Screwing Gen Z is the New Growth Business Model
How the Boomers, Gen X, and Millennials are conspiring to destroy Gen Z’s lives
Gen Z — those born between 1997 and 2012 — has been fucked most of their lives. Gen Z is stressed out about their exams and their careers. The only thing Gen Z doesn’t seem to be so stressed about is buying a house.
But that’s only because house prices are so far out of whack that Gen Z’s become accustomed to the idea of not buying their own homes.
Gen Z is like Red in the movie The Shawshank Redemption. Red was incarcerated for 40 years in the Shawshank prison. Once Red got out, he realised he’d spent so long inside the system that he was no longer used to life on the outside.
Don’t worry if you’re Gen Z, and you have no idea what I’m talking about. Ask your parents. They’ve probably seen the film.
I was born in 1979, right at the tail-end of Gen X (1965–1980) so I’ve been around the sun enough to figure out what’s going on.
Every living generation that has come before Gen Z is conspiring to fuck Gen Z, some way or another.
In fact, there’s a veritable boom market in companies whose business model is designed to dash any hopes that Gen Z might have about the future, making sure they are on track to being the most messed-up generation since the Lost Generation a century ago.
But before I describe how this sorry situation came to pass, we’ll need to take a short history tour across the generations to figure out how we got here.
The Boomers Lived Life on Easy Mode
My parents were born at the end of WW2 when the Silent Generation gave way to the boomers. Having been raised by boomer parents, I have some insight into what their early lives were like.
For instance, my mother never knew what a student loan was. She was born in Malaysia when it was still a part of the British Empire. Since Britain had a severe shortage of nurses post-WW2, it handed out generous stipends to young women from its colonies to train as nurses in English hospitals.
After qualifying as an RN, my mum’s and her friends’ wages were enough for them to buy houses in London. In the 1960s, it was common for nurses and teachers to save up their salaries for a few years, put 50% down on the house, and borrow the remaining 50%.
Having these formative experiences, my parents never fully understood why people in my generation, and after, get so worked up about jobs, starting families, buying houses, and retiring.
In their worldview, all you’d need to do is find a good job, find a good spouse, have a few kids, and everything will take care of itself. What’s the big fuss?
The Internet Was My Generation’s Great Hope
Looking back, the Golden Age for my generation was those short years when the Internet was still a wild, untamed space.
In 1994, I was still in high school when Malaysia’s first Internet Service Provider extended its services to the town I was living in at the time. I remember feeling an overwhelming sense of freedom on the Internet. I thought I could finally transcend the parochial strictures of small-town life.
The Internet also meant freedom from control by my boomer parents. They had no clue what to make of this newfangled “Internet thing.” For one, they’d never got used to the idea of computers, let alone a global network of interconnected computers.
This worked to the advantage of us teenagers because it meant that our parents were perfectly comfortable leaving us kids to explore the Internet on our own devices. At least, it meant we were at home instead of out on the bad streets where we could pick up a drug habit.
Unlike today, most of the Internet was free
The Internet was a lot less corporate than today. A lot of the Internet infrastructure was free to deploy by anybody with a stable Internet connection and sufficient computing power.
When we wanted to chat, we’d just connect to one of many IRC servers hosting numerous channels catering to all interests. Anyone could set one up. We didn’t imagine relying on a single company, like Slack, to host everything for us. There was Usenet if we wanted to have forum-style discussions with threaded conversations and file attachments.
Even Internet gaming was decidedly non-corporate. We typically used protocols like Telnet or SSH to connect to multi-user dungeons (MUDs) located anywhere in the world. MUDs were text-based games but I had a lot of fun anyway. As they say, your imagination has an unlimited resolution.
By the way, everything was free. We had total freedom in configuring or modifying the source code if we were so inclined. We usually didn’t have to pay anything for the software to access these Internet services.
All this freedom meant that it was easy for me to lose myself in exploring the nooks and crannies Internet. At the time, it was common to believe that the Internet would result in the rise of “cyberflanerie”, the digital incarnation of the Baudelairean flaneur, who wandered the streets and arcades of 19th century Paris, absorbing the sights and sounds of the city.
Writing for the New York Times, the author Evgeny Morozov described the early era of the Internet thus:
The idea of exploring cyberspace as virgin territory, not yet colonized by governments and corporations, was romantic; that romanticism was even reflected in the names of early browsers (“Internet Explorer,” “Netscape Navigator”). Online communities like GeoCities and Tripod were the true digital arcades of that period, trading in the most obscure and the most peculiar, without any sort of hierarchy ranking them by popularity or commercial value. Back then eBay was weirder than most flea markets; strolling through its virtual stands was far more pleasurable than buying any of the items.
Google killed the early Internet
When Google launched its search engine in 1998, I felt it would change everything.
