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Gen Z’s Generational Challenge

Zoomers offer a second wind to millennial fatigue

Ringer illustration

Two weekends ago, Donald Trump hosted a campaign rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Reportedly, “K-pop stans and TikTok teens” sabotaged the event.

“TikTok users and fans of Korean pop music groups claimed to have registered potentially hundreds of thousands of tickets for Mr. Trump’s campaign rally as a prank,” The New York Times reported, tracing the viral stunt to K-pop fan accounts on Twitter that clued followers into the plan. The popular vlogger Elijah Daniel, who has led many anti-Trump social media stunts in the past couple of years, told the Times, “K-pop Twitter and Alt TikTok have a good alliance where they spread information amongst each other very quickly. They all know the algorithms and how they can boost videos to get where they want.” Trump’s campaign bragged about the demand for the event, claiming it had processed 1 million ticket requests. Ultimately, Trump addressed 6,200 attendees in a 19,000-seat arena. The president’s aides describe him as “furious” about the low turnout, according to several reports. While the coronavirus pandemic may well explain the many empty seats, K-pop vigilantes are the far more fascinating culprits. “The English-speaking K-pop fans who are getting involved in this, who are up on these issues, these are not foreigners,” the Korean Studies scholar CedarBough Saeji, a K-pop expert, told the Times. “These are Americans.”

These Americans belong to Generation Z—the so-called Zoomers—and the generation that is frequently cast as the new progressive vanguard. The oldest Zoomers were born near the turn of the century, and many are now college-aged. Much as millennials forged their primary political commitments in response to 9/11 and the Great Recession in the 2000s, Zoomers responded to the crises of the 2010s. Two years ago, Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School students who survived the deadliest school shooting in U.S. history organized the March for Our Lives, a massive demonstration in favor of gun control restrictions such as universal background checks and a federal assault weapons ban.

Seventeen-year-old Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg has toured the world’s capitals for the past couple of years, petitioning the United States and European Union members to drastically reduce their carbon emissions. In 2018, Thunberg staged a monthslong protest, sitting on Sweden’s parliament steps to force the leading political parties to prioritize climate change ahead of the country’s general election. “I think the election didn’t matter,” Thunberg told The New Yorker, a month after Swedish voters returned a hung parliament. “The climate is not going to collapse because some party got the most votes. The politics that’s needed to prevent the climate catastrophe—it doesn’t exist today. We need to change the system, as if we were in crisis, as if there were a war going on.” When describing her earliest climate strike in high school, Thunberg cited the March for Our Lives as her inspiration.

The March for Our Lives, Thunberg’s climate activism, and now “K-pop stans and TikTok teens” have cast Zoomers as the quirkier, savvier descendants from the millennial Tumblr generation. But the news media has (so far) spared Zoomers the ridicule that has attended millennials in the past decade through trend pieces featuring the frivolous, feckless millennial caricature. The New York Times columnist Charlie Warzel draws the optimistic distinction between millennials and Zoomers. “Whatever their politics, they innately understand the dynamics of our information ecosystem and know how to wield attention as both a tool and a weapon,” Warzel writes, echoing Daniel’s confidence about “the algorithms.” “As with the rest of us,” Warzel continues, “many of their most consequential social interactions are governed by algorithms; unlike the rest of us, they appear uniquely adept at reverse-engineering them and intuiting their inputs, making the algorithms easier to manipulate.” Thus, “K-pop stans and TikTok teens” humiliated Trump by exploiting the algorithms that have confounded baby boomers and demoralized millennials for the past several years.

For all the pessimism about their economic prospects, millennials read so much optimism about their technology. A decade ago, Google was on track to democratize China, Facebook was destined to democratize Egypt during the Arab Spring, and Twitter promised to further democratize the U.S., spurred on by a generation so cool and confident about the possibilities of new social media. In the 2010s, Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter synthesized grassroots organizing and digital expression into a generational catharsis.

Crucially, the catharsis has cut across the generations. For the past month, Black Lives Matter has led massive, multiracial, multifaceted protests to honor George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and several other Black civilians killed by police.

Millennials have launched the largest and longest civil rights demonstration in U.S. history, and yet they’ve crashed against the familiar obstacles in the city halls, statehouses, and Congress. For progressive millennials, Zoomers represent a second wind. They’re a decade younger than millennials and so similar in their sensibilities about identity, politics, and technology that they shouldn’t count as an altogether separate generation in the first place. But that’s the point, isn’t it? Millennial optimism about Zoomers relies on the older generation mistaking the younger for themselves or, rather, for their best selves. Millennials couldn’t save Vine and they couldn’t beat Trump; Zoomers use TikTok to humiliate him. That’s generational progress, of a sort. But make no mistake: Gen Xers wrote the damn algorithms, and on most days—Tulsa notwithstanding—Trump, at 74, exploits the algorithms better than anyone else.