You know this world, where the sunlight is electric and the currency is fame, and all the taxis heading there are single- occupancy, and your driver had better gun it cuz the stale-yellow light’s about to turn.
You know this world if you’re a Gen Z kid – or at least, a certain kind of Gen Z kid, one who has bought the ticket and is enjoying the dream, from the comfort of your gaming chair, as the dopamine hits come fast, and someone on a scooter is bringing you dinner, and the future is a joke.
But there is a different group of millennials, one who also know this world and have decided they want no part of it.
For them the tipping point may have been the day their last real-life friend left town, a step ahead of their mom’s furious, addled ex. Or the day a deepfake porn video of a classmate popped up in their feed, and they knew it was only a matter of time before it was their face atop all that meat. Or the day they had a panic attack applying for a part-time job over the phone. Or the day they realized they could no longer keep their thoughts on the rails. Couldn’t keep their mood from yo-yo-ing. Couldn’t sleep but couldn’t stay awake. And most of all, just couldn’t keep obediently navigating the gates, going through the motions, of late-stage consumer capitalism.
So they simply said, Fuck it. We’re out.
Not out out, the Big Out. And not in the way their young counterpoints in China had taken themselves out of the game, with a kind of existential hibernation response called tang ping – literally “lying flat.” In the face of oppression and pressure and surveillance, their answer was to offer no resistance at all.
No, this vibe was very different. Edgier. Angrier And at the same time, weirdly, way more get-em up hopeful.
Across the globe, led by this breakaway group, the children of Occupy Wall Street — the advance guard of the 21st century — a new feeling is emerging, a new way to be in the world, face to the sun.
People go bananas when Mercury is in “retrograde” because the planet appears to be moving backwards in the sky, West to East, defying physics, rattling the chains of the gods. But it’s actually just an illusion. It just means a faster-moving planet caught up with and passed a slower-moving one. Mercury is right there, saying “Scuze me, bub” as she slips past.
In the same way, the 21st century may dial up what appears to be a retrograde vibe, but is in fact a natural forward progression. That renegade group of millennials is showing the way.
Calling themselves “neo-Luddites,” they have parked their phones, broken the trance of cyberspace and started re-engaging with the physical world. During the pandemic we all got a glimpse of what this older, slower, deeper way of being might feel like, at scale. With your workplace shuttered, you went to ground with the ones you love. With nothing happening “in the world of sports” you stopped watching other people move their bodies for money, and started moving your own. With no new music dropping, you picked up an instrument and futzed out a tune. You baked stuff, sewed stuff, wrote stuff in ink, fixed stuff instead of “calling a guy.” For the first time in forever, you picked up a book.
In Wichita, Kansas, a Gen Z kid – one of those neo- Luddites — wanders into the public library and finds, in the Classics aisle, the story of Diogenes. An ancient Greek philosopher who lived in a barrel and slept with dogs, he considered himself the last free man in the Mediterranean. He had nothing and, therefore, had everything. One day an acquaintance — a philosopher in fancy dress named Aristuppance — spotted Diogenes sitting on the ground eating a meager bowl of lentils. “You know, your life doesn’t have to be like this,” Aristuppance said. “If you’d just learn to be obedient to the king you would not have to live on crap like lentils.” To which Diogenes replied: “If you had learned to live on lentils you would not have to be obedient to the king.”
There is a kind of simplicity that lies on the other side of complexity. It is simplicity by design, rather than default. It’s born of the understanding that, a lot of times, complexity is just smoke in your eyes. It exists to befuddle and confound you, so that you buy something, or swallow some dogma, or stay in your lane, or follow the rules. So that you tamp down any wild instincts that may ruffle the feathers of the titans of industry, or interrupt the swing thoughts of the leisure class as they head out on the back nine.
But living a decent life is not so complicated. You could boil down the basic principles: Have dinner together. Don’t get in the car if you don’t have to. Trust your gut. Sing in the shower. Leave it like you found it. And if you feel like punching someone in the face, count to ten.
The old world has roared back post-pandemic, but under cover of darkness some things had clearly shifted, and now the new arrangement stood revealed. The culture had fractured. In the gulf between tribes, and even in the hairline cracks between formerly like-minded friends and neighbours and spouses, there bloomed a radioactive loneliness on a scale the world has never seen.
Whatever the precise contours of the new vibe of the 21st century, a big part of it will be a rebuke to the toxic cult of individualism.
Any culture that loads its young people into a cannon and fires them off somewhere to sit in a room and study or toil until they “make it,” and loads its old people onto ice floes and shoves them off to die without encumbering the rest of us, that culture has lost its way. “Going it alone” is a bullshit creed. The renegade Gen Zers get that. And the cohort coming up behind them will know it in their bones.
Gen Alpha, inheritors of the 21st century, will bear a new motto: Only Connect. Like: this is only gonna work if we band together. We pool our money so we can afford to do things. Head out in groups of two or three or ten, because any experience is 10x better when it’s shared. Stay connected to our ancestors, to our food sources, to nature itself. Ask for help. Offer it. Huddle up.
Gen Alpha will resist categorical thinking. That’s not to say they’ll be without biases – no one is. But they’ll have made it a habit to fight those biases. What happens when you do that is ... the lines between things grow fainter. The very idea of categories start to make less and less sense. Everything becomes nonbinary. Not just gender: everything. No teams, just individuals. No who-matters-and-who-doesn’t.
The yin and yang of Gen Alpha is both amazing and potentially problematic.
An absence of cynicism is great, because cynicism makes nothing happen. Accepting and gentle and non- judgmental and sweet and hopeful are awesome traits.
That’s the yin.
But the yang-ing up: that will be the challenge.
The yang part is fighting for a dignified existence for every human. It’s scrapping tooth-and-nail for structural change that will make such a lifestyle possible, let alone sustainable, well into a future you will never live to see. It’s questioning the legitimacy of the high priests of the status quo. It’s a hell of a task. Because right now, the corporatocracy is pulling hard against everything you want the world to be.
So maybe the vibe of the 21st century is contained in a paradox:
We’ll need to be hard-hearted enough to fight. And soft-hearted enough to know what’s worth fighting for.
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