It’s often assumed that all young people are ultra-progressive – but this isn’t always the case
There are a lot of stereotypes about Gen Z. We all hate working. We’re brain-dead TikTok addicts. We like to eat Tide pods and chicken stewed in cough syrup. Some are more positive, admittedly: it’s often assumed that we all support social justice issues like the fight for trans rights, the Black Lives Matter movement and climate justice. But is there really any truth in any of these big, sweeping assumptions? Can we really claim to generalise about a demographic that makes up nearly 20 per cent of the UK population?
There is research to suggest that Gen Z genuinely are the most progressive generation. 77 per cent of all young voters went for progressive parties in the 2019 election. Nearly half of young Brits believe systemic racism is a major problem facing the UK. When it comes to trans rights, research from the More in Common think tank found that 62 per cent of Gen Z agreed with the statement “trans men are men, trans women are women”.
This isn’t particularly surprising. “This is a very common pattern for emerging social issues – where it’s not an issue many will have thought about even in the relatively recent past, but the increased profile and focus will increase awareness and understanding over time,” Professor Bobby Duffy, author of Generations: Does When You’re Born Shape Who You Are? tells Dazed. He explains that younger generations are often quicker to embrace changes in social attitudes as they’re more “malleable in their thinking”. As Duffy says, being more receptive to progressive beliefs isn’t really a ‘Gen Z’ thing, though – it’s a ‘young person’ thing. Nowadays, for instance, baby boomers are often perceived as stubborn and regressive (see also: the ‘OK boomer’ meme). But when they were young, they were champions of social justice issues of their time, such as the anti-war movement and sexual liberation.
Of course, it’s erroneous to suggest that every single young person in the 60s and 70s spent their time shagging, protesting and swanning around in bell-sleeve mini-dresses. Equally, it’s a bit of an overblown claim to presume that all Gen Z today are extremely socially liberal and dedicated to fighting for progressive causes. “We tend to stereotype Gen Z as universally ‘woke’,” Duffy says. “But there is much more nuance than we’re led to believe in attitudes.”
Notably, anti-trans sentiments seem particularly common among Gen Z. As aforementioned, while a 62 per cent majority of Gen Z agree that “trans men are men, trans women are women”, that still leaves us with 10 per cent who “don’t know” and 28 per cent who actively disagree – hardly insignificant numbers. Many people might assume that TERFs are almost exclusively middle-class, 50-something white women who post about “trans” on Mumsnet and sycophantically reply to every JK Rowling tweet by saying “Spot on once again, Jo 👏” – and while this demographic does undoubtedly account for a lot of TERFs, it does seem as though there’s a worrying number of younger TERFs too.
While undeniably a minority, transphobic young people are particularly vocal, especially on platforms like Twitter and TikTok where anti-trans sentiments often proliferate within online ‘radfem’ communities. “It’s incredibly easy to get sucked into an alt-right wormhole on social media sites,” Eliott, 22, tells Dazed. “On Twitter you often see young people liking a few radical feminist tweets, and then a few months later they’re a full-blown anti-trans TERF.”
radfem baby terf twitter actually one of the scariest parts of this website cos everyone’s been focused on the old ones while they’re appearing on the timeline more and more every day— Sock Is A Slur (@leoliveeeeee) October 12, 2022
This can be largely ascribed to the way social media algorithms operate. Generally speaking, algorithms are designed to show people increasingly extreme content, as the more enraged and angry users are, the more engagement spikes – and the more money tech execs make. “The speed at which this happens is even more marked on TikTok because of the nature of the algorithm,” Eliott adds. He’s right: despite TikTok recently banning deadnaming and misgendering trans people, a 2021 report from Media Matters found that TikTok’s recommendation algorithm actually promotes homophobia and anti-trans violence.
It’s not just social media which is engendering transphobia among Gen Z – the press, particularly in the UK, is plagued with anti-trans rhetoric. 23-year-old Ellie recently overheard two students being transphobic while using a public bathroom. “They were saying that we shouldn’t be allowed to use the toilets which align with our gender,” she recalls. “Ironically, when I came out of the cubicle to wash my hands I stood right next to them and they had no idea that the very thing they were complaining about was happening right next to them.”
“It was very clear that they didn’t understand what it meant to be trans,” Ellie continues. “I’m not defending them in any way [...] but they were just talking about an issue that they’ve seen so much in the media and trying to formulate an opinion on it. It’s only natural that they came to such a negative conclusion because of so much of the misinformation, fearmongering, and general toxicity that the UK media has perpetuated over the past few years.” 21-year-old Louis agrees. “I still have a lot of people I went to school with on socials, and it’s so weird because I would genuinely say the majority of them are actually outwardly anti-trans,” he says. “I know people my age who love GB News. It’s so weird – like, that is a news outlet that is made for fucking 50-year-old gammons.”
“On Twitter you often see young people liking a few radical feminist tweets, and then a few months later they’re a full-blown anti-trans TERF” – Eliott
According to analysis by author and trans advocate Shon Faye, in 2020 alone The Times and The Sunday Times published “over 300 articles [about trans issues], almost one a day, and they were all negative”. Elsewhere, transphobes pop up on daytime TV, politicians are asked inflammatory and reductive questions like “can a woman have a penis?”, and columnists refer to the so-called “trans lobby”. It’s also telling that the media treats something as fundamental as trans rights as “up for debate” in the first place. So, it’s not hugely surprising that young people are absorbing transphobic sentiments when they’ve been allowed to proliferate so much in mainstream media.
21-year-old Louis – who lives in Essex – also adds that he suspects anti-trans views are, generally speaking, more prevalent outside of London and in groups of young people who perhaps haven’t encountered more liberal attitudes at university. Research does back this up: a September 2022 survey from the National Centre for Social Research (NatCen) found that a third of Londoners are socially liberal, compared with just 19 per cent of those in urban areas outside the capital. “It would be oversimplifying it to say that these TERF-y sentiments are expected because Southend is a working-class town,” Louis says. “But people are generally scared of change, especially change they don’t understand. So all the hatred comes from a place of the world moving forward, and deep down these people are scared that they’re getting left behind.”
None of this is to say that we aren’t making progress – as aforementioned, attitudes are clearly shifting, with generations becoming increasingly supportive of trans rights over time. Additionally, the fact remains that millennials aren’t becoming more conservative with age – as has been the case for over 100 years – and there’s no huge reason to doubt that Gen Z will follow suit. But that said, we need to do away with the popular conceit that ‘Gen Z will save us’, which glosses over the fact that swathes of young people are being taken in by the unrelenting deluge of anti-trans rhetoric both in the media and on social media. “I think complacency is a far bigger danger to trans people than the actual [anti-trans] radicals themselves,” Eliott says. “Look at the gender recognition bill that was blocked: that would have been voted down if Labour had voted against it, but just 11 Labour MPs voted against it and the rest abstained.” Evidently, while the fight for trans rights is making progress, it’s certainly not a battle won.