Generalization Z: The Times reduces generation Z to a caricature

genzWhile generalization in writing is a sin, drawing broad conclusions about a whole generation is far worse. Alexandra Levit’s piece about Generation Z in the New York Times is a great — that is, awful — example.

The sin of generalization has three basic flavors: generalizations hedged with weasel words; unsupported broad, sweeping statements; and generalization from one or two examples. They’re all lame, and you shouldn’t believe any of them.

1 Generalizations hedged with weasel words. Weasel words are words like “mostly,” “generally,” and “seems to” that don’t actually mean anything — they just hedge statements that might be true (and might not). This piece is littered with them:

Generally speaking, these guys [Millennials] didn’t like my advice about coping with bureaucracy and office politics. It seemed to me that some of them didn’t want to grow up . . . . Many were not afraid to speak their minds and made it clear they wanted to change the status quo.

Despite their obvious technology proficiency, Gen Zers seem to prefer in-person to online interaction and are being schooled in emotional intelligence from a young age. [Bonus points — generalization and passive voice in the same sentence! Who exactly is schooling this entire generation in emotional intelligence?]

2 Unsupported broad, sweeping statements. If you fervently believe something, why not just state it as fact? Who needs evidence?

A majority of them [Millennials] are leaders with decision-making power and direct reports. [Really? Every generation includes a majority of  ordinary workers who aren’t leaders, including this one.]

As demonstrated by the teenagers attending the recent Generation Z Conference at American University in Washington, Gen Z is already out in the world, curious and driven, investigating how to obtain relevant professional experience before college. [Or at least a few dozen of them who came to a conference are.]

These children are so mature and they learn so fast, they might just be ready to take over by the time they’re 22. [Translation: I met a few bright kids.]

3 Generalizations from one or two examples. This is the classic “All indians walk single file, or at least the one I saw once did” fallacy.

Gen Z is also diverse. My 15-year-old next-door neighbor is a quarter Hispanic, a quarter African-American, a quarter Taiwanese, and a quarter white. That’s Gen Z — they are often a mix of ethnicities. [Are they really more diverse than the previous generation? Check the census before writing stuff like this.]

[Sejal Makheja] says that her parents did not push her to register for the Gen Z event, nor do they help her with her nonprofit organization. . . . Many Gen Zers intend to go to traditional college, but after that, their lives and careers are likely to be anything but traditional. [Is this one person typical of anything?]

Ben Kunz, who submitted this article on our submit bullshit page, nailed it in his comments there:

… the entire generational “Boomers vs. Gen Xer vs. Millennials” sweeps millions of people collectively into group mindsets, impossible given the diversity of human nature. … these upcoming newest generations [pieces] typically contain the startling finding that young people are rebellious, more liberal, resent bureaucracy and want to change the world. This is called being young.

Our final analysis:

What’s missing: actual statistics about this generation and how it is different from other generations.

Could you say it shorter? Here’s the TL;DR version of the article:

I met a few people in Generation Z and they seemed different from the Millennials I met. My impression is that they’re more independent, more diverse, use social media, and are ambitious. But hey, that’s just me.

Lesson: Watch out for weasel words and generalizations, especially about large groups. They’re a sure sign of bullshit.

For a complete set of edits on this article, see the Google Doc.

Drawing from The New York Times by Michael Hirshon.

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  1. The NYT asks that things be phrased in a certain way and prefers for supportive research to be government-based. When a writer makes the decision to publish with them, she agrees to adhere to their standards. It would not be truthful or fair to say I’m basing my observations on meeting a few people and have a man on the street opinion. Like you, Josh, I have conducted several studies on this topic through which I have interacted with approximately 20,000 young people. I do appreciate your thoughtful analysis and frankly flattered to have this article as the subject of a whole blog post!

    1. Alexandra, that’s pretty damning. I thought the Times’ sin was publishing your insights without research to back them up. Even worse if you had the research and you couldn’t cite it!