Eleanor Black asks Jonathan Haidt if Gen Zers really are such snowflakes.
Jonathan Haidt is terribly worried and he believes you should be too, especially if you have a child born between 1995 and 2010.
Never before, he says, have we encountered a group like Generation Z, who feel "unsafe" if you disagree with them, expect upsetting information to be signalled with a trigger warning, and are so ill-equipped for adulting that they will call the police if they find a mouse in the house. (This sounds like an urban myth, but happened at a "major American university", according to Boston College research psychologist Peter Gray, who was asked to advise the school's counselling service on how to handle such situations.)
Haidt - an esteemed social psychologist, lecturer at NYU's Stern School of Business, repeat TED talker and "top global thinker" according to "Foreign Policy" magazine - got worried in around 2014, when he says a new kind of student walked into his lecture hall. They were walking, talking representations of the meme: "We are all balloons filled with feelings in a world full of pins."
Raised in the shadow of 9/11 by overprotective parents who bulldozed any obstacle in their way, Haidt says these young people are emotionally fragile and prone to experience mental health problems.
They are immersed in social media, where nuance is scarce and success is measured in cutesy thumbs-up symbols and retweets. They remain dependent on their parents even while criticising everything about them.
While they passionately push against racial, sexual and gender discrimination, they can not stomach a debate in which someone with a "dangerous" opinion is allowed to speak. They find insult in jokes and offence in tone, yet they favour call-out culture over in-depth discussion.
"Gen Z have developed a morality that makes it really hard for them to co-operate with anyone or be successful in work," Haidt says via Skype, ahead of his speaking tour appearance in New Zealand. "I fear that so far Gen Z has been so sheltered from the need to work out differences on their own, they have been made morally dependent.
"We have always given them the instruction if you see something say something, don't handle it yourself, report the person. So they have not developed the same skills of democracy. I think as Gen Z becomes a bigger part of the workforce and the electorate we are going to see many institutions functioning far worse than they do today - and that's pretty bad."
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Haidt and a colleague, the constitutional lawyer Greg Lukianoff, wrote a popular essay for the "Atlantic" that eventually turned into a book, "The Coddling of the American Mind", which gained traction with "common-sense" thinkers like comedians Joe Rogan and Bill Maher. Haidt also featured on an episode of controversial psychologist Jordan Peterson's podcast. Now he is touring. There is a huge interest in figuring out Gen Z, which makes up one third of the world's population.
"Every generation thinks the one behind it has problems - that's normal," says Haidt.
"The transition to Gen Z is not that. Their suicide rate is so much higher, their self-harm rate is so much higher, their anxiety, their fragility, the obstructionism, the confrontational attitude about speech. It's not just that they are different, it's that they are really different in ways that are going to make it hard to work with them."
Haidt is speaking in the generalities required to capture a sense of any generation. Not every member of the Greatest Generation, credited with preserving democracy, was actually great; the Boomers aren't all sitting on massive real estate portfolios. Neither are all Gen Zers porcelain tea cups.
"Most kids of every generation are perfectly reasonable. It's not a question of the average, it's a question of the dynamics, and especially the dynamics of the extremes. These real problems only happen at the most progressive universities. They don't happen at places that are mixed politically, they can only happen where everyone shares a world view that is a progressive social justice view about good and evil, oppressors and victims."
He names professors who have been forced out of their jobs for something as seemingly benign as an email and campus protests that have erupted after conservatives have been invited to speak.
Sounds problematic, but why should we care about some overindulged snowflakes kicking off at elite American universities?
Two reasons, says Haidt. Because of the way the US system is structured, those stressed-out kids will go on to lead (and screw up) the nation's cultural, political and business institutions and as we know, what happens in America affects the world. Not only that, the anxiety is spreading like a stain to Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia and possibly New Zealand - the data here is thin.
"Some people have challenged us and said, "'Oh come on, this is just another moral panic. We had this moral panic about television and video games [and now social media].' So I have done a lot of research since the book came out and, no, it is not a moral panic," says Haidt. "It's very consistent across studies that the depression and anxiety epidemic is real, it's big."
But maybe not so big that it has reached our shores.
"I wouldn't say I've noticed that there is something about Generation Z that makes them more or less anxious or more or less likely to fall apart at the seams," says Dr Andrew Gibbons, an associate professor at AUT's School of Education.
"Generations are always alarmed by what the next generation will look like. There is an assumption that now is the most important time in humanity."
Gibbons sees nothing new in the current wave of hand-wringing over Generation Z, (remember the prizes-just-for-participating Millennials and the Gen X slackers), nor does he believe the anxiety Haidt has identified is "generationally located". He thinks it's situational - the global financial crisis, climate change and terrorism are making all generations feel uneasy - and for good reason.
