Gen Z: knowledge, intelligence, wisdom, and activism

The Hoffman Agency's Chris Owen on how the truth doesn't always make you smart

There’s a rumour going round that ‘Gen Z’ (and can I be clear that this shouldn’t really be ‘a thing’ beyond just how we refer to people born between 1997 to 2013), is the most activist yet and — based on the presumption that each generation is smarter than the last — the cleverest.

Is it true? Um. No? Not completely.

Increasing intelligence

If we’re being simplistic about things, then the fact that each new generation has learned from the previous has been proven extensively through scientific research and is known as ‘The Flynn Effect’. We are more intelligent than the generation before us.

But intelligence isn’t the same as wisdom. And arguably we’re not getting collectively wiser.

If anything, there’s so much information — and so many platforms through which it’s shared – that it’s made many people more gullible, more prone to mistruth. Technology allows falsehoods to go around the world in seconds before the truth gets a chance to tie its shoelaces.

Importantly, the truth is not a prerequisite to knowledge – you can be knowledgeable about something which isn’t based on fact. Being knowledgeable doesn’t shield you from being gullible. Technology is creating the platforms for ‘knowledge’ to be (too easily) shared and (too easily) believed.

You can find the answer to justify your belief in anything you want if you search for it or go down enough rabbit holes. Once found, supporting evidence — however flimsy — is accepted as proof this knowledge is fact.

Wisdom and activism

We can apply this to the question of whether we consider Gen Z an ‘activist generation’, to which the answer is a caveated ‘yes — but’. Is this activism down to them being ‘smarter’? Not really. They have myriad issues and causes which demand activism, but then so did preceding generations who could equally be defined as ‘activist’.

Coming back to technology and the virality with which activism can be shared, and thus the attention it gets — including from mainstream media — gives a false impression of scale compared to previous generations who didn’t have Twitter and TikTok to share what they did.

Importantly, to go back to the issue of being clever and how activism plays to this, it’s important to note that being an activist isn’t exclusively a sign of intelligence. Activism is based on knowledge, however spurious — to pick Pizzagate as one example from the hundreds over the last few years.

As conspiracy theories started spreading online, activists stormed Comet Ping Pong in the (false) knowledge that the Democratic Party being involved in child sex rings and human trafficking. Here the term ‘their knowledge’ is perhaps a more apposite caveat.

The truth doesn’t always make you smart

But the difference between knowledge, intelligence, and being smart also applies to scenarios when the knowledge is based on truth.

Look at Extinction Rebellion — their missions are based on a true and very real, existential threat. They have knowledge of the data, trends, studies, and academic analysis of what is happening to our climate and parse it to gain intelligence on what needs to happen.

But… are they always ‘smart’?

Well, maybe not. Because if they were, then they might know more beyond the facts and figures and understand that empathy is key to making people listen to you. It’s the catalyst to effecting widespread mental and behavioural change in society.

If they were ‘smart’ they’d know that super-gluing themselves to motorways alienates and annoys the very people they want to join them in their cause. Stopping ambulances getting over Westminster Bridge doesn’t make people want to join your cause, it makes them want to throw you off your bridge.

I agree with almost everything Extinction Rebellion stands for (its knowledge), but I disagree with almost everything it does (how smart it is with it).

In 2022 “knowing more” isn’t the same as being cleverer — because that knowledge is increasingly falling foul of mistruth and conspiracy. Intelligence and wisdom in theory whittle away the bullshit — but it’s sadly not a universal approach.

Featured image: Nana Lapushkina / Pexels

Chris Owen

Chris Owen is UK Director at The Hoffman Agency – a global PR agency specialising in B2B technology communications. He’s been in comms for nearly fifteen years and been writing about tech, consumer behaviour, and brand strategy for a wide variety of media titles. He got into PR as running terrible record shops ‘wasn’t a proper career’ according to his mum. She was probably right.

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