Picture credit: By Eric Lorentzen-Newberg/Getty
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Are we suffering from generational sink?

How can the young find meaning and coherence in the future?

A clash is brewing between generations. The paradigm shift from Boomer (born 1946 — 1964) to Zoomer (1997 — 2013) dominance will change our trajectory of travel. But where will we go from there? Are the young irretrievably lost to ideological sink?

Perhaps an answer lies in the work of the ethologist John B. Calhoun, who coined the term “Behavioural Sink”. It described the deteriorating pro-social traits of subjects in his “Rat Utopia” experiments. Calhoun housed rodents in enclosures with abundant food and water, to observe how they behaved in post-scarcity, predator-free environments. He hoped to draw parallels to human beings in post-industrial population-dense living arrangements — as mice and men share genetic ancestry.

Although the enclosure could accommodate 5,000 rats, the population never exceeded 200. Rats self-assorted into colonies of a dozen. This appears to be a preventative measure against over-socialisation and violence. In a subsequent experiment, Calhoun constricted space, and substituted his rats for mice. The population initially doubled every 55 days, then every 145 days after day 315. The last surviving birth was on day 600 — the population peaking at 2200, 1640 short of capacity. 

Behaviour destabilised. Females ceased to reproduce — cannibalising their young. Males diverged into three subsets. Some formed into criminal gangs, stealing food despite it being abundant. Some submitted to learned helplessness, going prone when attacked — dubbed “Dropouts”. Others withdrew, obsessively grooming themselves and engaging in homosexual copulation — nicknamed the “Beautiful Ones”. The colony went extinct by day 1780. As one of Calhoun’s collaborators said, their “rodent ‘utopia’ had descended into ‘hell’.”

The study may be limited by American lab rats having different telomeres to other rodents, and the population beginning from a handful of breeding pairs — risking a non-representative sample. Humans also have consciously-formulated cultural differences, which influence actions beyond mere instinct. But it isn’t stretching the metaphor to draw parallels to the present.

Received wisdom depicts Gen-Z as spellbound by social contagions

Received wisdom depicts Gen-Z as spellbound by social contagions, reciting gender-neutral neologisms, and so riddled by climate anxiety that they refuse to reproduce. Are their strange behaviours a symptom of our civilisational success? Despite the infrastructural marvels in modern cities, they act as petri dishes for crime, addiction, and ambient anxiety. A study of sixty-six countries found living in urban environments is a leading predictor for holding progressive positions on abortion, climate change, and LGBT issues — all ideological drivers of declining birth-rates. 

Pundits scratch their heads over why affluent twenty-somethings toppled statues and torched neighbourhoods in 2020’s BLM riots. “Smash-and-grab flash mobs” ransack stores in London and San Francisco, where burglary and shoplifting are de facto decriminalised. Perhaps we’re living through what Dostoyevsky foreshadowed: the impulsive acts of destruction by those who have “nothing else to do but sleep, eat cakes and busy himself with the continuation of his species”. 

There are also “Dropouts” who withdraw from the world — retreating to a near-exclusively online existence. Gen-Z drink, smoke, and socialise 20 percent less than Boomers; but 70 percent use social media daily. Some turn to AI therapists to treat rampant rates of adolescent mental illness. The Incel, Hikikomori, and MGTOW subcultures have sworn off intimate relationships. 59 percent of men aged 18-25 have approached no women in the last year. Only 36 percent of young women report interest in dating; with 50 percent going on no dates in the last year. Even those still interested are more likely to have sexted than had sex — engaging in intimacy vicariously, from the safety of their burrow. Courtship is conducted mainly through dating apps, with the perverse profit incentive to never let users couple up and delete them. 

My digital native generation are best placed to identify as Beautiful Ones too. With subsistence needs met, validation and physical attraction become social currencies. Social media exacerbates the erasure of a concrete self-conception, and reliance on external validation, stemming from over-socialisation. Niche, self-indulgent sexual identities proliferate, with 20-25 per cent of Generation Z identifying as “LGBTQ”.  Image-based platforms like Instagram, TikTok, and Onlyfans provide new avenues for self-commodification. Cosmetic surgeries are common, with clinics in every highstreet as women pursue permanent “Instagram Face.” Preening oneself like a pet is now a lucrative lifestyle. “Sex work” doesn’t require you to have sex, or leave home. 

There also appears to be an inverse correlation between the sanctity of infant life and resource plenitude in both human and rodent societies — despite privation being a primary driver of infant mortality. Post-scarcity societies perceive the individual, not the family or cooperative community, as the primary unit of classification. Thus, any relationship restricting total individual licence should be sacrificed, rather than have sacrifices made for it. As Michelle Williams’ Oscar speech betrayed, you cannot be Beautiful Ones and have children. Hence why Gen Z women poll predominantly pro-abortion. Mice aren’t the only Devouring Mothers.

What if DINKs are a product of human Behavioural Sink? Why defer gratification and contribute to the continuity of your civilisation if, at the back of your mind, there is a gnawing feeling that this just can’t last

However, the blame cannot all fall on the Zoomers. Boomer platitudes, like “These kids don’t know how good they’ve got it,” are tone-deaf. If you don’t like how your children turned out, it’s the parenting at fault.

The three horsemen of population plummets were war, pestilence, and famine. But the Boomers’ pursuit of egoism and economic enrichment allowed circumstantial childlessness to gallop ahead of the pack, producing an inverted demographic pyramid. For the pension and social care systems to support a growing ageing population, the next generation are taxed into poverty, and migrants imported at record rates. Boomers monopolised the housing market — purchasing at periods of lower inflation and interest rates. Most 18-35 year-olds either rent from them, or are still stuck in their parents’ spare bedroom. If Zoomers suffer from Behavioural Sink, it’s because it was preceded by Boomers setting population collapse in motion.

Though Boomers were raised by present parents, they failed to pass that down the generational chain

Though Boomers were raised by present parents, they failed to pass that down the generational chain. The Children’s Commissioner’s report found half of all children in England live split between more than one household; and over a fifth with single-mothers. Children are increasingly interned in institutional care, which engenders lifelong elevated stress levels and maladaptive attachment styles. With their ability to have a house and children deferred indefinitely, and fractured faith in the integrity of families, is it any wonder that Gen Z feel resentful?

I’m grateful to have both sets of grandparents still around, but Boomers often take what they have for granted. Zoomers, like C.S. Lewis’ “Men without chests,” feel bereaved of belonging and purpose — but deprived of anything except pseudo-Marxist slogans to express their discontent. A subset — predominantly young men — are trending more right-wing than prior generations. 44 percent of 18-25 year-olds would support military dictatorship; 60 percent a strongman able to circumvent Parliament. But either flavour of revolutionary fervour will be abhorrent to Boomers for whom history already ended in the 1990s.

Both Zoomer reactionaries and progressive radicals are rejecting a paradigm which robbed them of the same cultural inheritance and moral instruction that Boomers benefited from. The generational divide is incommunicable. 

Gen-Z may well be the children of a demographic winter. In the waning days of our rodent dystopia, some might wither — their identities derived from algorithm-driven incentives which change like the weather. Others will glean the fallen seeds of our deracinated culture. A season of barrenness can be followed by the spring.

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