Generational Filters

The passage of time as nature's winnowing fork.

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“Hard times create strong men. Strong men create good times. Good times create weak men. And, weak men create hard times.” - G. Michael Hopf

2020 has been a rough year. We all know the details, or some version of the details, so I won’t go through what we’ve all experienced. What I do want to talk about is the role of filtering in creating the idea of distinct human generations (i.e. Baby Boomer, Gen X, Millennial, Gen Z etc.), and how this mechanism will shape future perceptions of those of us living through these interesting times.

The quote at the beginning of this piece is well known and feels intuitively correct to many of us. The Greatest Generation hold a place in the American psyche not unlike those of ancient gods. These were the Americans who hustled to make it out of the Great Depression then escaped the WWII meat grinder to found American greatness in the second half of the 20th century.

The antifragility of society emerges from the fragility of the individual. In order for a system to be antifragile overall, some of its constituent parts must be able to fade away when times get tough. Otherwise the system will continue to accumulate dead weight and become increasingly vulnerable to outside stressors. For society to thrive, individual lives must be sacrificed (maybe the Mexica got it right).

The Great Depression and World War II were potent filters that selected against the chaff of society. Those who weren’t hardy enough to make it through this narrow gate were wiped away from history. Those who did make it wrote the history and fashioned the country in their own image. Hard times did not forge this generation. Hard times made it such that only a lucky few got out. We just don’t see those who were left behind.

I have a feeling that Generation Z will be one of those generations destined for either greatness or destruction. A new Greatest or Lost Generation. We were born into the post-9/11 United States and grew up in a world marred by the 2008 financial crisis. In the 10 years after the Great Recession we’ve lived through a decade of minimal economic growth. Now we get to experience the first global pandemic in a hundred years alongside an accelerating climate crisis. Truly, Generation Z is a marked generation.

My parents’ generation (late Baby Boomers/early Generation X) were latch key children. They got into a lot of shit and got to experience life. Childhood wasn’t a series of organized play dates and sports matches. They could bike around the neighborhood, get into low stakes fights, and learn the street smarts that are useful in everyday life.

I grew up extremely protected from the outside world. I wasn’t allowed to explore my neighborhood without my parents. I was dropped off at school, picked up from school, taken to various after school extracurricular events, got home, ate dinner, did homework, and went to sleep to start it all over again in the morning. Summers were spent around the house playing videogames or visiting family, again all monitored. I wasn’t exposed to stressors that would make me stronger.

Maybe I’ve just bought into the cynicism about younger people that seems to affect every older group. I’ve always been something of an old man. Or maybe I’m more a really young Millenial! But I feel like something is really different this time! I was diagnosed with depression and anxiety in the 6th grade and have been taking psychiatric medications ever since. What does that do to a person, growing up with novel chemicals shaping your brain throughout adolescence? What does the medium of the internet do to young minds?

The good thing is that whatever afflictions the average member of Generation Z may or may not have is not super important. Regardless of however coddled we may have been on average, there are still those who will make it through the filter. Talent is a power law phenomenon. Indeed, I think I know a few of those lucky few. Hopefully I can become one of them! People of ability will be needed to re-create our world and they will make it to the top.

It is only in times of chaos and disorder that systems can rearrange themselves. I think Napoleon is the perfect example of a figure who, being personally antifragile, was able to take advantage of the disorder of his age to rise to the top. The radical recreation of French society in the wake of the Revolution meant that the old paths to power were eliminated. This meant that those who had the ambition and ability to thrive were able to make far more rapid progress than they would have made in previous times. Thus Napoleon becoming the Emperor of France at 35!

I suspect that we are in similar times. A new form of society is emerging but its shape is still to be determined. The chaos caused initially by the the coronavirus alongside its numerous second, third, and fourth order effects have shaken the US dominated global order. Our institutions have proven to be extremely fragile and in need of rejuvenation. Members of Generation Z will help to remake them.