Understanding Gen-Z: The Post-Apocalyptic Generation

Jack Myers is author of Hooked Up: A New Generation’s Surprising Take on Sex, Violence and Saving the World, the International Book Award winner for youth issues and women’s issues. Ever notice just how many movies, books, video games, TV series and songs there are about a post-apocalyptic age?  Among those who have grown up in the last two decades, stories about the apocalypse have been a constant presence.  Some of the Gen-Z cohort, born post-1995, view this doomsday negatively, others celebrate it, and still others talk about it like any other event in human history.  The apocalypse has dominated pop culture and to understand how this generation views the world and their own future it’s important to understand how formative and influential post-apocalyptic films, television, games and books have been in the young lives of “the Post-Apocalyptic Generation."  Those born after 1990 have grown up with the end of the world as a constant presence. Films, TV series, games and books have warned about destroying the planet, have asked hard questions about sexual ethics and the environment, have shown a divide between cities and rural areas, and have brought up many issues that the next generation will be confronting and resolving for decades ahead.  Are they learning to build a fair and just society or being guided on a self-fulfilling path that leads to destruction?  In my interviews among current and recent college graduates who are part of the emerging Gen-Z cohort born post-1995 and the last of the Millennials born 1990-1994, conducted for my books Hooked Up and The Future of Men, I discovered a clear and present understanding of the dangers they face as they enter their adult years and gain responsibility for the global crises they are inheriting.  Much of their understanding and many of their perceptions have been defined by post-apocalyptic media they’ve been exposed to throughout their young lives.  Below, I share their perspectives, with several direct quotes from interviews and submitted responses to questions, combined with my overview.

War, Pestilence, or Robot Revolution: How the World Ends

“Whenever we’re told about a new post-apocalyptic movie or book, our first question is always, ‘So how does the world end?’ We’re fascinated by each end-of-the-world scenario, and that’s probably because those scenarios are based on real problems.” Most of these stories blame the end of the world on:

  • Disease. A deadly illness breaks out and spreads faster than public health authorities can respond, eventually killing most of the population. Survivors, who are either immune or just haven’t gotten sick, must now live without the society they relied on. You can see this in stories like I Am Legend, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, 28 Days Later, the comic series The Walking Dead, and the television version of that comic.
  • War. Humans either start killing each other or are attacked by an outside enemy. Nuclear, biological or other powerful weapons kill most of the population, leaving a handful of suffering survivors. Recent examples of this scenario include the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica series and its spinoffs; The Hunger Games book and movie franchise; The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood and its award-winning television adaptation on Hulu; the film Mad Max: Fury Road, and the cartoon series Adventure Time. The Road by Cormac McCarthy and the movie based on it also seem to take place after a nuclear apocalypse, though no one says this directly.
  • AI/Robot Uprising. Another common enemy of human civilization is the computer. At some point in the near future, artificial intelligence becomes so advanced that computers replace human minds. The machines then decide to turn on humans, whether because they worry we will eliminate them or simply because they do not need us. Stories like this include the Matrix trilogy, the Terminator franchise, the comic and film Days of Future Past, and I, Robot. Battlestar Galactica also fits into this genre. Stories that involve genetically engineered humans killing off their predecessors, such as the novel “Oryx and Crake” by Margaret Atwood, have a lot in common with AI stories.
  • Environmental Disaster. Climate change, peak oil or some other environmental catastrophe either makes the earth uninhabitable or denies human civilization the resources to survive. Examples of this include the Mad Max franchise and The Day After Tomorrow. There is often an overlap between stories that show environmental disasters and those that have an apocalyptic plague. World War Z and the Resident Evil game and film franchise fit into both categories.
  • Additional Apocalypses. Other sources of doomsday include overpopulation, natural disaster, government stupidity and the fulfillment of religious prophecies.

“Even without looking at these stories in detail, we can learn a lot about the problems our society has just by noticing the cause of the apocalypse. Stories that focus on environmental disaster, for example, come from worries about climate change, ocean acidification, peak oil and other crises that threaten are already harming our planet. An environmental apocalypse is the worst way one of these problems could end. If we don’t get the ecology of the planet under control, many of the people alive today will either die or suffer. This is the most important challenge our generation has to face, because if we aren’t able to solve it, it will be too late.”

Though Gen-Z is not the first to deal with war-related apocalypses, they remain a major threat. Nuclear and biological warfare are still possible and could happen with no warning. The current conflict between the U.S. and North Korean governments are just the latest nuclear threat Gen-Z has dealt with in their short lives. “Post-apocalyptic films show us what could happen if we don’t effectively control weapons of mass destruction.”

