On Why Gen Z May Have a Great Future After All

Poor Gen Z. In the United States, the oldest members this generation (born between 1997 and 2012, give or take a few years) have only recently entered adulthood, and it’s been a pretty rough ride so far.

Let’s say the eldest are 25. That means that since their 18th birthdays, they’ve seen the divisive Trump years, the turmoil of the pandemic, an attempted insurrection, a sudden surge in inflation, record global warming, a couple of recessions (yeah, I’m calling this one even if the NBER isn’t), an invasion in Europe, the greatest amount of political polarization since the U.S. Civil war, and the descent of the U.S. political system into the category of flawed democracy.

It’s little wonder that they’re turning out to pessimistic about the future. The world in general and the U.S. in particular has looked like a real shit show in recent years, and the immediate future isn’t looking all that bright, either.

But will Gen Z really be the generation that comes to adulthood just in time to see economies collapse, the world burn up, nation states fall apart, and Orwellian authoritarian states become the norm?

Sure, it could happen, especially if they (and the rest of us) don’t fight against those dystopian futures. But here’s the thing. If you squint a bit, you can detect signs that the Gen Zers might have a pretty great future after all.

Here are just a few of the trends we can point to:

  • The emergence of a go-go green world: Few have commented on the trend so far, but renewable energy is growing at exponential rates. If we only confine ourselves to solar and wind globally, the rate of growth is doubling every 3.75 years. Even if we round this up to 4, these two energies alone will provide more power in 2034 than was generated globally in 2021. The future will be renewable, and soon. That’s not a bad way to spend your early adulthood.
  • The rise of the smart (and hopefully super helpful) machines: Artificial intelligence is advancing at remarkable rates, which may have massive implications for productivity, innovation and more. Recently DeepMind announced it had successfully used AI to predict the 3D structures of nearly every catalogued protein known to science: over 200 million proteins found in plants, bacteria, animals, and humans! Sure, it was hard to hear that astonishing news amid all the hubbub about the end of the Chaco Taco, but history will judge this a major historic event (DeepMind, not the Taco). If AI can so quickly be productive in this one extremely challenging area of science, then imagine the impact it can have on worker productivity in general. As productivity rates rise over the next decade or more, so will income per capita (in theory). Of course, those gains need to be properly redistributed throughout the workforce, but that’s a different challenge. Yes, powerful AI could potentially have a number of truly terrible repercussions as well, but let’s focus on the bright side here.
  • The dazzling advances in microbiology. The protein-folding achievement just noted is one part of a much larger set of advances in microbiology. CRISPR, for example, is an astonishing technology. The rapid creation of the Covid-19 vaccination was just one the modern miracles brought to you by microbiology. These advances will continue and, in fact, speed up due to aforementioned machine learning techniques. If we can avoid the specter of bioterrorism, these advances might well mean that Gen Z will be the healthiest and longest-living generation in history. Death? Hah. That was so 2020s!
  • The renaissance in reformed political systems. Yes, the U.S. as well as various other nations are in danger of turning away from democracy and toward totalitarianism. Based on the popularity of scary-ass demagogues like my governor Ron DeSantis, we might well see the Orban-ization of America in the near future. However, at the same time, there are various grassroots movements (e.g., RepresentUS) that are seeking to reform the more corrupt and dysfunctional aspects of government. Perhaps if the U.S. can build up its immunity to demagoguery and neo-fascism quickly enough, there could be a flowering of pro-democracy movements here and abroad. This could eventually lead not just to more democracy globally but to more functional forms of democracy than have ever existed.
  • The rise in environmental protections and the strengthening of Earth’s ecosystems. Humanity has done an enormous amount of harm to the global ecosystem, but, along with the advancement in renewables, there will also be more programs such as 30×30, which is is a worldwide initiative for governments to designate 30% of Earth’s land and ocean area as protected areas by 2030. Now it even looks as if the U.S. might be able to pass the The Inflation Reduction Act of 2022, which would put about $385 billion into combating climate change and bolstering U.S. energy production through changes that would encourage cuts in carbon emissions. So, Gen Z may be the first generation to spend its early adulthood in a global culture that finally takes serious steps to heal much of the environmental damage humanity has already wrought

Sure, there are lots of things that could go disastrously wrong. Some of them surely will. But there are also a lot of things that could go very right. Since the Gen Zers can’t tell for sure, they can join one of the many movements to make things better.

At the very least, they’ll be able to enjoy the comradery of people trying to improve things. And maybe, just maybe, they’ll be able to help create a way better world than the one they’ve inherited so far.

Featured image: By Dian Dong, Toronto climate change activist Alienor Rougeot calling upon the public, with the youth, to take action in one of Fridays for Future's earlier climate strikes, 15 March 2019

What Kind of Political Animal Are You?

Political Identity Crisis

Sometimes on social media I wind up in political discussions in forums designed for that purpose.

I find that self-described conservatives often think I’m a liberal because I believe in empirically proven collectivist legislation such as universal healthcare.

Self-described liberals often think I’m a moderate or conservative because I think free markets work well in many instances–and because I argue against the ills of wrong-headed, governmental restrictions in various areas such as housing regulations.

So people judge my overall political belief system based on my take on specific political issues. But every issue is different, so I tend to believe legislation should not be based on ideology but on empirical evidence about a specific issue.

The problem, of course, is that you often just wind up with just two choices in an election no matter your take on various specific issues. This is a reflection of our increasingly polarized and, I think, broken two-party system, but we’ll put that aside for now.

The Small “d” Democrat

I think of myself as a small “d” democrat who believes our governmental legislative systems are largely dysfunctional because they have been, according to certain studies, captured by moneyed interests. As a result, they do little to serve the “will of the people,” as measured by polls and research. I’ve got nothing against the ultra-wealthy per se, but they are neither qualified nor elected to make decisions for the rest of the nation.

So what does that make me? Radical? Populist? Moderate? Socialist Libertarian?

Beats me. “Small ‘d’ democrat” is the best I can think of. Because I do believe that a representative democracy (yes, and I know we live in a federal republic, as millions of online cranks will insist on) is a good, self-correcting system if it typically reflects the will of the overall population rather than the will of most powerful plutocratic class. And, if it protects minority rights even while reflecting majority opinion.

I suspect that there are many people who, like me, do not fit neatly in today’s political stereotypes and conventional classifications. (It never did make much sense to plot the complex plethora of political ideas along the absurd paucity of a single horizontal spectrum.) If we ever banded together, maybe we could call ourselves “The Empirical Party” to indicate we base most of our political opinions on the best facts available, undergirded by a few basic values such as liberty and fairness.

Of course, I’m well aware that our two-party system means that any third-party has almost no hope of gaining a foothold. But it’s nice to have a dream, and one never knows.

Featured image: 1874 cartoon by Thomas Nast; Credit Kean Collection/Archive Photos/Getty Images