Aaron Renn and the "Kids These Days" Mindset
Updated: Feb 12, 2022
A few weeks ago, Aaron Renn had a podcast episode taking on the “kids these days” mentality--the tendency for adults to engage in catastrophism when it comes to the young. In other words, we look at the current young generation and are shocked at their behavior and think things are therefore going down the tubes. Each adult generation does this, but things tend not to be as bad as they seem: while each generation has its weird subcultures, it is important to remember just about every young generation does this to shock its forebears, and eventually they straighten out. This was the point of Renn’s podcast. Man I am a huge fan of Renn’s work, and listen to his podcast regularly. I usually totally agree with him. At the very least he gives me something to chew on and challenges me in all the right places. I want to issue some mild pushback in regards to the above mentioned podcast though. First let me dig into the details of his argument a bit more, so that I do not set fire to a straw man. The prime example of craziness in the current young generation (Gen Z) he pointed to is the use of “outre” pronouns and taking on boutique identities. He played a Tiktok video of a pair of teenagers talking about their “preferred pronouns.” One of them embraced the neo-pronoun “demon/demonself.” Many reacted with shock to the videos, but Renn advocated a more sanguine response--yes that’s weird, but we need to take a step back and gain perspective. The end is not nigh. People in the 70s thought the end was near too, but things evened out. The children of the 60s counter culture eventually grew up and became materialistic yuppies. Yes, some experienced lasting damage, but plenty assimilated into mainstream American culture too, becoming accountants and middle managers in corporations, eventually. The goths of the 80s and 90s were simply a small sub culture trying to separate themselves from their parents' generation by rebelling. The whole thing had very limited lasting impact. It looked insane to the parents, but for most it was a phase.
He went on to argue that we have a perpetual moral panic about what the kids are doing. The old generation is always shocked at what the young kids are doing, Our reactions tend to be overdrawn. The pendulum swings and we can’t predict the future, so breathe. Lastly, he did admit one concern about Gen Z, something that could have a lasting impact: the first decade of Gen Zers have mostly had unmitigated access to smartphone tech. This will represent a window in time of genuine dysfunction. But even there, he pointed to evidence of a cultural correction for youth moving forward--parents wisening up and living with smartphone technology more thoughtfully. This tends to be the pattern--a phenomenon becomes all the rage, we don’t realize how much it hurts, then there’s an adjustment moving forward. Well, yes, we as a culture do tend to catastrophize and blow things out of proportion. This is a very human thing to do. When Colin Powell passed away, a meme went viral of some proverbs of his. Not sure if he ever said them (maybe he did, but these kinds of things have a tendency to take on a mythology of their own over time. Not sure if that happened here with Powell, but I wouldn’t be surprised), but one of them was “it ain’t as bad as you think. It will be better in the morning.” Go to bed and stop worrying. There’s truth to that. Yet, there’s some important bits that Renn misses, bits that make this current zeitgeist more concerning than the weirdness of past generations. For starters, 60s counter culture--one of Renn’s examples of a time that most grew out of-- was pretty foundational, because it was tied up with the sexual revolution. All the same, the current moment is even more foundational. The 60s counter-culture took an axe to the trunk of the tree, but this current stuff bathes the roots of the tree in hydrochloric acid, melting the foundations of what it means to be human. (As an aside, saying that the hippies “straightened out” by becoming materialistic yuppies doesn’t help his argument. That’s not straightening out. And: they passed their craziness onto their kids, where it really took on a life of its own. Showering, growing a ponytail, and wearing a tie while you drive a Toyota to a 9-5 in middle management job doesn’t mean you’ve left the errors of your youth. Putting on a Hawaiian shirt instead of tye dye isn’t encouraging. Of course I’m speaking with my tongue firmly planted in cheek here when I mention ponytails, ties and Hawaiian shirts--those are stereotypes used for humor--but the point is that just because many transitioned from Woodstock to the corner office, from marijuana and LSD to materialistic pursuits, doesn’t mean they had no or few lasting effects from their time immersed in 60’s counterculture, nor does it mean they dropped the narcissistic worldviews that the 60s birthed.) Some of Renn’s past examples were, indeed, monumental shifts (ie, sexual revolution of the 60s), and some were merely sub cultures that arose in an effort to shock the old folks (grunge, goth) but that which is all the rage today doesn’t just chop at a branch. The ideological causes of the pronoun craze is a universal acid that will eat everything in its path, and right now its aimed at the foundations of humanity. Our maleness and femaleness are much more deeply connected to both individual and cultural flourishing. Tossing that out the window is to invite a pandora’s box of pathology. This is much more deep than getting stoned and sleeping around for a period of time in your youth, or wearing dark eye shadow and listening to The Cure a lot. If male and female are deconstructed, man, we ain’t got nowhere else to go. We’ll have our feet firmly planted in mid air. The human will be abolished.
