a blockchain-based Web3 have evoked the halo around Gen Z to market their vision for the future of the internet, tapping into the supposed Gen Z desire to “make the world a better place.”

On Wednesday morning, Dirt’s Terry Nguyen published a report on the world of self-described Gen Z venture capitalists. Nguyen detailed a recent Gen Z–VC summit in Chicago that led Mayor Lori Lightfoot to declare October 7 “Gen Z VCs Day” and to “salute the Gen Z VC community.” The perspective that these Gen Z financiers have to offer is youth, which they position as synonymous with culture. “There’s a need for different kinds of culture to be funded,” Emily Herrera, a 23-year-old investor with the fund Night Ventures, told Nguyen. “It’s such an exciting thing to think about. The technology we’re investing in has the potential to meaningfully affect society.” Right, sure. But is this statement, in some notable way, different from the Silicon Valley–speak of generations prior? When I called Herrera to ask this question, she said that, unlike big tech companies, her fund is interested in “underserved consumers” and tries to work with “creators in very niche communities.”

Gen Z branding appeals in business and in politics. On Tuesday night, the 25-year-old Joe Vogel tweeted that he had won his state-legislature race and was set to become “the first GenZ legislator” in Maryland. About an hour later, the 25-year-old Jeff Long—who had won in a nearby district—tweeted the same claim, with almost the exact same wording. (When I called them both to settle the matter, Vogel said that Long was “a few months” older than him. “I actually didn’t know he’s a Gen Zer,” Vogel said. He also sounded sort of annoyed. “Is this what your story is about?” Long, for his part, noted that both he and Vogel will turn 26 before the start of the legislative session.) I don’t know much about these men beyond what’s on their campaign sites. But that’s the point—knowing that they are both Gen Z doesn’t actually tell you anything, so why does it seem to? Millennials (hi, and sorry) were the subject of mass disdain because of their perceived petulance and excess of emotion. Gen Z, written about by media that are now made up in no small share by Millennials, has been awarded a totally different story.

Generalization, whether positive or negative, is condescension. The youth of a cohort is not a barrier, nor does it guarantee the whole group a special perspective or capacity for insight. You don’t do the 20-year-old in your life any favors by treating her like the Second Coming. She might not even be voting as hard as you assume she is.

Gen Z is just fine. Gen Zers are the millions of people born in 1997 or later. They are my fellow citizens and that’s all I know about them. I agree it’s good that they vote, if they do.