Why Pronouns and the World's Problems Are Important to My Gen-Z Son
Photo by Tim Mossholder / Unsplash

Why Pronouns and the World's Problems Are Important to My Gen-Z Son

At 19, he wants to improve the planet, stat, and Gen Xers and Millenials aren't moving fast enough for him.

One day in March of 2021, my son, who had just turned 16, came home urgently. At the time, I was living in Washington D.C., while he was in New Hampshire at a boarding school which he had joined almost two years earlier. He was a junior. Unlike millions of students around the world, forced to take classes online because the whole world had shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic, my son was one of those who had the chance to go to class every day. However, it came at a price: they lived in a bubble at their boarding school. No one was allowed in, and no one was let out.

The pandemic forced his school to implement new rules that limited social interaction. The impact was huge on the mental health of a large majority of students, including my son. One of the solutions put in place by the school to tackle the rise in emotional issues was to often send students back to their families. This was the case with my son. I was happy to have him home. Still, I wondered whether it was in his best interest to come home as finals were looming. What I didn’t know was that my son’s return would plunge me into a new world and profoundly shake up my foundation.

My son is currently 19 years old. He grew up in Paris, France, where he went to school until 5th grade. Then we moved to New York, where he attended the Lycée Français, a private French school in Manhattan with a bilingual curriculum, before being accepted into a boarding school in New Hampshire. He is currently a college sophomore in California. My son was immersed in different cultures and has learned to navigate a diverse set of environments. He and I only communicate in French.

“Dad, you assume that I want you to address me using the he, his and him pronouns,” my son said to me as we were conversing about his mental health.

He made that remark in a calm tone. My son never raises his voice.

“I don’t understand,” I replied. “As far as I know, there has not been a change in your life. Just a few weeks ago I addressed you using the same pronouns. What’s changed that I’m not aware of?”

“Nothing,” he said, “but it would be good if you asked me my pronouns to avoid offending me. I think it’s a sign of respect.”

“What are your pronouns,” I asked him?

“He, his and him. Yours?” he answered.

“The same. Nothing has changed for me either,” I replied.

I had been introduced to the world of pronouns before, but this was the first time the subject was brought up by my own son. I knew he was concerned about issues of equality. When he was at the Lycée Français a few years earlier, one of his friends wanted to transition from a boy to a girl. While going through the process, this friend wanted to use the bathrooms reserved for girls. My son and others supported her. For weeks, my son spoke about this friend, explaining to me that he didn’t understand the reluctance of cisgender girls and their parents to allow his friend to use the bathrooms she felt comfortable using. For him, his friend identified as a girl, something that the whole world should respect and accept. That was her identity. I was confused when my son and I were speaking back then as I kept switching between he/his/him, she/her/her and they/them/their to refer to his friend.

“Dad, why is it so difficult for you to say she/her/her when you talk about her?” he said to me at the time.

For my son, I shouldn’t have had any difficulty adjusting my pronouns regarding a friend of his whom I had known for a few years as a boy. I felt lost. I thought I was narrow-minded but then I asked myself how is it possible to switch so fast? I needed a whole software upgrade. I did not see the need to educate myself at the time on pronouns which underline the question of gender identity. I told myself and thought I was open-minded both by the nature of my work and own background. I had navigated different cultures, interviewed people from various social and political backgrounds and segments of society.

What I didn’t understand was that these questions were the face of the social values of the Gen Z generation, impatient to make their mark on the world; values that would shake up the millennials, of which I am one, and the boomers.

“Why do you think that I must ask you what pronouns I should use towards you,” I asked my son that day of March 2021.

“It is a sign of respect and empathy for the people you are talking to," he responded. "By doing so, you show that you are conscious of people’s differences, that do not espouse prejudices and that you are open-minded. It makes the people you’re talking to feel comfortable and included.”

The lesson had only just begun. For the first time, I looked at my son differently. Was he the child I raised alone since the death of his mother when he was only 2 years old? Many would say that my son had changed due to indoctrination from his prestigious boarding school and college; some would have said that he had become a woke follower; that he had been brainwashed. I would tell them that they are missing the point.

The day after our conversation, I approached my son to ask him what he thought about transgender women competing against cisgender women in sports.

“I don’t agree with that,” he replied.

I expected him to be in favor of all women competing together, be they transgender or cisgender.

“I think trans girls have an advantage over cisgender girls,” he explained. No one can deny that the physical constitution of men and women is not the same. Men’s muscles are larger, which gives them more strength and endurance. It is a fact. Let’s not forget testosterone. A transgender girl who used to be good at basketball before their transition is, without doubt, going to dominate her peers if she is allowed to compete against cisgender girls. It is a physiological fact. She would be a dominant force. It is unfair. I am for justice.”

I told him that accepting differences meant accepting them completely, not just halfway. Unsurprisingly, he rejected the argument and stood his ground. It was a long conversation at the end of which he had not amended his position. I have since learned, from talking with my son and his friends and other parents raising Gen Z children, that a key characteristic of this generation is to think that they are always right. This has allowed me to better accept exchanges with my son because he lets me talk and listens even if, in the end, he does not change his mind. I, on the other hand, am in accelerated training.

