FEATURE1 February 2003

From why to Z


The revelation starts here. Andy Davidson provides youth researchers and marketers with a ten-step programme for understanding Generation Z.

Project Edge is an ongoing contextual trend monitor developed and run by Vegas. It uses a panel of cultural commentators and experts from the music, fashion, design and academic worlds, combined with a quarterly dedicated research project, to identify the real youth trends that marketers and advertisers need to be aware of. Outlined below are the ten key issues to have emerged from the research.

1. Fame culture
Fame culture has consumed popular culture as we know it. Today’s teens, identified as Generation Z, are no longer interested in the skills or the talents of the rich and famous. They are only interested in their personal lives, the parties they go to, the clothes they wear, and, importantly, how fat they look on the beach.

But why this huge emotional investment in celebrities and their personal lives? There are three key motivating factors.

Firstly, Generation Z is the richest generation in history, with more choice than ever before. Teens don’t buy what they need, they buy what they want. But despite limitless choice, there is relatively little true demand, so demand needs to be artificially created and sustained. This is where reality TV plays a valuable role, fostering in teens the belief that they can be famous and take the short cut to an easy life by winning the ‘lifestyle lottery’.

Secondly, in the absence of genuine communities, and exacerbated by teens’ increasingly mediated lifestyles, the cult of celebrity provides an exciting surrogate community, not to mention valuable common social currency.

Thirdly, as traditional sources of identity, such as nationality, gender and religion, come under increasing pressure, Generation Z finds itself in the midst of a disconcerting identity crisis. Celebrities fascinate today’s youth because they possess one of the most powerful things that Generation Z is denied: a fully defined character, a real identity in a sea of mock individuality. And youth want a piece of the action.

2. Streamlining
For many youths, our culture of choice is proving to be too much. In response, we are witnessing a substantial shift away from any of the ideological macro ideas of the wider world towards a focus on the minutiae of every day life.

Consider the explosion in choice offered by these developments: bandwidth-plenty media; a now potent and useful internet, offering a range of news stories and points of view from blogging to BBCi; digital archiving that proffers the whole history of youth culture to the present generation allowing them to mix and match as they see fit; file-sharing sites such as Kazaa and Limewire which enable a free flow of both popular and obscure data; and, finally, cheap intercontinental travel.

As a result, Generation Z tends to look for ways of managing existing choices, rather than searching for more choice. They strip away all the elements that don’t directly concern their daily lives – that is, politics, corporate accounting scandals and the behaviour of global corporations – and focus instead on those which they can to some degree influence, such as friends, family and reality TV.

Indeed, Generation Z often speaks fondly of “family”, although it is debatable whether this is the first signs of Generation X’s parenting skills or an era of fragmented families that makes them seem more precious. In fact, research reveals that the family and reality TV go together quite nicely. As an 18-year-old female from London says: “I don’t really spend that much time with my family, but me and my mum loved Pop Idol, it gave us something to chat about and something in common for a change. We both love Gareth!”

3. Dumbing
Too much choice is also having negative ramifications beyond the micro focus. If there is a lesson to be learned from contemporary youth culture, it is that you should never overestimate teenagers. Despite rocketing A-level results and access to more information than any previous generation, Generation Z is at the cutting edge of ignorance. Take it from a secondary school teacher: “The problem is that, thanks to the internet, [today’s school kids] think they know far more than they actually do. To make matters worse, because the information is so easy to get at and so transitory, they never really take in what they are looking at. They get the info, copy and paste it into their essay, and then forget it all.”

As air travel costs decrease each year, the average Generation Z-er should, by rights, be more worldly wise, more open minded, more culturally sensitive and more informed than previous age-groups. The problem is that, for the most part, their style of tourism is tantamount to cultural colonialism. From Full Moon Parties in Koh Phangan to Plastic Paddy Irish Pubs in Kuta, they rapidly turn everywhere they touch down into a bucket-and-spade-brigade-style extension of Magaluf.

Moreover, Attention Deficit Disorder is currently soaring amongst young males in the UK and US, as multi-channel cable TV, rapid jump-cut digital production technologies, soundbytes, and an ‘always on’ mobile phone culture engenders an impatient generation. These are people who get pissed off if they have to wait 20 seconds for a web page to download or bored with any activity that doesn’t deliver easy, exciting, colourful and instantaneous results. The teenage world is in acute danger of turning tabloid.