“Stories that focus on artificial intelligence show the dangers of the IT revolution happening before our eyes. Computer programs are already able to do many things that we used to think only humans could do, such as writing short stories or composing music. AI apocalypse stories show just how bad things could get if we aren’t able to remain relevant as a species. As with environmental issues, our generation is especially likely to deal with rogue AI.”

“While the modern IT industry might be too advanced for its own good, we could say the opposite for public health agencies. Our generation has grown up learning about the opioid epidemic in the United States, the ebola outbreak in West Africa, the global HIV/AIDS crisis and many other health crises that authorities didn’t deal with quickly enough. Disease apocalypse stories ask what would happen if an even more dangerous disease were to spread.”

Having grown up with these threats, the Gen-Z cohort is worried about them all. Post-apocalyptic games, shows and books keep reminding them that these problems aren’t going away. “While reading and watching such stories might make us feel helpless, they could also encourage us to deal with these problems,” writes one recent grad. “If we want civilization to survive, we will have to make civilization more sustainable. Does post-apocalyptic fiction push us to solve the same problems that we love watching and reading about?” Post-apocalyptic stories also teach them about different aspects of society, including some that are not necessarily good.

Our Bodies, Ourselves? End-of-the-World Sexual Ethics

“Given that they begin with most humans dying, many post-apocalyptic stories evolve around reproductive rights. Having grown up in the middle of a culture war, we know just how controversial abortion and birth control can be, even in a world where there are plenty of humans. If our species were reduced to a few thousand people, and the survivors could die off simply by not having enough children, how much control do you think women would have over our bodies? These stories make us ask hard questions about what we might do if most of our species were dead.”

One of the most famous examples of this is in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, a novel that has gained even more public awareness and acclaim from the recent highly acclaimed Hulu original series with Elisabeth Moss. Due to radiation exposure, large numbers of women are infertile, and those who can still get pregnant become sex slaves. While this is an extreme idea, in the current political climate it is eerily realistic and shows how important it is to protect women’s ownership of their reproductive rights. “The less power women have over their bodies, the fewer freedoms we will have in any part of our lives.”

The issue of reproductive freedom also comes up in Battlestar Galactica, where most of humanity has been murdered in an attack by artificially intelligent machines. The president of the surviving government then decides to ban abortion. While she is influenced in part by a religious movement, her ban is also based on a report by her science advisor showing that the survivors are not having enough children. In other words, there is a conflict between women’s reproductive freedom and humanity’s right to exist as a species.

Post-apocalyptic stories love to raise the stakes, so it’s no surprise that some go far beyond the question of banning abortion. Sexual assault after the apocalypse is also a common topic, and sexual predators often use the excuse that their crimes are necessary to keep humanity alive. The film 28 Days Later provides one of the clearest examples of this, showing a group of male soldiers who survive a zombie apocalypse and offer to protect refugees. But the refugees don’t know that the soldiers plan to rape them and get them pregnant, believing that this is necessary to preserve humanity.

28 Days Later condemns these soldiers’ actions, and rightfully so. Nonetheless, the film does raise the question of how fragile protections against sexual violence are. “Our generation has grown up in a society where sexual assault is often condemned but rarely punished. Many of us have either been assaulted or have a loved one who was, and understand just how hard it is to get justice. If even this flimsy structure were to break down, how much protection would we have against sexual assault, especially if perpetrators had the convenient excuse that they were protecting humanity? By showing this possibility, 28 Days Later reminds us that we have find a more effective way to stop sexual violence.”

“Stopping sexual violence is not easy, and part of the reason is that many people define ‘rape’ too narrowly to prevent it. We see this problem in both the comic and movie versions of The Walking Dead. Negan, a character who creates an empire after the zombie apocalypse, tells his followers that they aren’t allowed to rape anyone. At the same time, he keeps a harem of women in his capitol, who have to have sex with him whenever he wants. His definition of rape appears to mean only sexual violence that involves the direct use of physical force. Blackmailing or threatening someone to have sex with him apparently doesn’t count, even though it isn’t any better.”

In each of these examples, post-apocalyptic storytelling allows us to see the contradictions in how our society thinks about sex. “We say we believe in freedom, yet we routinely limit women’s rights to control their bodies. We condemn sexual assault in theory, but let countless rapists off the hook because they ‘didn’t rape anyone.’ These stories raise the stakes, motivating our generation to solve these problems by showing just how bad they could get if we don’t.”