Neither my son nor his friends are the spokespersons for Gen Z. They are nevertheless part of this generation and rub shoulders with their peers at school, in school and sporting activities, on social networks and online gaming platforms. They reflect, in one form or another, the artifices of this generation.

In my education process, I understood that my son and his friends view us, the generations preceding them, as cynics; people who at one time dreamed but who have grown old without accomplishing anything. So, they learned from us, our failures, our inability to act, our cynicism. This is why they want everything immediately. This is why they want to change the world right now. This is why they want a world that reflects them stat. They do not want to make concessions for fear of falling into the same cynicism as we. They don’t like phrases like “do you remember when we were young, when we wanted to change the world?” They don’t want regrets. They believe these are excuses for those who took life's easy path.

This is also seen in their environmental activism. They think that we are not just in a state of emergency to save the planet. They believe that it is a question of survival. We must act and do now. Those who wait are not entitled to speak. They therefore become intolerant when politicians drag their feet. Action, action, action! Don’t just speak.

Saving the planet is part of a bigger picture that is predicated on justice. Like us before them, they want social justice and equity. They want to take up the cause for the weakest and most deprived. They see it as a moral obligation to be part of the global village. It is in these terms that they describe their quest for authenticity which they also express through body positivism, gender identity and the refusal of barriers of all kinds.

They do not believe in us. They believe that we have stagnated. They therefore reject the institutions which they suspect of seeking to maintain the established order and the status quo at all costs. They have more trust in individuals with whom they can identify or whose authenticity they find acceptable. For example, they see influencers, notably the biggest of them all, Elon Musk, as the new generation of leaders. Not that they think that these new figures are perfect or that everything they say is correct. But they accept their flaws and feel that they at least are trying to achieve something. My son is a fan of Musk. When I asked him what Musk has that the political leaders of our time don’t have, my son said this:

“Dad, at least he did something; he makes us dream about the conquest of Mars; he did important things for the environment with Tesla. I see what he did. What have the politicians actually done?”

No matter how much I argue, nothing works.

My son and his friends want us to change and adopt their ideals and impatience but don’t want to meet us in the middle. When I tell my son that his generation has to take the time to educate and convince people so that they get used to a changing world, he tells me that it’s not their job. It is up to me and my generation to make the necessary effort.

This disconnection is also present in everyday actions. When I call my son on the phone he very rarely picks up. He tends to send me a text message after my call to ask if there is anything urgent. The few times he responds, there is usually silence on the other end of the line followed, after several seconds, by a wary “yes” mixed with suspicion. It is as if I were attacking him by calling; as if I were violating, as they say now, his private space. From this, I realized that it was better to communicate via text messages. Still, even when I do, he takes a long time to respond. No matter how much I complain, the changes are minimal. For a while he responded a day later; now he responds an hour, even two hours later. Yet, I know that his phone never leaves him. On the other hand, when he calls me, he expects me to pick up right away.

The amazing thing about this impatient generation is that they are sometimes not that different from us or from those who were here before us. As soon as they face adversity in everyday life, they immediately run to their parents.

“'Dad, can you make an appointment for me with this doctor? Dad, how do I do this? Dad, I lost this, what should I do now?” Basically, behind their image as agents of change, they remain like all other generations. They know where and when to seek their parents. In those moments, their know-it-all and always-being-right ethos evaporates.

Listening to my son and to his friends, I noticed that they highlight collective responsibilities and obligations but disregard their individual duties. It is as if the individual comes second. But at the same time, they celebrate the individual by making them a priority over institutions. They celebrate values like authenticity that are attached to the individual. I’m having trouble following. I am lost.

The worst thing is that we tend to characterize most young people today as woke. It makes my son smile. He tells me that this is proof of our lack of imagination. He tells me that he does not understand why I and the other veterans are perplexed when someone like him praises capitalism but at the same time says he is in favor of a significant increase in the minimum wage or pleads for a large social safety net. For him, if we want to perpetuate capitalism, everyone must benefit. Which is no longer happening, according to him.

“If you want a proletarian revolution, as Karl Marx said, continue to remain deaf to the cry of alarm of the have-nots. They are going to revolt like in 1789 in France,” my son regularly warns me, although he is very critical of the French system because, according to him, it punishes wealth.

My son says I and the other “ancients” don’t get it. They don’t want labels. They don’t care about labels. What matters to him and his friends is to do what is right. It isn’t about ideology, he says.

“The old ideologies are dead. Anyway, they are old. We are building our own. Your generation must get used to it,” he proclaims confidently.

Maybe he is right. I am an “ancient.” But to use the metaphor of the Malian writer Amadou Hampâté-Ba, an old man who dies is a library that burns down.

This post originally appeared on Medium and is edited and republished with author's permission. Read more of Luc Olinga's work on Medium.