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The GameStop frenzy says more about Gen Z than Wall Street

The biggest loss of capital in the whole GameStop affair may not be monetary, but rather the “human capital of young men who are sitting and staring at their phones.”

Pedestrians pass a GameStop store on 14th Street at Union Square, Thursday, Jan. 28, 2021, in the Manhattan borough of New York. Followers of YouTube personality Roaring Kitty, inspired by his enthusiasm for buying stock in the underdog retailer GameStop, made him an icon in the social media frenzy that shocked Wall Street.
John Minchillo, Associated Press

“This is the first time we all literally get to decide our destiny.”

That statement comes from a comment on the subreddit r/WallstreetBets, also known as the e-forum that used GameStop and entry-level trading apps to kneecap major Wall Street hedge funds. It was posted as the GameStop saga was reaching a breaking point near the end of January.

The subreddit itself is a wild place, an energetic community populated primarily by “zoomer” (Generation Z) and millennial males complete with its own esoteric (and often explicit) vocabulary and practices, and to the outside observer it simply looks like chaos. There are countless posts flaunting impulsive market decisions raking in hundreds of thousands of dollars and even more mourning the loss of similar amounts. The members are excessively self-deprecatory, excitable and cynical. It is a puzzling, bizarre, enigmatic kingdom.

And yet, it is a perfect crystallization of the mood of an entire generation of young men.

Though the forum itself is ostensibly dedicated just to providing investing advice and commentary, the sentiment and tenor of the users betrays the general mindset of its population — one that feels as if modern society has made every possible effort to neuter it.

The introductory quote above was posted the night before they expected massive hedge funds and their allies to manipulate the system against them. And calling it the “eve of battle” is not figurative — this was, for many, an e-battle against a cadre of elites they see as conspiring against them.

These men are seeking a worthy fight to fight. In other words, these men want to be men. But they have been given no outlet to realize that innate desire. They believe this siege on the elites and their institutions is the only opportunity available to them to seize control of their life, to wrest agency from elites who have subtly slipped it from their souls. One must resist the urge to simply dismiss these feelings as foolish, and instead look at these events with a sympathetic eye and earnestly ask: What in the world is going on?

What is going is that so many in this generation feel impotent. But this impotence does not feel like the result of chance or bad luck. These hungry men feel as if the game was rigged to force impotence upon them.

If a massive segment of the American population believes that now is the first time in their lives they feel any iota of control, then something is broken. And this is in many ways a nonpartisan issue.

At the height of the r/WallstreetBets vs. Wall Street war there were hundreds of posts containing proof that members had dumped their life-savings into GameStop stock. Their reason for doing so? Not just a chance to garner big gains, but a chance to force a reckoning on the “suits” who they believe caused their parents to lose their homes in 2008, or who gave them no choice but to take on impossible student loan debts. They might be rocking the system, but they cannot be dismissed merely as conspiracy theorists, opportunists or arsonists.

One of these “suits” went on MSNBC and mourned that “the biggest loss of capital” in the whole GameStop affair would not be monetary, but rather the “human capital of young men who are sitting and staring at their phones.” He argues that this will all lead to an “explosion of young male depression.”

What rock has he been living under the past two decades? To say that this whole affair is the thing that leads to a spike in male depression would be laughable if it wasn’t so concerning. Such a blind statement ignores the fact that male depression started skyrocketing more than 20 years ago. r/WallstreetBets very well might lead to more depression or disillusionment, but it is not ultimately the source of such feelings — it is the result of them.

This is a spiritual, metaphysical problem. It is a reckoning, an attempt to force a reconsideration of questions of human dignity and agency, one that sees itself as pitting an army of downtrodden and depressed Davids against an army of gold-hoarding Goliaths. These “retail investors” aren’t just trying to make money; they’re asserting their very humanity.

Luke Lyman is a student at Brigham Young University studying political science. Find him on Twitter @blameprometheus.