Generation Z: politicised by necessity and already changing the world
What were you doing in the year 2000? The graduating students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida were not watching Ian Thorpe and Cathy Freeman at the Sydney Olympics. They were busy being born. In February this year, they saw 17 of their peers and teachers shot and killed on school grounds with a legally acquired semi-automatic rifle. In March, they organised an international protest, March for Our Lives, in which more than 1.2 million people took to the streets advocating for sensible gun laws; lately, they've been receiving admissions information from universities about where they're going next, and, hopefully, passing their driving tests.
You've probably seen some of the students speak, and been amazed along with the rest of the world by their eloquence in grief. At the Washington DC march, framed by the outline of the Capitol building, year 12 student David Hogg called on fellow first-time voters to turn out for the mid-term elections this November, and warned politicians funded by the National Rifle Association to "get your resumés ready". Three weeks later, Hogg turned 18. On Twitter that day, sandwiched between messages urging Congress to vote on universal background checks, he posted a photo with the caption, "First look of me as an adult." Hogg is wearing a pair of sunglasses upside down; a friend holds up two balloons.
Hogg has already done what former US presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and millions of dollars could not. He has found a way to effectively combat the vitriol of an increasingly extremist American right wing.
When Fox News host Laura Ingraham jeered at Hogg on Twitter for not getting into his first choice of university courses, he replied with a list of Ingraham's top advertisers, calling on his followers to contact them. Johnson & Johnson, Expedia, Nestlé and at least 21 other advertisers have since pulled commercials.
Ingraham then took a week off, which Fox said was pre-planned. Perhaps most extraordinarily of all, she apologised for "any upset or hurt my tweet caused [Hogg] or any of the brave victims of Parkland". Political discourse in the US has reached lows not seen since, well, the country went to war with itself, so a Fox News host held accountable for basic levels of civility is a very big deal.
Yet it's selling the Parkland students short to suggest that their success is merely rhetorical. Their real-life achievements are already massive, beginning with a discernable shift in public opinion. Support for the NRA is down to 37 per cent, according to a recent Wall Street Journal/NBC poll. Incredibly, this is the first time since 2000 that the organisation has been viewed more negatively than positively. Support for gun regulations – 68 per cent in a Politico survey – is also at an all-time high.
There are even signs of progress politically. Florida, a bastion of soft gun policies, has passed a bill that bans bump stocks (attachments that enable semi-automatic rifles to fire faster), imposes a waiting period before purchase, raises the minimum age to buy a weapon from 18 to 21 and allows the police to take guns from the mentally disturbed. What's more, the state's Republican governor Rick Scott signed it.
In addition to calling for specific changes, the Parkland students have reframed a debate which many believed was irrevocably stymied after the Newtown massacre in 2012, when 20 six- and seven-year-olds were killed in their Connecticut classroom with a semi-automatic rifle. "They took the mantle of 'personal protection' from the gun lobby, while reframing the larger gun debate along generational lines," wrote Charlotte Alter in a March Time cover story titled, "The School Shooting Generation Has Had Enough." Kris Brown, co-president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, said in the same story, "What's different here is that the children who are impacted are older. They are able to give voice in a way that could not happen before."
It was Emma González, at her speech in Fort Lauderdale in February, who articulated the indisputable sense that a great generation is rising. "Maybe the adults have gotten used to saying, 'It is what it is,' " she said. "It's time to start doing something. We're going to be the kids you read about in the textbooks."
Emma González, in yellow, with fellow Parkland student activists, from left: Alex Wind, Cameron Kasky, Jaclyn Corin and David Hogg, at a New York gala celebrating Time magazine's 100 most influential people in the world last Tuesday.
The Parkland kids are among the first leaders of Generation Z. Its members are born from 1997 on, according to the Pew Research Centre, the pre-eminent American think tank on social demographics, which recently released a report on the group it prefers to call "post-Millennials". There are 60 million of them in the US. They outnumber Gen Y, or Millennials (1981-96), by nearly one million, and were raised by Generation X (1965-80), rather than Baby Boomers (1946-64).
Why think in terms of generations at all? Because some of these young people are already succeeding at bringing about change where Millennials did not. "Generations are a lens through which to understand societal change" is how the Pew Report puts it. Is it possible that the particular social, political, economic and technological context in which the Parkland students and others grew up helped create a particularly fertile environment for political action?
Morley Winograd, a researcher at the University of Southern California, thinks so. In The Washington Post recently, Winograd contrasted the response at Parkland with what is regarded as the original school shooting, at Colorado's Columbine High in 1999. "[Millennials] endured backpack examinations and metal detectors as they entered school. Here comes the generation that says, 'Okay, we got all that, we're used to living in the same world as you are, but we're not satisfied with that.'"