The Countryside Triumphant: Exploring the Rural-Urban Divide

Movies about the apocalypse almost always talk about the difference between city and country living. In general, rural areas do much better during the end of the world, and people who live there survive in large numbers. If city folk survive at all, it’s only because they run away to the country. “No matter how the apocalypse happens, we know not to be in a city.”

“The idea that the country is better is surprising given that in the real world, rural areas are in bad shape. In the United States, for example, rural communities are suffering while even many of the poorest and most dangerous cities are experiencing a revival. People who live in the country are more likely to be addicted to opioids, make less money and have trouble using the Internet and other important resources. The same thing is true in other countries. China and India, for example, have been doing better economically in recent years, but it’s only really getting better in cities. The last place any of us should want to live is the rural parts of the country.”

If you enjoy the television version of The Walking Dead, and especially the character Daryl Dixon, you understand the triumph of the countryside. Daryl grew up in rural Georgia, where he and his family were completely broke. Because he lived here, he had to learn how to track, hunt and use a crossbow. When the apocalypse breaks out, these skills make him a powerful and respected member of the group he joins. Former lawyers, veterinarians, landowners and others who would never have given him the time of day before the apocalypse now have to take orders from him. If there is one lesson that our generation should learn from this, it is empathy and human understanding.”

All Equal in the End? Racial, Ethnic and Class Prejudice in the Apocalypse

“Besides the difference between cities and the countryside, our generation grew up with lots of other inequalities, especially based on race and class. Some of the earliest post-apocalyptic books and movies talked about racism and classism. For example, Night of the Living Dead, a 1968 film that many consider to be the first zombie movie, shows a black man taking charge in the middle of the apocalypse. The white people who are with him often don’t want to follow his (generally good) instructions. Even when dealing with a deadly crisis, racism makes it hard for good leaders to do their jobs.”

Movies and TV series of today still incorporate race and class narratives. In one of the first episodes of The Walking Dead, the main character, Rick Grimes, has to fight with a member of his group who is a white supremacist and is threatening characters of color. Rick defeats him and says that there are no races anymore, “only dark meat and light meat.” Similarly, in Battlestar Galactica a doctor provides low-quality medical care to survivors who are a certain race, leaving many of them to die. The film Land of the Dead is about a very unequal society of survivors who live in heavily-fortified Pittsburgh. The rich live in the same way that they did before the apocalypse, while the poor have to live in slums. In Mad Max: Fury Road, the rich are those who control water and gasoline, the two most scarce resources after a nuclear war.

“While post-apocalyptic stories do claim that racism and classism will still be problems after the apocalypse, they give us hope that these issues will improve over time. Though humanity struggles with bias, we do condemn it more consistently and our generation has the least ethnic, race, religious and sexual bias of any in history. In The Walking Dead, for example, almost every group that the main characters meet is racially integrated, with black and Latino characters often holding important positions. In Land of the Dead, inequality proves unsustainable and the poor end up taking over the city. Similarly, the prejudiced doctor in Battlestar Galactica is quickly stopped and punished for his crime.”

Probably the most hopeful post-apocalyptic story in terms of overcoming racism and classism is the Matrix trilogy. Not only do these films portray people of all races living and working together in the war for survival, but we do not see any significant inequalities in power. Most of the military and political leaders we see in the films are people of color, both female and male, and they have the full respect of their followers. We also don’t see any class inequality in the Matrix films. All survivors seem to have a similar standard of living, each suffering just as much from the apocalypse.

“These stories teach us to have a cautious optimism about racial and economic progress. While inequality still exists, and probably still will for the foreseeable future, we have the ability to overcome our prejudices, at least enough to work together. This should inspire us to start working on a more equal society today, rather than waiting for the apocalypse to force us into it.”

Conclusion: The Fragility of Modern Society

“Of all the lessons we can learn from post-apocalyptic fiction, the most important is that a crisis could destroy or radically change our civilization. Both the good parts of our society, such as (incomplete) protection against sexual violence, and the bad parts, such as racial, class and regional disparities, could be eliminated. We know to not take anything for granted and that we need to be overly protective of our rights and privileges, including protection of our planet.”

“What we don’t know is how we will evolve as a generation and if our exposure to apocalyptic films and TV have strengthened our resolve to be positive, moral and ethical stewards of society or if we will lose hope and follow the path of generations that have proceeded us and who have been defined by economic greed, political opportunism, adversarial social bias and environmental waste.”

This commentary was originally published at www.MediaVillage.com

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