4. Extreme
It takes a lot to shock the Eminem and Korn generation, for whom driving around Miami in a Pontiac Firebird, running drugs and shooting prostitutes is all part and parcel of the average evening if you own Grand Theft Auto: Vice City on Playstation2. Nevertheless, the thirst for the extreme is still alive and well. Today’s kids download clips of bumfighting – where tramps are paid to fight each other or extract their teeth on camera – while young white-collar office workers attend Fight Club-style underground boxing competitions to see their boring work colleagues get knocked out.

Many youth commentators are tempted to attribute a myriad of changes in youth culture to 9/11, but this is largely erroneous. Generation Z doesn’t care about the war on terror. So what if the Twin Towers were knocked down? They saw the White House blow up in Independence Day: both were on TV, what’s the difference? They haven’t seen cinematic special effects evolve as Generation X did.

Following the recent shootings in Birmingham, police chiefs and politicians are just waking up to the fact that guns and crack have superseded mobile phones and cannabis as the ultimate fashion accessory for urban youths.

5. Nu traditionalism
Symptomatic of Generation Z’s identity crisis, Nu traditionalism is the phenomenon of youths rekindling and celebrating the traditions and institutions that Generation X decimated. One example, imported from the US, is the Straight Edgers, a group that abstains from drinking and drugs and promiscuous sex. Then there are Soul Survivors, who are re-engineering religion to make it relevant to contemporary life by organising brand fasts and holding their church in pubs or virtually on the net. Similarly, MTV’s Jackass, for example, is a celebration of classic maleness following the feminisation of masculinity in recent years.

During the World Cup, Tesco alone sold over one million St George’s Cross flags. Never mind that most English people couldn’t tell you who St George was or why he is the patron saint. It doesn’t matter. People just want to belong – and all the better to belong to an old and established institution.

In Asian communities such as Southall in London, this is even more pronounced. Youths are backlashing against the confusion produced by their parents’ liberal and integrated approach. In an attempt to establish their own concrete sense of identity, it is the youths who celebrate their religious holidays or the victories of the Asian national teams with more vigour than ever before.

6. Nu rebellion
“There’s nothing left to rebel against.” It is a classic criticism levelled at contemporary youth, yet it is irrelevant for Generation Z. Rebellion in its traditional sense is an outmoded concept for a generation growing up in the youthful and permissive culture engineered by its predecessors. Today’s generation is realistic about the power of its influence beyond the bedroom door.

Essentially, they see two choices: fight a different (micro) battle or, conversely, become ultra extreme.

True to microcosmic form, Generation Z are rebelling in their own way right now in the classrooms. What low-paid “nobody” teacher can correct a pupil’s spelling of “Dirrty”, when millionaire pop goddess Christina Aguilera insists it is spelled that way? With a raft of lexicon-defying titles, such as Snoop Dogg’s “From Tha Chuuurch To Da Palace” or Avril Lavigne’s “SK8er Boi”, you could be mistaken for presuming that contemporary pop acts have launched an all-out assault on the Oxford English Dictionary.

But against safe and manufactured music comes Nu Metal and carcass-sniffing Slipknot. Against nanny state culture comes the rise of extreme sports and illegal Max Power-style street racing. Against “one model fits all” globalisation come anti-capitalists and Far Right extremists. Against an “anything goes” culture come Straight Edgers.

7. Tribal passions
In recent years there has been much talk about the death of tribes and the dominance of individuality as a driver of youth culture. Whilst it is of course important to recognise the power of the search for individuality, it is today largely superseded by the search for identity and belonging. To this end, we now see a plethora of tribes not merely existing but positively thriving in the youth landscape.

Be they Boy Racers, Skaters, Nu Metalists (or, as they prefer to call themselves, Punks), Garagistas, or Hoxtonians, they are all formed through shared attitudes, values, skills, philosophies, or interests (especially music). Tribes offer individuals a way of expressing themselves, of being seen as different from the mainstream, yet simultaneously offering the chance of creating and belonging to their own sub-cultural group.