"I would be more worried about the pressure school puts on us than the pressure social media puts on us," says Gibbons, who teaches a social media elective class and says his students are finely attuned to the ways people treat each other in the social media space and have been even more so in the wake of the Christchurch mosque terror attacks.
"We have 30 to 40 years of very concerning teen suicide rates. Schools recognise the problem but they are not necessarily moving out of the patterns. We are fixated on where we rank as an intellectual, academic society. Maybe we should stop putting all this pressure on ourselves."
Alexia Hilbertidou, 20, has built a network of about 10,500 New Zealand Gen Z girls interested in pursuing STEM careers and is optimistic about what her generation will contribute to the world. The chief executive of GirlBoss, which aims to close the gender gap in science and entrepreneurship, says that while Gen Z are "overwhelmed and overconnected", they are also energised by the problems they encounter.
"We've come of age in a time of disruption and we are driven to find our own solutions rather than follow the formula," she says. "Gen Z are cautious and pragmatic and very competitive compared to the Millennials. Look at our biggest TV shows: 'MasterChef', 'Survivor', 'The Bachelor' - not even our love lives are free from competition.
"Generation Z do worry about the future and many unfortunately do struggle with mental health and are lonelier than previous generations."
She cites a recent American survey using the UCLA Loneliness Scale, which found that 48.3 per cent of Gen Zers identified as lonely. She herself felt isolated as a Year 12 student, the only girl in her class studying IT and again in Year 13, when she was the only girl in her advanced physics class.
Hilbertidou's work to get more women into STEM is exactly the sort of well-intentioned social justice campaign that Haidt would question.
"Equal outcomes justice is a militant refusal to allow people to bring in other factors [when assessing why there is gender disparity]," he says. "To pay women less for the same work is a violation of social justice, that is wrong, that is indefensible and that is what people should fight against. I absolutely support that. But they say, only 20 per cent of programmers at Apple and Google are women, it's systemic discrimination."
This he doesn't agree with. He points out that women outnumber men in PhD programmes in the US, even in the sciences, although not in engineering or mathematics. "It is very sloppy thinking, it is a commitment to a standard that can never be met. We can never have 50 per cent representation in every field."
Maybe not, but Gen Z's determination to achieve fairness for all, to end racial, sexual and gender discrimination is impressive. Surely the strides that have been made in a short time speak well of them?
"The easy thing to say is they are less racist, less sexist, less homophobic than any other previous generation," says Haidt. "In a sense that had to happen, that's been happening for every generation. So that's good.
"It's not to say they are kinder and more empathic. In fact there has been some research to suggest they are less empathic, because if you are afraid, if you have been raised walking on eggshells living in a minefield, you are not generally empathic.
"Call-out culture makes people incredibly cruel. I don't think you can look at Gen Z and the way they behave and say they are just the nicest generation ever. Again, it's the way they have been raised, it's not their fault. I don't think their progress on identity issues is related to more openness, lovingness, warmth and kindness."
While Haidt reasonably criticises the intensifying effect of social media, where a put-down can feel more humiliating and impactful than it would in person, he is possibly discounting the comfort it can provide isolated people who are seeking community.
"If you are young and unusual, if you are gender diverse or a rainbow youth in Gore, I suspect you would be very grateful for the internet," says Dr Theresa Fleming, chairwoman of the Adolescent Health Research Group and part of the Youth2000 national survey series team, which has been tracking the health and well-being of secondary school students for nearly two decades.
While mental health stats remain troubling, Fleming is heartened by the drop in substance abuse (cigarettes, marijuana and binge drinking), risky driving behaviour and sexual coercion and abuse. In many ways, Gen Z are more sensible than the generations preceding them, either because they are conscientiously making good choices or because they are too scared not to.
The oldest members of Gen Z graduated from university last year and are now starting careers. In his position at a prestigious business school, Haidt is able to track their progress; his insider knowledge is not doing anything to lessen his concerns about this generation.
"The word I hear most [from] business people is 'exhausted'. They say, 'I am exhausted by the constant conflicts over a word somebody used. Somebody told a joke and somebody overheard it and now it's a big crisis for the whole company.'"
As a Boomer, Haidt is willing to take some responsibility for the state of the world, and the fact that Gen Z kids are freaked out. He is raising his own Gen Z children in anxiety-riddled New York City and there is no doubting his sincerity in wanting better for them.
"We kinda messed it up and Gen Z bears no responsibility for the problems of democracy today," he concedes. "I don't want to sound too harsh on them, it's not their fault."
Jonathan Haidt will speak on Thursday, August 1 at the Bruce Mason Centre, Takapuna. Tickets available at thinkinc.org.au