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Freedom From Social Norms Is Generation Z's Gift, And Its Burden

While many young people have shaken off the social and emotional shackles of their parents' years, they must now resist the pressures of their own peers to constantly experiment, and never settle for anything or anyone.

Photograph of a group of young people taking a selfie on an iPhone

A group of young people take a selfie

Priscilla Du Preez/Unsplash
Guadalupe Rivero

BUENOS AIRES — The "crystal generation," or young people born since 2000, is often described as fragile and intolerant of setbacks. Also termed Generation Z or Gen Z, the group is also perceived, more positively, as sensitive, reflective and spiritual, in its own way.

Argentine psychologist Sofía Calvo (born 1993) believes young people of this generation share traits beyond their age. She is the author of a book on modern relations, La generación de cristal: Sociedad, familia y otros vínculos del siglo XXI (The Crystal Generation: Society, Family and Other Ties in the 21st Century).

"We understood as a generation that enjoying our sexuality, building a free identity, separating from a partner, leaving a job or doing what we love or going to therapy were not failures, but in fact a great win," she says.

She believes this generation must hold onto the gains of people who struggled for rights in preceding centuries, "When the world was a place that was still much more hostile to the individual's social, sexual and ideological freedoms. We must ... keep looking for whatever is uncomfortable," or what "nobody would ask," she tells Clarín.

This is a generation conscious of "aspects that seemed irrelevant before but certainly were not," she says, referring to traits like sensitivity or personal pain.

Calvo says previous generations believed weakness must be concealed, for example. "It's not that we're more sensitive now, but we're much more willing to show it, and thus to set limits. What is explicit today was hidden before, and that had consequences inside us," she says. Self-harm or stress, for example, can result from a reluctance to share problems or call out abuse in its various forms.

The Gen Z lifestyle certainly shows greater freedom, but it's not unchecked. It has begun creating "diverse subjectivities, from gender expressions to sexual orientation, over having children or not, going to university or starting a business, traveling, migrating," but also environmental issues, cruelty to animals and veganism, Calvo explains.

She sees in this generation a big shift in "values and priorities, and thankfully, mental health is becoming one of its priorities. I think one of the strong points of our time now is the path opening up to diversity, which is so necessary as it is essential to the human being."

Generational ties and desires

With the end of the couple as a social norm, Calvo wonders if the new "duty" is to know how to be alone. There is a strong tendency, she says, to see being alone as a sign of strength, and partnerships as emotional dependence. The social rules seem overturned, she says, and some young people now feel they must go it alone.

Yet even "self love needs an external gaze," she says. The trick in her opinion is to avoid extremes of dependence or independence, and examine your particular needs for affection, intimacy or sex.

Too much freedom can become another social pressure.

While the Crystal generation is less inclined to conform socially, it too is made of social beings, she says. "Every generation will have some rules and impositions. Let's hope they will be lighter and as few as possible," she adds.

She also sees Gen Z as showing greater caution in its sexual encounters. Unlike youth in the last quarter of the 20th century, this generation has clearer positions on sexual health, STIs and issues of consent, dating and relationship etiquette.

Photograph of the silhouette of a man and a woman kissing during a concert

A man and a woman kiss during a concert

Daniel Dvorsky/Unsplash

Diversities and rules

Just as monogamy was for long the rule for couples, the Crystal generation now considers diversity in relationships and sexuality a given. As new forms of relationship are legitimized, people can see the inherent diversity of relationships.

But Calvo says even diversity and experimentation can become another cage: "I think a lot of people, for wanting to fit in with society, try out these new dynamics without asking themselves if they want to. It's all very novel and stark, and now we're often told sexual freedom is the real way to love." Too much freedom, in other words, can become another social pressure and cause "immense suffering," she says.

Many people are not ready for an exclusive relationship, she says, just as others won't tolerate an open one. "The way you desire, erotize and love is highly diverse. If I'm not being honest about what's happening, I'll end up making a choice on the go, or out of inertia. If I cannot respect our agreement to be exclusive, it's not fair to choose a closed relationship. If you don't fancy anyone other than your partner, why would you think an open couple suits you?"

She advises young people to understand "their own diversity" so that they can find themselves "pacts that are much more coherent with what we are and what we can and will respect."

You must build from "inside outwards," she says, before looking for someone who follows the same dynamic, "so nobody suffers."

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AI And War: Inside The Pentagon's $1.8 Billion Bet On Artificial Intelligence

Putting the latest AI breakthroughs at the service of national security raises major practical and ethical questions for the Pentagon.

Photo of a drone on the tarmac during a military exercise near Vícenice, in the Czech Republic

Drone on the tarmac during a military exercise near Vícenice, in the Czech Republic

Sarah Scoles

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Things soon went awry. At that conference, Tucker Hamilton, chief of AI test and operations for the United States Air Force, seemed to describe a disturbing simulation in which an AI-enabled drone had been tasked with taking down missile sites. But when a human operator started interfering with that objective, he said, the drone killed its operator, and cut the communications system.

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