Monday, 30 July 2012



Generational commentary is usually something of a doomed concept, due in part to the underlying sense of sibling rivalry that is inevitably born out of one generation (usually an older one) attempting to pass comment on a younger one. In order to sidestep such issues we came up with a deceptively simple solution; we asked Generation Z to define themselves...

Everyone knows their ABC right? As MJ (RIP) already done told you, it’s as easy as 1-2-3, Do-re-mi.

How about your XYZ though? What y’all know about that? We’re talking about a whole lot more about which letters will notch up high scores on Words With Friends here too. What we’re talking about Generations. Generation X, Generation Y and Generation Z - our past, present and cultural future.
Had he stuck around a little bit longer MJ would undoubtedly have been one of the first to let you know that right now a young new generation are on the rise. Yes ladies and gentlemen, let it be known: Generation Z (aka the future of popular culture) are on their way, and they’re bringing with them a whole new set of dreams, values and ideals. They might be the new kids on the block but if you’re expecting a wave of brattish upstarts you may be surprised...

In partnership with the Habbo website, we recently surveyed 3,400 UK based members of Generation Z on a range of issues, from multiculturalism to education and drug legislation. The feedback we received makes for compelling and, at times, shocking reading, suggesting that Gen Z look likely to mark a significant break from any other generation in recent memory.
Forget post millennial narcissim, celebrity culture, rebellion, and ethos of ‘Me Me Me’ that has come to define recent turnings of the generational wheel. For Generation Z these things are all very much ‘out’. 

In their place we find the core values of family, job security, technology, big brands and the environment. On the surface these beliefs might seem surprisingly conservative, but look a little more closely and it soon becomes clear that these are attitudes rife with the sort of contradictions that reflect the complex world Gen Z has been born into. Raised in an age characterised by technology and terror they embrace global friendships while expressing concern over domestic multiculturalism. They’re environmentally conscious but pessimistic, committed to environmental causes but ultimately resigned to the fact that their efforts might ultimately be futile. They believe the rich should pay more taxes but don’t think they themselves should have to pay for music.
Some of the key characteristics gathered in our survey indicate that:

-         Out of those surveyed more believe the UK is ‘too multicultural’ than those who believe it is ‘not multicultural enough’.

-         Over a quarter say they have more than 51 friends, either online or ‘in real life’ that live outside the UK.  Approximately two thirds don’t believe they should have to pay to own music.

-         A larger portion of those surveyed believe the skills they learn using the internet at home are more valuable than within those which are taught at school.

-         The amount who believe the rich don’t pay enough tax is 50% greater than those who believe they are paying just enough, and just under double that of those who believe they are paying too much.

-         More would rather wear the products of mass produced corporate brands than more unique ‘indie’ brands. 

So, with all that in mind, who is it that makes up this apparently ubiquitous ‘Generation Z’? Generations are formed based on common experiences, periods in history where people share fundamentally similar attitudes and belief systems. In the case of ‘Generation Z’ this refers to those born between the mid nineties and the present day. On a historical timeline of other significant recent ‘generations’ Generation Z follows Generation X (the generation of their parents), which is made up of those born between the early 60’s and 1976, and, more recently, Generation Y, who were born between the late 70’s and the mid nineties. It’s important to note that these generational brackets apply almost exclusively to western societies such as the US and UK who are the principle producers and consumers of that which can readily defined as being ‘popular culture’.  It is the attitudes and trends towards ‘popular culture’ from those which exist within it, as well as those which shift, change and react against it, that are key to defining a particular generation. In order to understand the significance of some of the results of our survey, and pinpoint exactly why Generation Z will mark such a significant change, it’s important to explore and the characteristics of the two generations which preceded it in order to understand why they are so different...

The term Generation X was popularised by the author Douglas Coupland in his 1991novel of the same name. The book itself follows the lives of 3 twenty somethings who are, to quote the book "Unsure of their futures, (so) they immerse themselves in a regime of heavy drinking and working at McJobs... Underemployed, overeducated, intensely private and unpredictable, they have nowhere to direct their anger, no one to assuage their fears, and no culture to replace their anomie..."

Generation X are the children of the ‘boomer’ generation, whose birth periods range between the mid 40’s and 1960. The first wave of the boomers became hippies, the second wave, punks. The economic security which was afforded to the the boomer generation offered them sufficient financial comfort to ‘turn on, tune in and drop out’, indulging themselves in idealism, spirituality and personal growth. While their boomer parents came of age in an era of counterculturalism and free love, Generation X grew up in a very different world, principally one rocked by AIDS, the stockmarket crash and the of overblown economic excesses of ‘yuppie culture’.

