Gen Z will not ‘free’ us from email: A response to the NY Times article

Sigh. Here we go again. The New York Times used a slow news day to vent about email and hint that Generation Z will one day free us from email.

A fan of ‘Just Use Email’ told me about this article knowing it would ‘trigger’ me (to use a Gen Z word). It worked (ha). Thusly triggered, I’m now firing back. Pew-pew.

Who is Gen Z

First, what is Gen Z? Wikipedia says “researchers and media use the mid-to-late 1990s as starting birth years and the early 2010s as ending birth years. Most members of Generation Z are children of Generation X.”

Confused? Me, too. Eleven-year olds will be freeing us from email? What happened to Generation Y? How can members of Gen Z also be members of Gen X? Do we need to consult a Gen Venn Diagram? What comes after Generation Z? Do we start back at A? Or do we switch to a new alphabet? I feel like this is the Y2K moment of our time and no one is talking about it.

Seriously, I think the NY Times basically just meant to say up and coming youngsters now building businesses and joining the work force would free us from email. But that sounded too vague and they probably thought “Gen Z” sounded more click-worthy.

Free us?

Yes. It’s taken as universal truth in some quarters that email has enslaved us to a life of drudgery and toil. If only we could be free. Free at last! Why, without email, think of the dreams we could fulfill, the life we could build, the challenges we could conquer. To quote Dr. Suess, “Oh, the places you’ll go!”. It’s email that’s holding us back. Okay, once you get past the gray lady’s hyperbole, you get into one of the fluffiest articles I’ve read from them in some time. Did anyone do any actual research? Or was this a ‘man on the street’ article in which they stopped hipsters, or maybe just ironic hipsters, or maybe skateboarders, and coaxed them into giving toothy soundbites so they could then point the blame at their ‘sources’. I mean, did they even look at Email is Not Dead?

The New York Times’ email complaints

Okay, never mind my grumpy fomenting on the state of so-called journalism these days. Let’s get into the context of their complaints about email.

We’ve covered some complaints about email before and debunked a few, but there’s no time like a Thursday afternoon to do it again.

By the way, if you want to read the article and are being bombarded to sign up to their website, you can just enable Reader Mode on Safari on Mac/iOS and read it without that unnecessary step. This is what I often do and then save it as a PDF so I don’t go slowly insane if they edit it, move it, or delete it later.

Overflowing Inboxes

The NY Times editors might have overflowing inboxes (understandably), but if you follow reasonable email etiquette and practices, this won’t be the case. In fact, one thing we work on here is helping people not be email junkies. We love email because it’s better than other written digital communication methods (and has superpowers!), but we don’t want more of it unnecessarily. NYT doesn’t quote how many people have overflowing inboxes, or exactly how an email box can ‘overflow’ in today’s age; they just assume we’ll nod our heads ignorantly in agreement. Not here.

They quote a study saying that those under 30 use Google Docs, Zoom, and iMessage more than email. Uh, what? Those aren’t interchangeable with email. That’s comparing Apples to Oranges which, although it can be done, it’s outside the scope of what counts as journalistic integrity, I would think.

How do you, for instance, send your mom a pic of your baby with Google Docs? Okay, it can be done, but guess what will notify your mom that the Google Doc of baby pics is now ready for her viewing? Hmmm… not a pixie fairy.

You could of course use iMessage, but at work? For six different websites that you manage? To send in a complaint to the NY Times? I didn’t see an iMessage, Google Doc, or Zoom link on the New York Times’ contact page. Nope. You have to send them an email. At least they correctly publish their hyperlinked email address instead of hiding it behind a form.

Oh wait! You can send them an opinion video! But not with Zoom. You can’t record video with Zoom anyway. You have to write up a proposal on your opinion documentary and then, uh, email the opinion department to see if they want it.

Some will say I’m picking too much on the NY Times, or its freelance author Genevieve Ashley. That it wasn’t the Times who were clamoring to be saved from email — that it was the young people they were reporting on.

Fair enough. Let’s tackle a few other points in the article.

“Literally anything but email”

The NY Times found a 24-year old named Adam Simmons who founded a video production company in LA. Why the NYT felt it important to mention that Adam graduated from the University of Oregon is anyone’s guess, but if it wasn’t for word count, then maybe it was to make Adam sound like a smart guy. I’m sure he is smart, but probably not because he went to the University of Oregon.

Adam communicates primarily, according to the NY Times, with his eight employees and clients (sports teams) using text, Instagram messages, and Zoom calls. Really.

Someone tell Adam to come join us here on Just Use Email. He needs our advice. We want to help him and his University of Oregon friends.

Adam, are you sending contracts to your clients via Instagram? via SMS?

Adam, aren’t you on your phone all… the… time? Don’t want you want some peace and quiet in your life? Trust me, my friend, you aren’t gonna be a rockstar by being on your phone all day.

Email is your friend, Adam, not your enemy. It’s Instagram and instant messaging that are your enemies.