Renn might point to the rising number of detransitioners and say that we should be optimistic that this trend will turn around and that eventually our culture will wake up from the stupor. I’m just not that optimistic. It doesn’t look like Disney et al will be slowing their roll on this any time soon, and the Expressive Individualism mindset is buried deep, deep into our culture and the ways Gen Z thinks. I really do hope I’m wrong. Part of my job is to make it so that I’m wrong, but that’s what I see.
Second, the current ideology driving things like neo-pronouns has a much stronger wind at its back in terms of the technology pushing it forward. Renn mentions screen tech and social media. Those tools are incredibly immersive, persuasive, and addictive. The tools the elite class can use to peddle its nonsense are much, much more powerful than the tools used to spread the other sub cultures Renn mentions. It’s the equivalent of going to war with pitchforks and torches vs a corps of B-21 Raiders equipped with nuclear warheads. This crap is able to dig its hooks into us and take hold in ways we still don’t fully understand and have no clue how to fight on a cultural level.
Third, the reasons why the kids are adopting such craziness can’t be reduced to an attempt to “shock” the older generation. Maybe some are, but mostly, my sense is that they are adopting such an outlook because A) they’ve been taught this stuff by the adults in their lives and by an immersive American Expressive Individualism (think: every Disney movie ever), or B) as a cry for help, a way to work out deep pain, anguish, and uncertainty, or C) both. Most of these kids are thoroughly conventional...and that’s the problem. They are not rebelling from the older generation; they are going along with it and taking it a step further. Face it: a lot of kids these days simply have a lot eating at them. There’s a lot going on underneath that hood. The mental health issues are just on another level, seems to me. If you imagine each generation has a car dashboard light console, the 60s and 80s dashboard lights had, perhaps, the tire pressure or low fuel lights flashing. That was the hippies and the goths. But now, the engine malfunction light is flashing, indicating a much deeper issue. The kids are the canary in the coalmine. I’ve been working as a public high school teacher for 16 years, and the kids...they ain’t allright. Almost every teacher I’ve talked to (quite a few) who have been around the ed scene for the last 20-40 years says emphatically that something dramatic has shifted in the past 10 years. Students have always been ornery, but there’s something different in the air now. There are plenty of students who are just fine, and some who aren’t will figure it out, true. But plenty--increasing numbers--won’t, and the effects will, indeed, be long lasting. A decadent liberalism premised on the autonomy of the Promethean Self can’t go on forever.
This is no “get off my lawn” rant, with a finger wagging at the kids. I’m not really blaming them at all. This is just to say that they are hurting, and are suffering from levels of mental illness that as far as we can tell are unprecedented. It’s not that other generations had it easy. In fact other generations probably had it a lot tougher in terms of hardship and externalities. All I’m saying is that we have a whole generation--and the adults that have shaped them, honestly--that has no clue what it means to be men and women, or just human, for that matter, combined with a fragility that has increased exponentially in terms of quantity and quality. That is, indeed, troubling. Lastly, the current ideology causing all the ruckus is very, very widespread. It is not just a subculture of people dressing different in an attempt to shock parents. The number of young people declaring a trans or non-binary identity has skyrocketed in recent years, but that’s not really what I’m talking about. It is still a very small portion of the population. What I am talking about is that the overwhelming majority of Gen Z completely buys into the ideology that leads to and justifies such identity shapeshifting. Most don’t declare an identity as non-binary or trans, but almost all adopt the underpinning ideas that you and you alone determine your identity by looking within and consulting your desires. The choosing self is autonomous. In the past there were some pretty strong checks to that, but those checks have significantly weakened or have been co-opted by the ideology. The ideology is very seductive and it is very hard for kids to think outside of it. As a result, a whole generation, including the adults who have shepherded these kids into this corrosive ideology, are very, very confused about fundamental human issues, things that even the hippies and goths took for granted.
Those considerations make the current fad not just a fad, and much more concerning.