Before Google’s PageRank algorithm, human curation was still a viable way to organise the Web’s growing page network. Yahoo’s web portal was probably one of the largest of the time, with human-curated links guiding people to their desired destinations elsewhere on the Internet.
Human curation was so common that anyone who ran a website included a page of “links” or “bookmarks” to other sites they liked and wanted to recommend their visitors.
Sure, there were search engines before Google. Excite was a notable player. So was AltaVista, which ultimately got bought by Yahoo in 2003. But it felt like these search engines only indexed a tiny proportion of the Web, so we had to search on multiple engines to get what we wanted. Metasearch engines like Copernic, which searched multiple search engines before returning results, were used as a workaround.
But Google blew everyone out of the water. It was uncanny how Google threw up exactly what I wanted on the very first page. Once I used Google Search, I stopped using everything else. It was that good.
In retrospect, it was too good. Google’s success killed the cyberflanerie experience of the early Web. It became increasingly clear to businesses that they could use the Internet to deliver services to people (for a price) more efficiently than the earlier hobbyists could.
Most of us fell for it hook, line, and sinker. As profit-driven businesses started crowding out the hobbyists, the Internet became less of a place to explore, instead becoming a place to “get things done.”
Nowadays, Gen Z has much less freedom to play on the Internet. IRC doesn’t have pride of place as a space for chatting anymore. Slack and Discord do — naturally, both are owned by venture capital-funded outfits.
Online gaming has similarly grown-up. MMORPGs have become an industry, collectively raking in USD 31bn in the USA in 2017 alone. The amount of money flowing from players’ wallets to the corporations running these online games is a far cry from the free-to-play MUDs I used to play in the 1990s.
Gen X Was the Last Generation to Enjoy a Small Window of Prosperity
It feels like the point at which everything turned to shit was 2000. The NASDAQ peaked in March 2000. Shortly after, the dotcom bubble, which had seen a lot of Internet hippies turn into businesspeople, seduced by cheap and easy VC cash, the promise of a fast-track NASDAQ listing, and eye-popping valuations, burst cataclysmically.
By the time I graduated in the summer of 2000, those hot dotcom jobs paying ridiculous amounts for anyone who could code HTML had dried up. In those days, there were still a few opportunities for fresh graduates to find high-paying jobs, i.e. management consulting and investment banking.
But, looking back, it is clear the window of opportunity for graduates to find the kinds of jobs that could pay off their student loans in 3–4 years was slamming shut.
9/11 set the tone for what was to come. After 9/11, the political class lined up to pass the Patriot Act, normalising widespread surveillance. Only one senator — Russ Feingold — voted against the Act. 98 senators voted for it (one abstained).
Still, between 9/11 and the financial crisis, there was still a few years in which enterprising graduates felt like they could make some money for themselves. By the time the financial crisis hit, those who graduated at the state of the decade were sufficiently entrenched in the job market so they wouldn’t be first in line to lose their jobs.
Gen X and the millennials have collectively internalised the traumas from the messed-up situation the boomers left us. However, rather than dealing with it, we’ve weaponised our trauma to fuck up Gen Z’s lives.
Gen X and the millennials quickly figured out what got us hooked on the Internet. Instead of creating a better, less toxic Internet, we instead perfected psychological tricks designed to keep users hooked.
It was our generations who created the microtransactions infrastructure to get you addicted to “freemium” games featuring loot boxes with random payouts to get your dopamine flowing whenever you “struck it lucky.”
Gen X and the millennials also took that short gap between Gramm-Leach-Bliley in 1999 and the financial crisis in 2007 to rake in billions of bonuses gambling with Other Peoples’ Money. Then, when Dodd-Frank came in 2010 to stop banks from taking excessive risks, we decided to take our skills to start hedge funds to take advantage of the unprecedented liquidity flowing around the system.
Today, we’re in “late-stage capitalism”, which is a nice way of saying “the goose is out of golden eggs.”
Interest rates are the lowest they’ve ever been in the past 7 centuries. Every asset class you can think of, including bonds, real estate, gold, the stock market, is inflated.
The opportunity space to earn decent returns on these traditional asset classes is exhausted. This is why Gen Z, in particular, who are already late to the party, is left scrambling for returns in strange asset classes with indecipherable acronyms, like ETH, NFT, or SPACs.
And now that half of America’s 25-to-34 year olds are planning to buy stocks with their stimulus checks, the only conclusion one can make is an increasingly economically imperilled segment of society is being pushed to cast the dice in the hope of hitting the jackpot.
Something has to give.
The only shot Gen Z has left is completing the work the millennials did with movements like Occupy Wall Street, which has created a left-leaning, reformist counterculture within the Democrat Party.
It’s down to Gen Z to decide if they’ll seize the moment to put society back on track or if they’ll give in and continue being screwed by the preceding generations.
I’d like to thank Angela Phan for sharing her insights, which were greatly helpful in drafting this article.