I’m writing this column from New York City where I’ve just attended a conference on Generation Z, the youth group – currently age 17 and under – that follows on from Generation Y (aka the Millennials) who falls between the ages of 18 and 34. On my radar is a subtle but significant shift from the preoccupation of companies tracking the behavioural patterns of Millennials as consumers, to a growing interest in Generation Z as the next consumer force, but perhaps more importantly, as a new social force.
The differences between the two groups are nuanced but also startling insomuch as they provide a perspective on a world that we expect this adolescent age group to inhabit and lead. If the beauty queen mantra has always been, “for the children, because they are our future”, then we’ve done a dismally bad job of paving the way to a rosy future for them.
The Generation Z-focused conference hosted by (New York based trend company) The Cassandra Sessions claims that while Generation Z is smaller in numbers than the Millennials, there is evidence to suggest that their influence, fueled by an innate and constant connection to the world around them, will outstrip their size. These are today’s true digital natives, who have no point of reference of a world without the Internet, Smartphones and Social Media. But the most interesting thing about this generation is not their seamless integration with technology, but rather how the current social, political and economic status quo has affected their outlook on life, and it’s pretty disturbing.
Whereas the Millennials were generally optimistic, Generation Z is realistic, and this realism can be attributed to an early loss of innocence. The Cassandra research found that 43% of American 7- to 13-year-olds feels that school violence/shootings will have the biggest impact on their generation, overriding the invention of social networking and the election of the first Black President. Add to that, concerns about climate change, terrorism, unemployment and getting into debt (all of which they are witnessing at an impressionable age) and you get the somewhat bleak picture that frames their outlook. However, this perspective is making them resilient and pragmatic. Rather than hide from their problems, they want to understand and confront them.
Coincidently, a few days before the Cassandra Sessions conference, another report on this generation was launched at The Women in the World Summit, also in New York. Noreena Hertz, co-founder and CEO of Generation K and honorary professor at University College London, conducted the research paper, and instead of referring to this generation as Generation Z, she calls them Generation K – in reference to Katniss Everdeen, heroine of The Hunger Games, the young adult novel series (and now movies) set in a dystopian world.
Her findings are similar to that of the Cassandra research but I somehow prefer her reference to Katniss Everdeen and The Hunger Games. It’s far more visceral.
Hertz compares the two groups by seeing the Millennials more as the “Yes we can” generation, growing up believing the world was their oyster. However, for Generation K she observes that “the world is less oyster and more Hobbesian nightmare. Al-Qaeda and Isis have been piped into their smartphones and they have witnessed their parents lose their jobs. They are a group for whom there are disturbing echoes of the dystopian landscape Katniss encounters in The Hunger Games’s District 12. Unequal, violent, hard.”
Hertz’s findings are fascinating. She interviewed 1000 American and British teenage girls and found that their fears were about existential threats and not your usual teenage anxieties. 75% per cent of the girls I worried about terrorism; 66% worried about climate change; 50% worry about Iran. They also worry inordinately about their own futures. 86% are worried about getting a job and 77% about getting into debt.
Hertz’s three word summary of Generation K’s world – Unequal, violent, hard. – reminded me of the open letter to South Africans written by the 11-year-old Zimbabwean girl from Sacred Heart primary school, in the wake of the xenophobic attacks that not only shamed South Africans, but shocked the rest of the world.
In her letter she wrote, “I am afraid and don’t feel free…the problem is I can’t relax because I don’t know when I, or my family, will be recognised. I also don’t understand what my family has done wrong. I am scared that one day, I and my fellow kwerekweres will be beaten to death or doused with petrol and burnt alive for being kwerekweres.”
Her world is indeed, Unequal, violent, hard.
Most of the research and insights on Generation Y has always been skewed towards developed world Millennials, but I’m beginning to suspect that the overarching fears and concerns that drive and shape the characteristics of Generation Z, bridge the divide between adolescents in both the developing as well as developed world.
The world of Generation K echoes the vast number of traumatised adolescents in South African, and it’s a trend that’s proving to be unsettling.
By: Dion Chang
Image credit: AzurBlueDragon