Politics, “Puriteens” and Polarisation: Could Gen Z really be more “conservative” than Millennials?

WRITTEN BY Eva O' Beirne

May 9, 2023

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Politics, “Puriteens” and Polarisation: Could Gen Z really be more “conservative” than Millennials?

Eva O' Beirne

9 May, 2023

Over the past two years, major publications such as GQ, the Hill and the LA Times have all ran stories disputing the assumed habits and beliefs of Generation Z. With headlines such as “Why Generation Z might not be as ‘woke’ as most think” and “Gen Z Are ‘Puriteens,’ But Not For The Reasons You Think”’, these pieces commented on the notable political and moral differences between those born between 1996 and 2012 and their older peers.

The first generation to be exposed to the world of the internet from birth, it is easy to categorise this group as argumentative by nature and individualistic by default. But what has shown to be the most jarring aspect, especially for Millennials, is that Generation Z is taking a definitive step away from the paths carved by those who came before them. Frequent inter-generational discourse sets social media platforms like TikTok and Twitter alight – one only has to look to tweets reacting to Penn Badgley’s decision to stop doing sex scenes in media to see how Gen Z and Millennials can be split. One tweet claiming that Badgley’s anti-sex scene stance was “the only thing that brings me hope for men today” was a tinderbox for controversy. In the days that followed, Twitter became a swarm of discourse, exclaiming that “Gen Z prudes were trying to bring the Hays Code” back to Hollywood according to W Magazine.

This is not the first instance of Gen Z being accused of being less sexually liberal than previous generations. In fact, data seems to support this claim, with Gen Z now less likely to have sex than their parent’s generation. But, for some reason, this fact has been majorly interpreted to mean that Gen Z is inherently sex negative with Vanity Fair’s Richard Lawson writing in February: “It is tempting to … declare everyone 30 and younger to be puritanical prudes whose minds have been warped by too many hours spent online.” Could this be the truth? Are we really hysterical killjoys, determined to remove smut from media and kink from pride?

We do have a penchant for the dramatics – Gen Z’s satirical online behaviour may set off alarm bells for older generations, especially with our tendency to react to minor inconveniences with sucide threats or label them as “our personal 9/11”. But coming of age in the midst of a lockdown, surrounded by internet culture for as long as we can remember – weren’t we destined to be a little strange?

As a member of Gen Z looking from the inside looking out, it feels like older generations are skipping over the facts. As a demographic, Gen Z increasingly identifies as queer and “outstrip every other generation” in acceptance of gender fluidity. Perhaps this is an inherent bias – like calling yourselves the “greatest generation” or claiming that your age group invented snark and sarcasm – but I feel that Gen Z is willing to learn, and hence tries and tests out new ideas such as having less casual sex to see how it affects their mental health. Showing shamelessness in a new way – not being afraid to communicate, to show emotion and to break cycles – shouldn’t society embrace this newfound empowerment amongst its youngsters?

It can’t be denied that regressive ideas are sometimes smuggled into progressive movements through disguised language. The cyclical discussion on age gaps between young starlets and their older boyfriends upon their social media debut on DeuxMoi or appearance on a red carpet is often veered off course by a simple “GET AWAY FROM HER” reaction image that goes viral. Generation Z seems inherently protective, wary of potential imbalances. But one could ask if this protective nature strip agency away from young people, particularly young women in age-gap relationships? I will agree that power dynamics in any relationship should always be examined – but a little nuance wouldn’t hurt (occasionally).

Eva O’Beirne (@evaobeirne)

On the flip side – why shouldn’t we be critical? Most of this generation vividly remembers the emergence and fallout of #MeToo. We also have the examples of Taylor Swift’s “All Too Well”, “Dear John” and “Would’ve, Could’ve, Should’ve” to act as shining beacons for our moral compasses. Does this critical nature really translate into “conservatism”, “puriteens” or as the Atlantic posited a “sex recession”? Or is this the first instance of millennials turning into old men shaking their fists at the sky at Generation Z rejecting the past?

In terms of political beliefs, Generation Z refuses to be placed in one specific box, let alone a “conservative” one. Across Europe, there are varying degrees of how left-wing/right-wing Generation Z is split but no major studies have been conducted on European Gen Z voters, let alone solely Irish ones. In comparison, when one looks at the US, Generation Z can be described as “generally Anti-Trump” but not a “generation of Democrats”. Furthermore, a survey by Monitoring the Future has shown a rise in the percentage of 12th-graders (17-18 year-olds) who identify at the extremes of political ideology. The percentage of those who identify as “very conservative” has doubled from 4% nearly four decades ago to 8% today. Those identifying as “very liberal” or “radical” has risen from 9% to 16%. It will be interesting to see if Gen Z follows in the footsteps of  Millennials and will vote less conservatively as they grow older, but only time will tell. Gen Z is certainly shifting away from tribalism, focusing more on actions, issues and beliefs than definitive party lines. Our own example, the ultimately crushing “vote left, transfer left” strategy by young Irish leftists during the General Election of 2020 shows a willingness to compromise for the sake of change.

Overall, generations are a poor metric for meaningful analysis. We’ve barely escaped the avocado-takeaway, coffee-homeownership discourse only to find ourselves in a “Puriteen” hysteria. Rather than fretting over sex negativity, should we not acknowledge that the sex war has never actually ended? Instead of criticising a lack of political alliance, should politicians not focus on better representation than being an uninspiring compromise?

Maybe it’s because our generation has Pluto in Sagittarius, or maybe that we can point to the pandemic as a radicalising period, but Gen Z don’t simply want to march to the beat of their own drum – we’d rather set the drum on fire. By rejecting the increasingly toxic label of “liberal”, it is easy to fear that conservative beliefs could sneak their way into the zeitgeist of Generation Z. But given this group’s ability to be critical of the past, we at least hope they’ll be challenged.

Instagram: @evaobeirne

Twitter: @evaobeirnee





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