A Conservative Author Thinks Gen Zers Are “Zombies” and I Just Cannot

Aside from being factually incorrect, this is a totally transparent attempt to push conservative values

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Stacy Lee Kong

Aug 27 2021

11 mins read

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You know when someone tells on themselves so spectacularly that you’re enraged, but also kind of… amused? Usually, I see this dynamic in Reddit’s AITA posts, but this week, the New York Post oh so helpfully brought an example to my attention: apparently, according to a new book by California high school teacher and college lecturer Jeremy S. Adams, Gen Z are vacuous, valueless “zombies.” In fact, the Post reports, they are “barren of the behavior, values and hopes from which human beings have traditionally found higher meaning … or even simple contentment.”

 

Which, you know, ouch. Adams’ logic for this troubling analysis is just spot-on, of course. The youth are celebrity-obsessed and spend far too much time on the TikTok to care about things like picking Nancy Pelosi out of a lineup, for starters. But the real problems are the dissolution of the American family, increased rates of atheism and declining patriotism. Duh.


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On one hand, dunking on this dude is just too easy. Perhaps, just perhaps, his students are constantly texting in class because they've already written him off as a condescending boomer? On the other hand, the whole thing is making me think a lot about editorial judgement, and what happens when publishers abdicate their journalistic responsibility in favour of courting a particular audience. So yes, I am also thinking about that ridiculous Washington Post humour column about Indian food.

 

What makes Gen Z zombies again?

Full disclosure: I am obviously not spending a single penny to support Adams, so I’m basing my judgement on the press write-ups he’s received and the interviews he’s done—all of which have been with right-leaning outlets, obvs. But he’s not shy about spewing his nonsense, so I feel pretty confident that this is an accurate overview: he wrote Hollowed Out: A Warning About America’s Next Generation because he has had a “front-row seat” to what he perceives as America’s cultural death spiral thanks to his years as an educator. In fact, education is a huge factor in his criticism of Gen Z. He bemoans the fact that America’s “teachers once helped students become their ‘best selves’ by putting the focus on curriculums, lesson plans and test scores [but now] that’s given way to trying to ‘understand’ young people through programs emphasizing suicide and depression awareness, human trafficking concerns, or bullying, gangs and shootings.” (First of all, I’m not sure how you can blame one generation for the education they received from people in other generations. But also, he has a problem with helping children avoid getting depressed, suicidal or trafficked? What?)


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Surprising exactly no one, Adams says a decline in marriage rates and “traditional two-parent homes” is to blame, as is the “evaporation of religious life” and increased dependence on technology, which has reduced young people’s attention spans to just eight seconds (This… is not borne out by any research anywhere, btw). Also, the youth don’t strive to serve their countries by engaging in western imperialism, as previous generations did… oh, and they’re also not perfect enough physical specimens to even be eligible to do so. You know, in case you thought he missed out on a chance to body shame teenagers.

 

The book was published earlier this month by conservative publishing house Regnery Publishing, so, no surprise that it's a transparent attempt to use generational clashes to push for a return to traditional values.

 

It’s too bad there’s literally no data to support this thesis

I admit, I’m a little surprised at how many of Adams’ assertions contradict every single piece of market research that um, exists, though. Gen Zers are vacuous? They’re uneducated? They don’t care about anything but themselves? All of that is almost too easily debunked—according to a May 2020 Pew Research Center report, this generation is “progressive and pro-government, see the country’s growing racial and ethnic diversity as a good thing and [are] less likely than older generations to see the United States as superior to other nations.” They’re on-track to become the best-educated generation, ever. They care about social justice—in fact, even Gen Z Republicans are “more likely than older generations of Republicans to say [Black people] are treated less fairly than whites in the U.S. today.”

 

And they’re probably more engaged than any previous generation; an April 2021 poll by Institute of Politics at Harvard Kennedy School found young Americans are more likely to be politically engaged than they were a decade ago, which makes sense when you consider how many of them turned out to vote in the 2020 presidential election. According to Simon Rosenberg, president of NDN and the New Policy Institute, who spoke to CNBC last November, “53% to 55% of registered 18 to 29-year-olds appear to have voted. That may be the highest ever recorded in the modern era of politics.”


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And if we're relying on anecdotal evidence, as Adams seems to be, I have plenty to suggest Gen Z are smart, engaged and thoughtful—this September will mark my fourth year teaching college students at Centennial College, and in that time I’ve been lucky to work with a diverse group of students who think deeply about journalistic ethics, come to class with big ideas and even bigger ambitions and are just lovely, kind people. And it’s not just me; I’m working on an article about resilience in students and yesterday, I interviewed Dr. Kim Hellemans, a teaching professor in Carleton University’s department of Neuroscience and the Associate Dean of Science (Recruitment and Retention) at the school. During our conversation, we talked about the perception of today’s students as fragile, feckless and lazy, and she agreed that it’s not fair or representative of her students. “I get really defensive when somebody attacks my students, who are now millennials and Gen Z,” she says. “I see really hard-working students. [And] they're more engaged with social justice, which is fantastic.”