Here’s the problem with Adam and so many Gen-Z graduates of the University of Oregon. They see email as a ‘chore’, but somehow associate their phone apps as quirky, cute, and fun. Because psychologically, that’s what they were at the University of Oregon.

Adam even goes on to say to the NY Times that email has “work stuff” and something about rent and Netflix bills. Don’t ask me about that Netflix bill thing; I thought you just put in a credit card and that was it.

Adam has an interesting line, though. He says “Email is all stressors in one area”. Adam, that is exactly the point. When you are not on email, which should be most of your day and week, then you are not bombarded with those stressors and unsavory Netflix bills.

I mean, I kind of feel bad for Adam. Here he is, trying to run a business, and his phone is probably buzzing every five minutes, and no it’s not the cute girl at the shake shack he met last week, but it’s another rent bill, or “work stuff”. Adam almost wrecks the NY Times quoted study when he talks about Google Drive being “painful to use”. That’s almost a slam on the supposedly beloved Google Docs!

Lastly, poor Adam said something that cuts to the heart of the poor digital preparation our schools are giving the last two generations. They give them iPads and virtual reality glasses, and there’s video game consoles in every student lounge and every dorm room, but many high school graduates can’t manage one of the most relevant technological and important communication methods of the past five decades: email. Adam says that part of the reason he started his own business (to work for himself) is “because I don’t want to constantly check my email and make sure my boss didn’t email me.” Adam, neither do we! And we don’t!

Adam doesn’t know how to mute most email notifications. He doesn’t know how to create simple rules to alert him to an important email from his boss. Even aside from those simple things — which he could learn in fifteen minutes — that’s a terrible reason to start a business. It’s an equally terrible reason to use iMessage instead (now his eight employees are under the same curse when it comes to Adam’s emoji-filled messages at 10pm).

Fake Stress News

The article then nosedives into the generalities and vagaries of workplaces stress. You’re naturally supposed to equate that segue with email. Never mind that the workplace stress referred to by being “constantly glued to a phone” has no more to do with email than it does with Instagram, WhatsApp, or Words with Friends (you know who you are). The solution isn’t “get rid of email”. The solution is “quit doing work on your phone”, and very likely, “quit doing life on your phone”.

The article clambers clumsily into the past and talks about the movie You’ve Got Mail. (Sorry, but I beat the NY Times to the punch on that when I used that movie as a segue to prove that instant messaging is no longer instant).

Then, since quoting a single University of Oregon graduate is likely not going to be enough source material, the article yanks from its bowels this anecdote:

“In April, in response to a reader callout on pandemic burnout, The New York Times received dozens of messages specifically about email, or what one reader described as ‘the eternal chore.'”

Are you confused? I was. Let me get this straight. In April, three months ago, the NY Times asked readers about ‘pandemic burnout’ and ‘dozens’ wrote in specifically about problems with email.

Did the Times verify who these people were? That they weren’t stroke victims or mentally ill? I don’t know, but apparently, when looking at their collective stress points regarding the pandemic, “dozens” (what is that? 36?) people wrote in about… email. Of the 8 million people in the Naked City, a few scrappers pointed to email as the source of their woes.

Who are these people? These aren’t people with salient points about the woes of email, or even hyper-critical complaints about email. The quotes the Times shared are sad; they are cries for help.

  • “It has, on the worst days, brought me to tears.”
  • “Every time I get an email, it is like getting stabbed. Another thing for me to do.”

Brought you to tears? Like getting stabbed?

I’ve had some busy inbox days and not just a few smarmy spam-like emails in the past twenty years, and while not a knife-stabbing victim myself, I feel okay speaking on behalf of all those who are that email is definitely not like being stabbed. Maybe using Slack is, but not email.

I’m assuming these complaints about email were emailed to the NY Times, so there’s more than just a touch of irony here.

The Times then, without attribution or evidence, says the pandemic has exacerbated the ‘shortcomings of email’. Grrrr. There are no shortcomings of email, only those who come short of using email properly. Moreover, email is one tool (among many) that allowed millions of people to keep doing their work away from their offices and, as it had before and still does today, is the primary official method by which final agreements on new job hires is done. Ever gotten an employment agreement by LinkedIn messages? Yeah, me neither.

Then, Ms. Ashley goes on to use some name-calling terms, without pedigree or qualification, about our beloved email. Terms like “inbox ping-pong” (sounds fun! how do I play? I want to get the high score!), “barrage of emails” (not a barrage of Slack messages), and of course, the “tyranny of the inbox” (sigh… do these charlatans never tire of that phrase?).

Recycling Cal Newport

The Times article regurgitates a quote from Cal, whose book A World Without Email I’ll be covering soon, which at least gives a hint that the problem isn’t email alone, but the rapid-fire switching between tasks in the modern workplace. But if you didn’t know Cal and the book better, you might take that to mean that some Georgetown professor thinks email needs to die.

