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Riding the “Korean Wave,” the survival, dystopian K-drama “Squid Game” has risen to No.1 on Netflix in the United States. It’s no surprise that this has happened. Korean pop culture has not only overtaken the US, but the globe. The success of BTS and fervent Twitter threads between K-Pop stans evinces this. But there is a deeper reason why “Squid Game” has gained popularity in such little time.  Gen Z — the generation born roughly between 1996 and 2010 — has an affinity for dystopian fiction. This is the generation that was raised on “The Hunger Games,” “Divergent” and “Maze Runner” in their tween years. Anti-utopian fiction is as integral as Disney in Generation Z childhood media. 

Unsurprisingly, a generation raised on dystopianism is going to have fired-up political motives. The United States has become more like Panem, the fictional nation at the center of “The Hunger Games,” with power and wealth ever more consolidating in the hands of the few. This has culminated in a politically active, extremely vocal generation. Being digital natives has only propelled this further. We, as Gen Z, need to harness this political energy to make impactful changes to our politics at all levels. 

The world in which Gen Z has been thrust into is alarming. The climate crisis is upon us with its effects becoming more apparent. Temperatures are rising. Natural disasters are becoming more extreme. Food and water insecurity is and will be dire. Socially, wealth disparity is increasing. The consolidation of wealth in the US is returning to 1920s levels. The richest Americans’ wealth increased dramatically during 2020 while the rest of the country faced a recession. Are these descriptions of Panem or of the United States? The line is eerily blurred. The premises of our childhood dystopian fiction mirror the social strife in the United States. We aren’t an apocalyptic state yet, but the signs don’t bode well for the future. The inequalities in the real world that formed the basis of early 2010s dystopian media have become exacerbated and do not seem to be abating in the near future unless systemic change fueled by public outcry takes place.

The teens and young adults of the globe do not back down in the political arena. The political strategies employed by this group resemble much of the rebellious efforts of our dystopian protagonists, albeit less physically violent in execution. Gen Z is highly supportive of political protest with a recent Politico poll reporting that 63% of the generation supports protesting, much of which is in regard to the 2020 protests in the name of the Black Lives Matter movement. What’s even more interesting is that Gen Z views protesting as more effective than voting to influence politics. This portion of the electorate is disenchanted with the political status quo. The protests against the military coup in Myanmar saw protesters use the iconic “Hunger Games” three-finger salute. A related political action that highlights Gen Z’s digital aptitude was when K-pop stans rallied online to troll former President Donald Trump by registering for his rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma despite never intending to attend. This prompted Trump to tout his popularity and then look quite foolish. There is a global feeling that the politics of the time are veering toward crisis and people are acting out in accordance.

Our generation has a certain je ne sais quoi. We have a fire under our asses lit by the need to fix the socio-political problems that are pushing our country to the precipice. And it’s no shocker to me that our political strategies show continuity with those modeled for us by the dystopian novels and films of our youth. We need to funnel this energy into intense political activism. Let us not be tempered in our political outrage. We have mass communication platforms at our disposal to unify and mobilize. We are one of the first generations to be able to usurp traditional information networks in order to make an impact on politics. To bed with only working within the system to change the system. If there is anything that our dystopian media has taught us, it’s that protest and working outside of the system can be an impactful form of political engagement. 

Gen Z clings to themes of dystopianism because we can easily relate them to our own experiences. The rich are getting richer at the expense of the lower class. The climate is being destroyed by the few to the detriment of all. These aren’t plot points in a fantasy novel. As we start to burgeon into the political scene, we need to utilize this intense zeal that we have to enact social change. The world seems to be crumbling, but we have the tools to fix it. I’m glad to have been raised on dystopianism. It’s imbued me with a responsibility to engage in political activism. I implore that more of Gen Z leans into this cultural current. It’s one of our greatest strengths.

Ben Davis is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at bendav@umich.edu.