To Renn’s credit, I agree that mass societal collapse isn’t imminent. A decadent and dying culture can limp along for quite a while. My point is that I don’t hold much hope in our culture course correcting in meaningful ways, and collapse will eventually happen. The citizens of ancient Rome had immense confidence in the durability of their own regime, but eventually even it fell. I also agree with Renn that this is no time for chicken little thinking. We need not despair and re-think everything, nor should we cater. In some ways we should simply stay the course, but we do need to respond and adjust in other ways, especially in the church. Here are some specifics:
1. Re-thinking how we relate to screens. Renn mentions this in the podcast. Wait as long as you can to give your kid a smartphone, and when you cross that bridge, tame the beast with a family environment and restrictions/expectations that severely curtail its influence. Parents and adults need to play by the same rules too. We in the church need to do some huge soul searching and make some pretty big changes, changes that some might consider extreme (for example, I have eliminated any internet browser, game, or social media app from my phone, and have no way of getting them back. I want to take my life back, and be an example to my kids.). Yes the world will see us as weird, but so what? On that note, Renn sees evidence that the tide might be turning in regards to phones. He argued that we are starting to wake up. Yes I see pockets of that--lots of people saw The Social Dilemma documentary, and a few thinkers (Jonathan Haidt, et al) and academics are starting to sound the alarm. I am not as confident that this is having the needed effect on the street, though. This might be just my perception, but seems to me like we are just as captive to the rectangular heroin needles in our pockets as before. When I have this conversation with my students (every semester), they readily admit that how their generation handles the phones is not healthy, but when I ask the follow up question--what will you do to change its grip on you?--they laugh. I might have one or two willing to make *some* changes, but the rest scoff at making any actual changes--it feels too good to them. I’m being very unscientific there, of course. Make of that what you will.
2. More families in the church should consider other options outside of public schooling for education. I realize this is a sensitive topic, because its just not in the cards for some families. Some families need two income earners to be able to put food on the table, so for families like that, other options are probably out of reach. But more should really think hard about it and make sacrifices to make it happen. Institutionally, the Church should figure out how to assist families in this project. The public school system is not benevolent and neutral, and I see no signs of that abating, despite the current dust up in some locales about Critical Race Theory and gender ideology. For those that cannot take other options, get involved in your local school district. Ask the tough questions. When you find something troublesome, agitate. This isn’t a cure-all, not by a long shot, but it is part of the issue.
3. Step back from the busyness of the suburban life and make the time sacrifices necessary to actively, intentionally, thoughtfully, explicitly and consistently do discipleship in the home. There needs to be some explicit discipleship instruction and feeding every day, or as close to that as possible. Teach apologetics, philosophy, logic, theology in the home. Do not leave this up to youth group and Sunday church. Youth pastors work hard and their hearts are in the right place, but they only see your kid 1-2 hours per week. If apologetics etc is not your wheelhouse, there’s no time like the present to start learning, and there are resources you can lean on when it comes to leading your family that will make the endeavor feel much less overwhelming. We have an embarrassment of riches in the Church when it comes to these things, so you don’t have to create things from scratch. Youtube is a wonderful thing, for example. Use it. On the whole, our kids in the church are not ready for the wiles of the world and are therefore easy pickins, but we can fix that.
4. Along with that, add to the discipleship teaching your kids to recognize the rhetorical tricks and linguistic voodoo that the world uses to manipulate, obfuscate, and fool. Both kids and adults have a hard time seeing the game that’s afoot. This is what I call “sharpening the BS detector,” and it goes past knowing standard apologetics. Sexual orientation, gender identity, race, etc--the potent lies in those areas trade on those kinds of tactics. Teaching them to see through the tomfoolery will help them immensely. I just did a book review on one great resource that will help you think through how to do this.
5. Finally, fragile kids don’t happen by accident. They are a product of their environment, which includes parenting decisions and styles that have unintended consequences. In other words, it is easy for a parent to let the good instinct to protect their kids get out of control. In an effort to keep kids safe, we lose sight of the fact that there is a downside to safety uber alles. I’m susceptible to safety-ism too. Let them do some things on their own from a young age. If your family lives close to school, let her walk to school at age 8 or so. Let him go on a bike ride without you. Let her cut an apple with a knife, or cook breakfast over the stove on his own. If he’s 9 and you are still cutting his meat at dinner, there’s something off about that. This could be a whole blog series on its own, but the Let Grow movement can fill in a lot of the details about what I’m talking about. Check out their website. Lets start talking about this in the Church. Of course I am but a minnow in a very small pond in American Christianity, so what do I know, but I don’t hear much substance on this subject in the Church. Outside of the secular thinkers like Haidt, Lukianoff, and Skenazy (see links above), a select few Christian orgs like Maven, and some in the homeschool movement, I don’t see much discussion on this issue.
Those are just a few thoughts. I’m sure you can add more. I’ve written more here, here, and here. They are not panaceas and silver bullets, but they sure will help stem the tide, especially if they catch on at scale in the American church, rather than with individual families.
Even though I differ somewhat with Renn on this, I appreciate his perspective. He is willing to question the status quo in the conservative movement in a way that sharpens my thinking, at least. That’s sorely needed in our circles today.
I think about this whole thing often. Very often. As Rod Dreher frequently says, I am not optimistic, but I do have hope. Those two things are different, you know.
Did you benefit from this article? Subscribe to our monthly email newsletter to get content like this and resources that will help you prepare young adults to stand firm in Truth. To sign up for the email list, go here.