Winograd argues that post-Millennials already show signs they are an adaptive generation. "When adaptive groups come of age, they take the problems that were brought to light by their predecessors and try to work them out." Millennials were a disruptive generation: think of Facebook, Snapchat, and all the other startups which have, in the course of ostensibly improving our daily lives, caused upheaval and havoc. Gen Z, Winograd writes, is here to fix things.
Another difference between the two adjacent generations could be their level of engagement with traditional politics. Although Millennials in the US are now as large a political force as Baby Boomers, with both making up roughly 31 per cent of the electorate, in the 2012 and 2016 elections 18- to 29-year-olds made up just 20 per cent of voters. That's half the share of the Baby Boomer bloc, and the lowest voter turnout of any age group. The Parkland student leaders, meanwhile, have stated their main goal is to register as many teenagers as they can before November's mid-term elections.
My generation was shaped by change and uncertainty. I do not have much memory of a sustained time of stability…We take nothing for granted.
Yet it's early days; even a definitive name for this generation is elusive. A recent New York Times article solicited suggestions from the public, with many revolving around this group's connectivity. Social psychologist Jean Twenge, for instance, coined iGen. Nods to Gen Zers' nascent political activism included Generation Fix-It and The Cleaner-Uppers. The Times's favourite was the Delta Generation. Kelsy Hillesheim, a 22-year-old from New York, wrote: "Delta is used to denote change and uncertainty in mathematics and the sciences, and my generation was shaped by change and uncertainty. I do not have much memory of a sustained time of stability… We take nothing for granted."
This is one thing we can say with confidence about American Gen Zers: they have had their eyes open from the beginning. Consider that while Millennials grew up in the booming 1990s, they came of age around 2001, coinciding with the most devastating attack on the US since Pearl Harbor. Theirs is a story of innocence lost. Post-Millennials, meanwhile, never knew anything different than their country at war in Iraq and Afghanistan, which in turn sharpened the broader views of political parties and contributed to the polarisation which led to the election of Donald Trump, the first American president most will encounter when they turn 18.
In Australia, the situation is a little more complicated, and the data sets fewer. Here is what we know: there are 4.6 million post-Millennials. They are one in 20 Australian workers. (That figure will rise to 32 per cent by 2027.) They are the most formally educated generation ever, with one in two attaining a university degree compared with one in three Millennials, which was the previous record. They are also the most technologically savvy, and the most globally mobile.
To 17-year-old Macinley Butson, the first Australian to win the INTEL International Science and Engineering Fair, social media is a force for progress. Photo: Wolter Peeters
Those are their strengths. What have been the structural challenges faced by post-Millennials? Although the 2007-09 Global Financial Crisis didn't hit Australia as hard as the US, our recovery has been slow. Average household incomes have stopped growing; unemployment is still relatively high. "There's just generally a climate of less economic optimism," says Roger Wilkins, a research fellow at the Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research. "That's going to impact young people who were roughly two to 12 when the financial crisis hit."
Then there's the influence of their parents – Gen Xers – who have done their job quite differently to Baby Boomers. "There's a return to more structured parenting, rather than the free-range parenting approach popularised by the Boomers," says Mark McCrindle, a Sydney-based futurist. Strongly shaped by their individualistic, self-reliant parents, McCrindle says post-Millennials display risk-averse tendencies. "They play by the rules." In Australia, the proportion of teenagers trying alcohol plummeted to just 18 per cent in 2016, according to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. US studies show they are less likely to go out, to date, to engage in sexual activity, and to get their driver's licence.
That conservatism extends to how Gen Zers are planning their futures. "We're talking about an order of magnitude worse situation, but there could be an analogy drawn with Depression-era children who were known as being quite frugal," says Wilkins. He points to the political instability seen in Australia since the GFC – a phenomenon he sees as causally connected. "There may be a sense that the world is not an entirely safe and predictable place."
Perhaps that's why this generation is already showing signs of rejecting traditional notions of success. ("Bugger prestige," is how a 22-year-old colleague put it to me.) This is a generation that can expect to have 17 jobs, five careers and 15 homes over a lifetime. Born with little to no safety net and deprived of the old-fashioned upward ladder of adulthood, it's little wonder that, according to Millennial Branding, a demographics research firm, 72 per cent of high school Gen Zers want to strike out on their own as entrepreneurs.
Morgan Hipworth, a 17-year-old in Melbourne, has done exactly that. In addition to taking his final year of high school, Hipworth runs his own doughnut shop, Bistro Morgan, open since December 2016. He started at age eight in his family's garage, baking banana bread during his school holidays. "Next thing I know I am supplying all the brownies, cookies and tarts for a local cafe," Hipworth says. "My thinking was, 'How good would it be to turn something I love into a business?'
