The Kids Are Not All Right With National Security

Will Generation Z rebel against working for the state?

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The Washington Post today published an excerpt of the highly classified National Intelligence Program which was provided by Edward Snowden. Interestingly, according to independent writer Joshua Foust, the WikiLeaks divulgence of Chelsea Manning actually may have made it easier for Edward Snowden to be able to get the information that he did. Foust writes:

An insider threat program was derailed because of Wikileaks. Specifically, the government panicked so strongly about the threat caused by leaking documents classified at a lower level than this document that it diverted resources from the very program that possibly would have exposed Edward Snowden before he could have leaked.

But if science fiction writer Charles Stross is to believed, this is just the tip of the iceberg. Writing over at ForeignPolicy.com, he argues that organizations charged with providing for national security are 20th century institutions based upon antiquated “employment for life” human resources models but are “now running into outside contractors who grew up in the globalized, liquid labor world of Generation X and Generation Y, with Generation Z fast approaching.”

According to Stross, Generation X (those born between 1960 and 1980), Generation Y (1980-2000), and Generation Z (2000-2020) all have different orientations and expectations. For him, Generation X:

With few exceptions … never had the job for life. Members of the generation are used to nomadic employment, hire-and-fire, right-to-work laws, the whole nine yards of organized-labor deracination. But they also grew up in the age of cheap jet travel, on a globe shrunk so small that 48 hours and two weeks' average wages could take you to the antipodes.

Generation Y meanwhile:

Comprises the folks who serve your coffee in Starbucks and build software at Google. Generation Y has never thought of jobs as permanent things. Most Generation Y folks will stare at you blankly if you talk about loyalty to one's employer; the old feudal arrangement ("we'll give you a job for life and look after you as long as you look out for the Organization") is something their grandparents ranted about, but it's about as real to them as the divine right of kings. Employers like Google or Facebook that provide good working conditions are the exception, not the rule.

On the other hand: Generation Y has grown up in a world where travel is cheap and communication is nearly free. Their cultural zeitgeist is less parochial than that of their grandparents, more global, infused with Japanese anime and Swedish heavy metal, as well as local media produce. This is the world they grew up in: This is the world that defines their expectations.

Lastly, Generation Z:

Are going to come of age in the 2020s, in a world racked by extreme climate events. Many of them will be sibling-less only children, for the demographic transition to a low birthrate/low death rate equilibrium lies generations in their past. They may not be able to travel internationally -- energy costs combined with relative income decline is slowly stripping the middle classes of that capability -- but they'll be products of a third-generation Internet culture.

They saw their grandparents' and parents' generations screwed by the great intergenerational transfer of wealth to the baby boomers -- their great-grandparents, many of whom are lingering on into their twilight 80s. To Generation Z's eyes, the boomers and their institutions look like parasitic aliens with incomprehensible values who make irrational demands for absolute loyalty without reciprocity. Worse, the foundational mythology and ideals of the United States will look like a bitter joke, a fun house mirror's distorted reflection of the reality they live with from day to day.

Generation Z will arrive brutalized and atomized by three generations of diminished expectations and dog-eat-dog economic liberalism. Most of them will be so deracinated that they identify with their peers and the global Internet culture more than their great-grandparents' post-Westphalian nation-state. The machineries of the security state may well find them unemployable, their values too alien to assimilate into a model still rooted in the early 20th century. But if you turn the Internet into a panopticon prison and put everyone inside it, where else are you going to be able to recruit the jailers? And how do you ensure their loyalty?

This is a worrying vision, to be sure, but it is it accurate? To me it seems a bit oversold. As a digital immigrant member of Generation X, it would be easy to fear a dystopian future where the “meddling kids” are up to no good and don’t respect their “elders,” but Stross’ vision, like most science fiction, seems based on a straight-line projection of trends without the possibility that Generations X and Y will change institutions to more broadly embrace the very changes that will help convince Generation Z to deal with national security in the 21st century.
Still, he should be thanked for writing a bold piece like this; it should be thought about long and hard and its implications should be discussed and lessons incorporated as we (re)organize the national security apparatuses for the future.

Michael P. Noonan is the Director of the Program on National Security at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.