Where Personal Identity Comes From … and How Gen Z Lost It

“Who am I?”

School psychologists say “Gen Z” is asking this question more than ever, and their answers are making headlines as they “self-identify” as members of one group or another — political, cultural, or sexual.

If you think their ability to “self-identify” in unexpected ways is a joke, think again: Our culture has made it very difficult for this generation to know who they are, and they desperately need to know.

The first component of your personal identity is your body.

A Thomist here at Benedictine College likes to ask his class what he is holding in his hand. He points out that you could call it a “hard-shelled petroleum-based product” — but that it makes more sense to name the thing by what it does and call it a marker.

John Paul II’s entire “theology of the body” does the same thing. “The body reveals the person,” he says, “in its masculinity and femininity,” and “a precise awareness of the nuptial meaning of the body, of its generative meaning, is necessary.”

So bodies, male and female, are what they are for. But Gen Z has grown up in a world where the “nuptial meaning” of the body is not clear at all. Its generative powers are, more often than not, intentionally thwarted. It has gotten so that even women at a Women’s March can’t define what a woman is.

Second, your identity comes from your family. 

Identification by family was so strong in biblical times that people were known as “Simon, son of Jonah,” or “sons of Zebedee.” Kristin Lavransdatter, the fictional Norwegian heroine, was indeed Lavran’s daughter. If all that seems strange, it shouldn’t: Americans also take our dad’s (or our spouse’s dad’s) last name.

But with divorce and fatherlessness at epidemic levels, a single family name no longer clearly marks us. Gen Z are often “freelance” children who connect with one family after another, depending on whom they are visiting — mom, dad, grandparents, step grandparents, etc.

Worse, as Mary Eberstadt points out in her new book Primal Scream, we are find out who we are by our siblings, or neighborhood cousins. But Gen Z is less likely than any generation in memory to have either one.

Third, your identity comes from your religion.

Next, our identity comes from our relationship with God. This makes sense: God created us in his image and likeness, and so we can best find our identity by knowing him — learning what he wants from us, and having a relationship with him.

This is so true, said Pope Benedict, that, “without the Creator the creature would disappear. … When God is forgotten, the creature itself grows unintelligible.”

This makes it difficult for Gen Z, who are less likely than previous generations to identify with a religion , and who have been surrounded most of their lives by institutions that have “forgotten” God.

Fourth, your identity comes from your country or region. 

One of the first questions we ask someone we meet is, “Where are you from?” And from “the man from Galilee” to the Canterbury Tales and from Leo Tolstoy to Flannery O’Connor, Christians have always agreed that region is an important part of personal identity.

The difficulty for Gen Z is that families are no longer rooted in a region the way we all once were — my children are from four states — and their grandparents, aunts and uncles are all on different coasts. Like much of Gen Z, they are “from” all over, and nowhere.

Fifth, your identity comes from your vocation or occupation.

The next question we ask someone is, “What do you do?” “Work is one of the characteristics that distinguish man from the rest of creatures,” said St. Pope John Paul.

In former times, occupations were so straightforward they became names — Baker, Fisher, Fuller, Taylor, Thatcher. But in the 21st century, much of our work has been digitized and happens at a remove from any actual products our enterprises produce.

Ask a Gen Zer “What do your mom and dad do?” and you will often get the answer, “I don’t know. Something with a computer in an office.”

A girl isn’t, “the daughter of a tailor;” a boy isn’t “the son of shop-keeper;” they are “daughter of a quality improvement consultant” and “the son of an auditing oversight supervisor.”

Last, we get our identity from our education. 

As Pope Francis put it, education is necessary “to form mature individuals capable of overcoming division and antagonism.”

But most Gen Z Americans have been educated in what Pope Benedict XVI called “a dictatorship of relativism” that omits any vision of truth that is not based on empiricism. Bishop Robert Barron calls this new approach “scientism” and says “it imperils poetry and art, for instance, as much as religion, as well as the venerable discipline of philosophy.”

So don’t mock Gen Z for not knowing who they are. How could they?

It is our job to show them. Ultimately, says Pope Benedict XVI, we really have only one identity: “A being in the image of God who is loved and is made to love.”

“The other reveals me to myself,” he said. The only way to find yourself is to give yourself away. Love and serve God; love and serve others. Then you will know who you are.

This appeared at Aleteia.
Image: Flickr, Ben Taylor

Tom Hoopes

Tom Hoopes

Tom Hoopes, author of The Rosary of Saint John Paul II and The Fatima Family Handbook, is writer in residence at Benedictine College in Kansas and hosts The Extraordinary Story podcast about the life of Christ. A former reporter in the Washington, D.C., area, he served as press secretary of the U.S. House Ways & Means Committee Chairman and spent 10 years as executive editor of the National Catholic Register newspaper and Faith & Family magazine. His work frequently appears in Catholic publications such as Aleteia.org and the Register. He and his wife, April, have nine children and live in Atchison, Kansas.