And be replaced by what? The NYT article never says. Despite the misleading title, it turns out that Gen Z hasn’t given any sound bites about how they’ll ‘free’ us from email (other than using iMessage to avoid Netflix bills); it’s just a litany of complaints from people who could have instead used the time they spent talking to a NY Times reporter to learn a few email tips and skills.

Inboxes aren’t more bloated

How can I say that without attribution? Where’s my proof? Why, in the same place the NY Times’ proof is when they wrote that “almost 16 months into remote work for many white-collar employees, inboxes have only become more bloated.” Not to sound like a playground bully, but oh yeah? Says who?

Most people I know have refined their digital lives, cut back, got off of some apps and social media networks, rethunkified (to use a Gen Z word) their lives and priorities. At work, there are more digital tools than ever (too many, if you ask me — which we’ll be covering more about here). A lot of work these days does not happen over email, but other digital tools.

So what if the average email inbox had 199 emails in 2017? So what? Not to quote again so quickly Josh Spector’s One-Sentence Email Tips (which I covered here), but tip #13 says “You don’t always have to reply”. Congrats to those average people with 199 emails in their inbox for not replying and filling up other people’s inboxes.

Using a Personal Cell Number instead of Email

Am I still going on about this article? I guess so… I’ll try to wrap it up, but the article is just so… bad. The Times then finds Harrison Stevens, a 23-year old who, you guessed it, graduated from the University of Oregon. Mr. Stevens started some kind of “brick and morter” business and gives his clients his personal number, apparently instead of an email address, because he claims it’s more casual for the sender.

I can’t help but agree there’s nothing wrong with giving your clients something more than just an email address (depends on the business though), but of course Mr. Stevens notes that now it’s harder to define a “clear work-life balance”. Yes, Mr. Stevens, that’s what happens when you give people your personal phone number: they will call you and not necessarily during business hours. Get a work number and turn it off when your “brick and morter” business is closed.

The article does correctly mention that by giving out multiple communication options to people, it “can complicate communication”, which is why we say you should Just Use Email.

Then Ms. Ashley goes on to quote from Aurora Biggers, another graduate, but this time from George Fox University. But yes, if you had to look it up like I did, George Fox University is also in Oregon.

Aurora “likes the work-home boundaries that email offers” (I wouldn’t say “offers” so much as “enforces” if done right), Aurora also still gave out her personal number which then really muddied up her life, from the sound of it. Don’t do that, Aurora.

The article ends with a pithy quote from Aurora. She says that “it’s impossible to expect email to be the main form of communication”. Why? Because Aurora thinks that there are too many people who “aren’t working office jobs”, or “sitting in an office with an email notification coming through”.

You see, Aurora… that’s the whole point. We don’t actually want you to be able to get ahold of us 24/7. We aren’t firefighters, your parents, or the President of the United States holding the nuclear football. And you aren’t a burn victim, our daughter, or a CIA agent. You’re just Aurora from Oregon and we are who we are.

So you can email us at anytime and we will, eventually, get around to replying. Or not. Maybe we’ll keep you as one of our average 199 unreplied emails in our inbox. Just for fun. Does that bother you? It shouldn’t. You aren’t that important to our daily lives (and we aren’t to yours).

But you can, thanks to email, send us an email, without postage, from any device, without us being forced to be on the same network or platform as you, regardless of how long or short you might want to write, or what you might want to attach (no viruses please!) and we don’t have to be “friends” on some social network forever, awkwardly following each other’s exploits over the years until one of us has the courage to break off the “friendship”. We can communicate once — and then never again. That’s the beauty of email.

Oregan FTW?

Despite this being a newspaper article from the New York Times, literally all the trouble seems to be happening in Oregon, aside from a handful of disturbed individuals who found email more cumbersome than masks, quarantines, lockdowns, and potential death.

It’s hard to write a non-humorous reply to this. I tried. It didn’t work. I had to be sarcastic. I’m sorry. I couldn’t take the article seriously.

If anyone knows Aurora Biggers, Harrison Stevens, or Adam Simmons, all of Oregon fame, please send them to Just Use Email straightaway. I know it might sound like I’m making fun of them, or Oregon, in this reply to the New York Times, but I’m really not. To them, these challenges are real. They are victims of a post-modernist internet culture that has tried to harvest their personal freedom and peace of mind for profit. They have had their attention spans warped and their autonomy weakened.

How long can Gen Z live like this? The signs are all there that the break is coming. The whole generation shouldn’t have to toss their phones into the bin and move to the Falkland Islands to find solace from the onslaught of the information age. If they would just use email and abandon these other merciless and harmful digital platforms, they might be able to enjoy their twenties and thirties more.

If anything, despite this article ‘triggering’ me, it also made me double-down on the upcoming articles scheduled in which I start getting into personal management of email, tips and strategies to make email work for you (not against you as some in the NY Times article claimed), to not only make email feel less “stabby”, but to help all of us reclaim the internet (so to speak) so that we can enjoy our friends, families, and businesses. Even if they are “brick and morter” businesses in Oregon.

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