“We defy anyone who goes about with his eyes open to deny that there is, as never before, an attitude on the part of young folk, which is best described as grossly thoughtless, rude, and utterly selfish.”
Other than what might seems a slightly outdated turn of phrase, this quote might appear completely contemporary. So too, in its description of young people, this one: “They think they know everything, and are always quite sure about it.”
In fact, the first one comes from the esteemed Hull Daily Mail in 1925, and the second from a little earlier – 4th Century BC, to be semi-precise, from that toga-clad Aristotle bloke. In fact, when it comes to older generations belittling, fuming over, and generally misunderstanding “young folk”, there is no shortage of quotes. The above, or some variation of them, are frequently applied to Millennials, whose phone-attached, born-to-earn-high-salary, avocado-smashing lifestyle infuriates those a generation above them. But as they mature into something we recognise as easier to understand citizens (mortgages, careers, kids, etc), attention turns to the next target: Gen Z.
Brands, and their constituent advertising and media agencies, are forever fixating on youth, and for several important reasons. They offer new markets to sell stuff to; markets that, should we be able to secure their dollars, will offer a shot at the mythical ‘lifetime loyalty’. They are, generally, easier to persuade. Or at least we think they are. And they carry financial resources which, whilst often not vast, are unencumbered by the vampire squids of mortgage, kids, insurance, and so on.
But, most importantly, and most vexingly, they steer popular culture. They say what is in or out, cool or junk, hot or not. And they arrive at these decisions via journeys that are mostly impossible for older generations to grasp. They own the music, the movies, the platforms, the energy, and often the language. It is utterly incumbent on them to separate themselves from those that came before, even if they don’t consciously know it. Individual creativity has been disproven to be the exclusive preserve of the young, but the collective creative energy that emerges from young people delivers cultural shifts that impact all of society. Tap into that as a brand, and you are golden.
Studying young people is its own cottage industry. Google ‘Understanding Gen Z’ and you will be confronted with 227,000,000 results. (How many of them are penned by people within that generation would likely fit on the first page of results, but whatever). These include books, articles, podcasts, infographics, and whatever other new-fangled way to communicate there is these days. The point here is that there is a huge amount of time and energy devoted to trying to understand the younger generation.
That, should we forget for a moment it is usually done to help us extract money from them, marks a positive shift. Rather than dismissing them as lazy, self-obsessed or naïve, there is legitimate research into trying to understand what the world means to young people, and how they view their place within it. But has all that much really changed? At a fundamental level, pandemic not-withstanding, the same challenges and triumphs await young people as they did earlier generations. Falling in love and getting hurt, winning and losing friends, experiencing music and alcohol and drugs, the stresses of completing a school year and starting a job; looking good, feeling confident, being accepted. The only thing that really changes generation to generation is the world in which these things exist.
We hear a lot about Gen Z being more “entrepreneurial”, as though we didn’t all have friends that had somehow found ways to make more bank than the rest of us – through multiple paper rounds, or re-selling bikes, or whatever. There have forever been kids who understand market forces, both legal and otherwise. But the access to digital tools and marketplaces offer more of those entrepreneurial urges an outlet.
Young people today, we are told, feel they can make the world a better place, through inclusion and diversity and environmentally sound decisions, but this is little different to my own experience as a Gen X youngster, for whom changing the world seemed genuinely possible. It was no different for my parents’ generation in the 60s and 70s, a generation for whom ‘free love’ and ‘flower power’ were movements devoted to systemic change.
An attitude to work has dogged Gen Ys for a decade, a belief that they are, in turn, lazy, or expecting to walk into great roles regardless of experience, or ruthlessly focused on career and promotion. Yet, in 1995 The Financial Times, had this to say about their Gen X parents: “The traditional yearning for a benevolent employer who can provide a job for life also seems to be on the wane… They want to avoid ‘low-level jobs that aren’t keeping them intellectually challenged.” Sound familiar?
What really marks the differences between the generations is technology and access to it. Baby Boomers were the first of the young generation to be able to get their own cars. This meant liberation both emotionally and physically from the family unit, to disappear with partners and friends to weekends. Or to be able to maintain relationships in suburbs more than just a few suburbs away. Similarly, access to contraception is often cited as a revolution in sexual activity, precluding young pregnancies and, by extension, ushering in a rising age of marriages.
Gen X got MTV, a totally new way to experience music, one which changed the industry and those of us experiencing it. Youth culture suddenly had a financial value. Video cassettes allowed us to watch “content” (not a term with any meaning until around 30 years later) we wanted together with friends when we wanted to. We moved from Space Invaders and Galaga in pinball arcades to Sega Mastersystems and Nintendos at home with friends. And increased access to plane travel allowed some of us to disappear to Europe and SE Asia for months with little more than a backpack and a Lonely Planet book. Yes, a book.
Gen Y got true internet capabilities and smartphones, offering digital connection across everything from social media, video consumption and online dating. It is impossible to describe that generation without recognising the impact of the digital realm which evolved alongside them and with their direct input.
Today, it is a different kind of technology that steers youth culture. Digital platforms connect young people and birth cultural trends with a speed unimaginable a generation ago. Gen Z is likely no more creative than those than came before it, but its members have been handed the tools to create quickly and easily, and to share it at scale. Ideas can reach critical mass more swiftly but are also swept aside more easily as a new trend arises.
This understanding of technology (digital nativity, as we like to label it) brings with it significant value to the workplace. But also, casualties. In media and advertising, it is easy to look like a lumbering dinosaur overnight, as those who have a natural grasp of TikTok are crowned critical to growth. Facebook wrought the same damage on “traditional” media buyers a decade ago. An understanding of tech platforms has never been so urgent for those in the communications industry, but increasingly it is young people who hold the keys to that city.
Brands are too often mired in 20th century thinking, an approach that worked for previous generations and the media platforms they used, and the reporting frameworks that underpin them. Whist not redundant, they cannot penetrate younger cohorts who, thanks to technological changes, consume media very differently. Not exactly a revelation. But in this sense, it is the channels that matter more than the sociological idiosyncrasies of a particular generation.
Where one might look at younger people today and point to a different could arguably found in the space of inclusion, that they have created a space that is more welcoming and tolerant of differences from gender fluidity to sexual preference. Though, broadly speaking, young people have always been more open to varied ways of living than their parents. Additionally, this acceptance is encouraged across the board – from entertainment to schools the boardroom. It is not the exclusive preserve of the young. Finally, it is debatable as to whether any generation would have come to accept today’s diversity and inclusion without a global internet that gave previously isolated individuals large support networks and the ability to share experiences.
Attitudes towards the young says more about the older cohorts doing the judging. There is little in the way of inherent difference between kids today and those three or four generations back. Understanding young people is about recognising the world in which they live and how it differs technologically to the generation that preceded it. Without that, all we can focus on is the differences themselves. And that just makes you feel old and out of the loop. And no matter how ancient you are, nobody wants that. It’s cheugy.
Tyler Greer, head of strategy, MediaCom Melbourne