In the past, tribes such as Punks and Mods have been mass movements driven by rebellion against a political issue or against mainstream, quite exclusive, groups. Today, there are more tribes than ever, but the majority tend to be more transient and consumer-led. Kids can buy a look, an identity and an attitude.

8. Feminine kicks
The battle of the sexes is over for Generation Z. Females no longer feel the pressure of keeping up the fight against the male, with many expressing boredom at ad land’s continued obsession with uninspired and incessant male bashing.

Traditionally, in order to succeed in a male-designed context, women had to harden themselves, adopting the armour of more masculine traits. Tired of playing the game in somebody else’s shoes, and living a bit of a lie, women are now keen to recapture the core of their identity, their femininity. No longer will they be defined by what they are not. Rather, they will hold up the mirror and use themselves as their own frame of reference.

To this end, young women will increasingly seek unadulterated moments of femininity, places where they can find space to learn what it is to be a woman again. Moments that have until now only been enjoyed by the more wealthy. Experiences such as The Sanctuary or Space NK make-up lounges will become more popular and accessible to all. We are already witnessing the confident re-birth in the alcohol market of feminine brands once perceived to be ‘naff’, ‘out of date’ and ‘girly’.

In the not-too-distant future, a girl choosing to dedicate a proportion of her life to having children will not be seen as weak or to be pursuing the easy option. Rather, she will be perceived as being true to one of her unique gifts: motherhood. Indeed, the current raft of celebrity pregnancies are rapidly catalysing this trend.

9. Masculine celebration
Just as females have added delicate high heels to the shell-toe trainers in their shoe collection, the contemporary male is starting to feel confident in celebrating all the facets of his new identity. We are on the cusp of a macho renaissance in which male qualities will once again be viewed as aspirational, a trend which Yorkie, perhaps slightly pre-emptively, attempted to tap into with the “It’s not for girls” campaign.

In a ‘female’ millennium, masculinity and its associated aggression, physical strength, detachment of emotion and sense of black and white certainty was at odds with the fluid, fast moving and fragmented world in which we were living. In the workplace, the emphasis was on soft skills such as communication and networking. Today, thanks to computers and e-mail, everybody is a secretary and the office is a typing pool.

Men evolved to cope but nobody seemed to notice. In terms of sensitivity, men have proved the ability and the confidence to communicate their emotions like never before. Announcing the break-up of a relationship to his mates would traditionally have earned a bloke a jeering slap on the back and a huge excuse for a hedonistic piss-up. Today, there is a genuinely heartfelt concern for friends’ emotions and mental well-being. With good reason, too: suicide is now the second biggest killer of young UK males.

Point proven, then. Macho man is set for a comeback: Jackass, extreme sports and celebrity boxing are paving the way for the toughened but well-rounded men that girls want to see.

10. Hedonism
Hedonism has long been the watchword of youth research, but there is currently confusion over how hedonistic Generation Z really is. This stems from the fact that, like rebellion, hedonism is an outmoded concept in a society that views good times and doing what you love as a right, not a treat to feel guilty about.

It has been argued that today’s teenagers are a conservative bunch, under pressure, who have little time for hedonism. Proponents of this theory cite the intense, continual assessment under an educational regime which sees contemporary teens face important exams at the end of each year for five straight years before attending university. They also note that the choice of school subject has moved from ‘lightweight’ arty subjects such as media studies towards business studies and economics.

In truth, however, this emphasis on serious subjects is really founded on Generation Z’s micro focus. They are not studying for philanthropic purposes or to grow as people. They just want to make as much money as possible.

Society is fun and entertainment-focused, from cars to home entertainment systems. You can even purchase a potato peeler that reflects your ‘crazy’ personality. While it is true that youths may be under pressure, it is a self-inflicted pressure that can be turned off without guilt. Partying is viewed as a right and, while getting that qualification is important, so is getting as drunk as possible every weekend.

Andy Davidson is head of Project Edge at Vegas

February | 2003

1 Comment

12 years ago

This has great insights, thank you. The date is 2003, how are you defining gen z? What year range were they born? Thanks again. Michele

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