 

Also? Feminist writers have been saying for years how inspiring we find young people for their activism. As I’ve written before, that’s not always a good thing, but it’s laughable to pretend Gen Z isn't objectively known for their political engagement.

 

I swear, there’s a link between the Gen Z zombie discourse and the Indian food discourse

So it seems very likely that Adams’ thesis is based on flawed—or lazily misinterpreted—data. That happens! Books generally aren’t fact-checked unless an author pays for it themselves, which is how former New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson’s book, Merchants of Truth, came to be “riddled with errors,” from the silly (Charlottesville is in Virginia, not North Carolina) to the offensive (journalist Arielle Duhaime-Ross said on Twitter that the book misrepresented her gender identity and journalism credentials). And that’s just on example; there are many, many more. But I’m not sure what’s happening here is quite that unintentional.


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Regnery’s stable of authors includes Ann Coulter, Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich, Michelle Malkin, Ted Cruz, Mike Pence and Josh Hawley, the senator whose name I only learned because he tried to obstruct the Electoral College’s certification of U.S. President Joe Biden’s victory and gave credence to the “Stop the Steal” conspiracy theory, which helped incite the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. So, it’s not an accident that Adams’ book found a home here, because this is exactly the type of content the company wants to put out. That is, tailor-made for right-leaning readers, who are hungry for information that supports their existing worldview, no matter how lacking in credibility it may be—namely, that ‘weak’ liberals are ruining the country with all their talk of feelings and inequality. But to some extent, that’s every publishing house and media outlet. Literally, we all take audience into account when we make editorial decisions. 

We saw that this week, with WaPo humour columnist Gene Weingarten’s ill-advised The Washington Post Magazine column about foods that he dislikes, whines about “like a toddler” and would never try. Among them: Old Bay seasoning, balsamic vinegar, bleu cheese and… Indian food, which he said was “the only ethnic cuisine in the world insanely based on entirely one spice.” This is categorically wrong, racist and a pretty predictable way for white people who lack expertise to write about so-called ethnic food, which is why I didn’t realize it was meant to be a joke at first. (And it wasn’t just me—the backlash illuminates how disrespected many communities still feel by media’s traditional approach to food writing.)


But I think the larger point is not that some guy doesn’t like or respect Indian food; it’s that the writer and the multitude of Washington Post Magazine editors who read this piece pre-publication either didn’t see anything wrong with casting aspersions against an entire country’s cuisine—or did, but felt okay with throwing this community under the proverbial bus for a cheap laugh. This is obviously the way less serious version of what Adams is doing for Regnery, but I feel like there’s something similar going on both cases: the people who have a responsibility to make sure what they are publishing is true and fair have chosen to abandon that responsibility in favour of pushing a particular narrative that resonates with their chosen audience because they want the clicks and purchases. Simply put, it's pandering. Meeting an audience's needs is not inherently unethical. In fact, it's necessary, especially when we're talking about underserved communities. But allowing an audience's biases to shape your coverage is not just wrong, it legitimizes narratives that are not legitimate, for profit.

 

All of which is to say, if you want to performatively worry about what this world is coming to, perhaps apply that outrage to the fact that writing something true is no longer an actual requirement for publishing nonfiction???

 

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Next week is the last long weekend of the summer, so there won’t be a newsletter. But, come hang out on IG for TikTok curation, reading recommendations and pop culture thoughts. Stay cool and I’ll ‘see’ you in September!

 

And Did You Hear About…

NPR’s spot-on essay about the space Dolly Parton occupies in our cultural imagination—and why so many news outlets ran with the claim that she ‘invested’ her royalties from “I Will Always Love You” in Black communities, which… is not true.

 

Culture and film critic Sydney Urbanek’s retrospective look at MTV, which marks the network’s 40th anniversary.

 

This truly spectacular Twitter thread about modern dating. (An excerpt: “I'm not trying to scare you... I'm trying to prepare you... These people are children of Rihanna born in the fires of chaos...”)

 

The Marshall Project’s take on the value—and pitfalls—of celebrities advocating for death row prisoners.

 

Input magazine’s look at how Kanye West changed the way we think about concert merch. (Also, apparently, we’re all going to have to call him Ye soon.)

 

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