Disenchanted and disenfranchised by their heritage, a key characteristic of the ‘X’ generation is their dislike and distrust of the corporate world, and the sceptical cynicism with which they regard its related elements such as advertising. While in the long term their rejection of corporate culture ultimately fostered a spirit of self starting entrepreneurialism that fuelled the internet boom and the founding of online Gen X brands such as Google, Myspace, Facebook etc, it initially caused them to be labelled as ‘slackers’ i.e. wasters. Icons of the era include Kurt Cobain, Courtney Love, MTV, Wayne’s World, and Quentin Tarantino, the prevalent attitude being one of post-modern irony and political apathy –between the ages of 18 and 24 less than a third of Gen X turned out to vote.

These characteristics bare stark contrast to those of Generation Z, who have no such concerns with issues such as advertising. In fact they actually embrace it and actively seek it out - in another recent survey conducted by Habbo 82% said they enjoyed advertising and almost half said it improved their experience with any given product. Perhaps in part due to this receptiveness towards  advertising, their attitudes towards capitalist mass production and corporate structures also differ greatly to those of Generation X. If Naomi Klines seminal anti capitalist tome ‘No Logo’ defined the Gen X attitude towards corporate branding then the Generation Z spirit is very much one of  ’Yes Logo’, with favour for mass produced brands ebbing out more exclusive independent ones by 10% as indicated in our survey findings. Similarly Generation Z have no issue working for ‘the man’, instead their desire to hold down a steady job within a larger company repeatedly features highly on their list of priorities whenever they are surveyed. Thanks to image of brands such as Apple and Google the technology industry offers the most desired career path for Generation Z, featuring ahead of other occupations such as graphic designer, musician, fashion designer and doctor according to research conducted by the Australian Computer Society.

With regards to the environment, Generation X’s attitude was (perhaps surprisingly given all their anti capitalist rhetoric) essentially pragmatic; in a famous review of Generation X conducted by TIME magazine entitled ‘Great Xpectations of So-Called Slackers’ only a third of those surveyed believed that ‘all products that pollute the environment should be banned’. With this in mind some of the results of our own survey are perhaps rather surprising, as 68 % of the supposedly environmentally conscious Generation Z claim their Gen X parents have left the world ‘in the same/ better state’ than they found it.

Of course the timespan that exists between the two generations means that some of their biggest cultural differences between them are rooted in technology. While Generation X certainly made up a significant proportion of the first wave of modern internet users, online technology has advanced tenfold since its global inception. The question of whether or not we should pay for music may well be a fundamentally ethical one, but it is unlikely that a generation to whom downloading a song originally meant leaving your computer on all night for the next few days has the capacity to entertain the notion of downloading music for ‘free’ in quite the same way as their Torrent happy Gen Z counterparts. 

This notion also runs through our statistics relating to education and friendship. During the formative years of Generation X the technology was simply never in place to allow for the ease of access to information that has led to greater numbers of those surveyed claiming they learn more at home on the net than in the classroom at school, or for a quarter to be able to claim to have over 51 friends that live outside the UK.

In terms of youth culture aesthetics in the UK we’ve been spiritually stuck in the eighties since, well...the eighties. Inevitably new trends come go, but the era of bright colours, big haired outrageousness and club kid kitsch has formed an archetype whose lineage, both over and underground, is traceable from Madonna and Sheena Easton to Girls Aloud and Lady Gaga. When we look back at photo’s of young people from say, the seventies or sixties they appear suitably different as to suggest they may well be of a different universe altogether, but if you take a close enough look at those from 1982 onwards we simply see in them a more (or, in some cases, less) garish version of our own culture reflected back. In this regard Generation X and Generation Y share something of a natural kinship. Generation X are simply the world weary, cynical elder brothers to a Generation Y whose spirit is best defined by their flippant appropriation of their siblings primitive web technology to fuel their own ethos of self celebration. 

However while Generations X and Y might share a traceable spiritual thread, Y and Z are from a different gene pool altogether.
Generation Y, often referred to as ‘millenials’ due to the era in which they came of age, are effectively still the generation of ‘now’, though their curtain is slowly drawing to close. Bloated on the, until recently, relative financial stability afforded to them by their prosperous parents they are typically assertive, self focused and rebellious. High on their list of interests are the myriad manifestations of celebrity culture, from soap and popstars to internet and scene celebs. As a result of this fame and fortune inevitably feature highly on their list of priorities, though most of those that harbour such ambition lack, thanks in part to the mirage of ‘easy fame’ counjured up by today’s reality TV, the commitment and work ethic needed to make such goals a realistic proposition. In fact ‘work’ as a general concept falls low on the Generation Y list of concerns, and they typically take more of an interest in being defined by who they are than by what they do. To many work is simply a means to an end, an end that usually revolves around funding their external interests/creative endeavours or perhaps most importantly, their social lives, the excesses of which have seen them branded as being responsible for our so-called ‘binge culture’.

