The 'Hunger Games' Effect
It is no secret that literature impacts perspective and perspective impacts action. It is, therefore, important to consider the literature consumed by each generation as it steps into the limelight of adulthood. Members of Generation Z— today’s adult newcomers —were markedly targeted as publishing’s greatest consumers of modern dystopia in a trend that disappeared within ten years, but impacted its readers for the rest of their lives.
Many credit the YA dystopian fad to The Giver and The Hunger Games. These books are thought to have sparked the new age of dystopia of the late 2000s and early 2010s, which for the first time targeted not adults, but adolescents. This was the key change: the audience. Yes, the dystopian genre itself has existed for more than 500 years. Yes, young adults have read dystopian literature like 1984 long beforethe year 2000. However, 2000s dystopia was defined by young adult action in an entirely new way. It was not before Jonas brought color to his community that teens began to consider their potential for impact on society. It was not before Katniss volunteered as tribute that teens realized they had the ability to stand up to oppression. These realizations became attainable for readers after moving from childhood to adolescence. Psychologically, teenagers are increasingly perceptive of themselves and the world around them due to growing capabilities for abstract thought and analysis. This is reflected in 2000s YA dystopia. Not only are its characters navigating new thought processes for introspection, relationship building, and problem-solving, but so too are its readers. Characters forced by tyrannical governments to take life-altering exams, for example, resonate hyperbolically with emotional high schoolers studying for the SATs. Thus, we see the young adults of Gen Z carry dystopian stories of teenage redemption like martyrized personal narratives.
But what caused the rise of fear for the future of America’s youth? The answer lies in the events of September 11, 2001, when most of the genre’s audience wore diapers or were not even born yet. The terrorist attack on the World Trade Center revealed the fragility of national security, human life, and American freedom. It created immense fear on a global scale, called for new and extensive security measures, as well as established a tragic sense of relatability to national disaster. It gave fear and threat a common place. Literature began asking the same questions elected officials asked: how do we protect our rights and ourselves from destruction? Themes of corruption and devastation became more conventional, both in society and in media. America’s Generation Z also spent its childhood amidst other crises such as The Great Recession, Hurricane Katrina, and the COVID-19 pandemic. They are, by consequence, accustomed to instability, uncertainty, and fear; it is the only world they know. This has made Gen Z very familiar with concerns of personal well-being and aligned them clearly with the experiences of early 2000s dystopian protagonists.
Increased internet access into and throughout the early 2000s also enabled better accessibility and comprehension of information. People could pursue research on current events and connect with others more easily thanks to the rise of the internet. Sites like Google and Facebook made information immediately accessible to all users, which allowed for a more dimensional understanding of the world around them. Generation Z developed alongside modern technology, and therefore grew up with more access to global knowledge than any other generation. This also allowed Gen Z to be better informed and exposed to other cultures than any other generation before them. They were empowered by an early, strong foundation for understanding of cross-cultural sociopolitical influences and differences. Familiarity with technology also increased Gen Z’s comfort levels with creative imaginations of technology in fiction. As a result, evolving technologies no longer functioned as primary conflicts or significant fears in modern dystopian literature. Instead of antagonists, advanced technologies became supporting characters—elements of dysfunctional societies that could either benefit or destroy them, depending on human use and intent.
Tris fought against the tyranny of Erudite when they ended Abnegation lives. Thomas led his friends to escape WICKED when he discovered the truth of their intentions. Virtually every piece of popular young adult literature has taught Generation Z not to be complacent in the face of injustice. The genre has instructed them to stand tall against dictators, remind them of their power (sometimes in an on-the-nose thematic statement), and fight for what they believe in. Almost every text has ended in the dissolvement of authoritarianism and segregation in favor of democracy and equal rights. And so, we have to ask: how can we be surprised by Generation Z’s movements for social justice?
We’ve seen them take to the streets, take to the internet, take to every avenue possible to dismantle systems of oppression. We’ve watched them march for women’s rights, for LGBTQ+ rights, for gun reform, for climate change, for black lives, for democracy. They’re often mocked, belittled by older generations in recognized positions of power, shut down by tear gas and rubber bullets. But none of that stops them. They were trained for this battle. They entered the Arena knowing it takes at least three books to finish the fight, and they’re prepared to see it through to the epilogue. Who do they think they are? Givers, Mockingjays, Divergents, Immunes. Who gave them this power? Lois Lowry, Suzanne Collins, Veronica Roth, James Dashner. Etc., etc. Gen Z matured with the acceptance that living amongst constant unrest taught them perseverance, wisdom, and empathy. It made them specially strong in ways older generations will never fully understand. They have read these chapters enough times to know that such strength overcomes scrutiny in the end, and that it’s their duty to reach the last page.