In the war between snowflakes and boomers, I’m with the kids. If only it wasn’t so easy to laugh at them … | Zoe Williams

Gen Z seem to see trauma and toxicity everywhere they look. As I’ve just been reminded, that doesn’t mean they’re imagining things

Near where I live, there’s an open-mic day for local kids who are in bands. It’s slickly run, with professional sound engineers and equipment, and it’s all free. It’s an act of incredible generosity by a load of self-effacing ponytail guys, and I believe it will save at least a minuscule corner of the world of live music, just by populating south-east London with 14-year-olds who know how to plug in an amp.

It was Sunday. My treasured 15-year-old first born was about to play bass. I was in an incredibly good mood. My ex-husband had just said in a really loud voice: “I love the World Cup and I won’t have any woke liberals ruining it for me,” and even though he was joking, there was no way for bystanders to know that, so now they all think that he’s bad and I, per the ancient laws of the relational binary, am nice.

Before my son’s band started, a 15-year-old soloist was on. “This is a song about the abusive relationship I was in with my best friend,” she said. “I wrote it as a cry for freedom, and I sing it because now I am free.” I laughed, obviously. My daughter said in disbelief: “Why are you laughing?” I was World Cup guy in this dyad. Why? So many reasons!

Gen Z and their language: nothing can ever be mean, it always has to be abusive. Nothing can ever be painful, it always has to be traumatic. Nothing can ever stir up a bad memory, it always has to be triggering. Don’t get me wrong, I will always naturally side with the young, because now there are only two sides: snowflakes and boomers. The rest of us just have to pick a team. But I can’t be expected to not laugh. Abusive relationship with your best friend? The very idea.

She started singing. Her voice was miraculous. A guy called her the next Adele, and while it’s true that a lot of the open-mic kids go to the Brit school, the same school Adele went to, the comparison didn’t quite nail the sensibility. She had Judy Garland’s surprise right-hook, how-is-that-possible, fully adult voice coming out of a kid, coupled with the dense, surreal lyricism of Regina Spektor, maybe a trace of Ian Dury wit in there as well.

She elaborated in song a complex metaphor about venom and wine, how it was considered so critical that the young be protected from alcohol but not emotional toxicity, which was worse, actually – she said it much faster than that, and with chords – and finally, I tapped into some empathy. In fact, best-friendship is incredibly intense. It can be unbelievably manipulative and horrible. I still feel chary about the word “abuse”, which runs the risk of making the category so broad it loses definition – but this experience is real, and not unimportant.

There is always a drive in older generations to minimise the pain of younger ones, and I don’t get it, even though I do it. Second-wave feminists saying to the third wave: “Which bit about working motherhood are you complaining about? Try the 80s, when maternity leave was three weeks, which you also had to spend replastering the bathroom.” Survivors of the 90s interest-rate crisis saying: “You’re worried about 5%? Come back to me when you’ve weathered 16% and spent 10 years frozen in negative equity.” It makes no discursive sense, since “Who had it worse?” is a dead end and just generates resentment. But it makes emotional sense: empathising in a real way is quite hard work. It generates all these feelings such as impotence and sadness, and I hate those. It’s so much easier if you start from a baseline of: “Well, that is a young person, and they are flakier than us.” Sometimes you need someone to sing it to you before you remember.

• Zoe Williams is a Guardian columnist

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Zoe Williams

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