There is a deep sense of tribalism underpinning Generation Y, particularly with regards to the on line and ‘in real life’ politics of the high street and beyond, as it is this era that popularised terms such as ‘chav’ and ‘emo’. However for all their sub cultural divisions they are a principally liberal breed who fiercely oppose any kind of racism or discriminatory practice. Many of Generation Y grew up outside the worst periods of the East/ West ‘cold war’, The Falklands and the most intense periods of domestic IRA activity, though many bore witness to news coverage of the destruction of the Berlin wall and the unification of Germany. Generation Z on the other hand have been born into a world characterised by Terrorism, September 11th, Afghanistan, the London bombings and the disastrous second war on Iraq. Being permanently tuned into a media that serves as a relentless reminder to the apparently ceaseless  ‘threat of terrorism’ both domestically and abroad may account for what initially seems a surprisingly high figure 24% of Generation Z in our survey who are concerned the UK is ‘too multi cultural’, a statistic that will likely sit uneasily with their Generation Y counterparts. It could also be argued that the intense mainstream media coverage of PR-driven American Politics accounts for Generation Z’s majority belief (in  our survey) that in the future the U.S will be more powerful than China, despite the 2 countries following a line of economic fortune that would suggest quite the opposite. It’s simply a question of exposure. 

Other key differences in generational characteristics between Y and Z can be found in Generation Z’s rejection of rebellion in favour of ‘family values’ (in another Habbo survey taken earlier this year only 5% of Generation Z said they would gravitate towards behavioural tribes that are rebellious for their own sake) as well as their ambivalence towards ‘entertaining the notion of ‘celebrity’ as a valid or aspirant career choice. Their aforementioned approach to work and their desire to gain stable employment within a single job opposes Generation Y’s ‘work to live’ ethos of jobbing journeymen/women. According to head Jeff Brookes ‘Unlike the career gypsies in Generation Y, Gen Z don't necessarily want to have up to ten career changes in their lifetime’.

While both generations are able to utilise to the perks of modern communication technology such as mobile phones and high speed internet connections in their own age, Generation Y’s access to such equipment has taken place on a steady evolutionary curve on a timeline that begins with the home computer and ends with the I-Phone. Generation Z on the other hand have been born into a technological world that is not in its infancy but rather has already grown up, where access to ‘adult’ technology will be accessible to them from an extremely young age. The direct impact of this is that the concept of ‘childhood’ for Generation Z will inevitably be significantly shorter than any previous generation. Born with a readymade adaptability to a technologically in an accelerated culture that places much emphasis on notions of ‘newness’ also means that a far higher rate of Generation Z will fall into the ‘early adopters’ (i.e. the trendsetters who have new things before anyone else) category for marketers and in doing so will render the term obsolete. Yet while technology will undoubtedly play a huge part in shaping and defining Generation Z it will be something of a non issue to those who exist within it. As writers are rarely prone to pondering the inner mechanics of pens, Generation Z will not give a second thought to the apparent ‘marvels’ of technology they have available at their fingertips, it will simply be a fact of life.

Our survey statistics give significant support to those theorised by perhaps the most eminent of modern generational theorists William Strauss and Neil Howe, whose forward thinking books on generational shifts read retrospectively like the cultural equivalent of Nostradamus. Strauss and Howe theorise that Generation Z will come to be known as ‘The New Silent Generation’ due to the similarities they suggest they will share with the original ‘silent generation’ made up of those born between the mid twenties and the mid forties. The term ‘Silent Generation’ was originally coined in a 1951 that featured in a TIME magazine article that referred to the coming of age of the generation of the time. The picture painted by the article of a generation possessing confused morals and conventional values, who expected disappointment and held a fatalistic view of the future. Generation Z might not be quite as gloomy as this lot, but there is undeniably ample evidence in our findings to suggest some of these traits will be also be typical to Generation Z. You need look no further than the tension between our statistics on domestic multiculturalism and global friendships, their altruistic yet resigned attitude towards the environment and the fact only 33% of them believe their future will be better than our present to see this. The perceived ‘silence’ of both generations comes from their quiet, hard working approach towards advancing their careers in stable employment environments, which will only be amplified for Generation Z due to the fact that most of their communication/work/education/general cultural and retail consumption will inevitably take place online. 

Don’t write off Gen Z as a bunch of stuffy introverts though. The fact that they’re not so desperate to pursue the kind of quick-fix fame immortalised in tabloid papers and gossip mags by singing Robbie Williams songs on TV in simply means they have less to prove. Their creativity will simply be played out through different channels to those that have come before them, with the internet and technology industries being their preferred platforms for self expression. With more access to information resources and a spirit for self learning they will be smarter than any generation that has come before them and will likely redefine the concept of conventional education. Their capacity to fluidly absorb pop culture without any trace of irony, as well as their unapologetic reticence towards defining themselves as being part of any predetermined tribal groups, means they will be able successfully assimilate and ultimately transcend notions of post-modernism and create a world that is distinctively their own and no one else’s. The revolution is coming, it’s just that it’s going to be quieter than you might have expected. As for the rest? Well I guess only time will tell...

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