When we talk, I'm struck by Hipworth's seriousness. The usual adolescent rites of passage are seen as obstructions. "I've had school hanging over my head for five or six years now," he tells me. "It's been a hard slog, like having a job you hate and counting down the days until you get to leave it. I can't wait to get full time into the business." He has no immediate plans for university. "I'm a real believer that you don't need a piece of paper to do something. If you have the confidence and belief, you can really go to the next level."
Morgan Hipworth, 17, runs his own doughnut shop. Photo: Joe Armao
Perphaps I shouldn't be so surprised. "Older people underestimate young people and that's been true forever," says Justin Wolfers, an Australian-American economics professor at the University of Michigan. (He's also a Gen X parent of two.) "We've extended our notion of childhood so much. An earlier generation of 18-year-olds were being sent to Vietnam to fight and now we see the 17-year-old Parkland students holding a press conference and we marvel at their courage."
Just as older generations tend to sell younger ones short, they are also prone to alarmism. One facet of Gen Z life that has provoked much hand-wringing is its constant connectedness. The iPhone launched in 2007, when the oldest post-Millennials were 10. As a consequence, internet access at all times is assumed. Pew estimates that a quarter of 13- to 19-year-olds are online "almost constantly". Jean Twenge, the inventor of the iGeneration label, points out that two out of three US teenagers has an iPhone. From this, she postulates that "iGen is a less confident, more uncertain, more anxious generation than Millennials were at the same age. That may be at least partially due to their adolescence spent on smartphones."
In a widely circulated Atlantic magazine article from last year, Twenge asked, "Have smartphones destroyed a generation?" She cited data showing that rates of depression increased suddenly after 2012, when smartphone usage surpassed 50 per cent of Americans. "Rates of teen depression and suicide have skyrocketed," she wrote. "Much of this deterioration can be traced to their phones."
As with all generational generalising, this is worth brining with a healthy amount of salt, not least because Gen Z is an unusually difficult group of people about which to make sweeping statements. In the US, post-Millennials will be the country's most diverse generation ever, with Hispanic, African-American, Asian and multiracial individuals making up 47 per cent of teenagers.
There's also a way of seeing constant connectivity as a net positive. Futurist Mark McCrindle is in that camp. "They're empowered by the devices they carry," he says of Gen Z. "They've been given asymmetrical power, so an individual with a powerful story or a message to share has influence beyond their individual status." Parkland, McCrindle says, is the first time we've seen that happen on a global stage, but in Australia, he points to the way teenagers have also waged successful campaigns about what school uniforms boys and girls can wear. In Melbourne, furious schoolboys – and their Gen X parents – forced the board and management of Trinity Grammar School to overturn the sacking of a popular deputy headmaster.
Plus, we're still learning how to assess the impact of new technologies as a society, let alone on young people in particular. Rebecca Sparrow, an Australian writer who since 2009 has published three books for teenage girls on negotiating high school, maintains that we talk about technology use in the wrong way. In her conversations with teenagers, Sparrow tells me, "They rarely ask about Instagram or Snapchat, because why would they? In the '80s I didn't ask about problems with the phone. The platform is irrelevant. It's the behaviour that occurs on these platforms." Instead, Sparrow says most teenage girls are concerned with their friendships – relatable to anyone who has gone through the extended torment of adolescence.
This rings true to my own interactions with post-Millennials. I ask Macinley Butson, a 17-year-old from Wollongong who last year was the first Australian to win the INTEL International Science and Engineering Fair, about how she copes with the intrusions of technology, figuring she knows something about the subject. "I have a personal account on Instagram, and a public one," she says. You can practically hear the shrug over the phone. Butson is NSW Young Australian of the Year and a long-time National Youth Ambassador for Green Cross Australia; perhaps dual social media accounts is a tactic borne out of extraordinary public exposure? That's not the case. "My public account is quite professional in the way I administer it, but a lot of my friends also have a personal and a public account," she says. "Memes and jokes for very close friends in their personal account, and then a public account for other people at school."
I'm talking to Butson around the time that Mark Zuckerberg, noted Millennial, is testifying before the US Congress about privacy limitations on Facebook. Yet amid invocations of Frankenstein's monster by her elders, Butson is adamant that social media is a tool for progress. "A lot of what I find out about is through apps like Snapchat, Facebook and Instagram," she says. "I think my generation is so on fire because we're able to see a lot of current world issues out in the open."
What about the spectre of ever-shortened attention spans, blunted by viral videos and GIFs of sassy squirrels? Butson also sees this need for constant stimulation not as a problem but an opportunity. Her insatiable curiosity is shaping her career ambitions. Instead of becoming a research scientist, as might be expected from someone with her background, Butson has her eye on emergency medicine. "I'm a person who probably wouldn't do too well spending 10 or 20 years on the same project," she says. "It has to be different every single day for me."
A study of post-Millennials by the branding firm Altitude, the findings of which were published in the US magazine Fast Company in 2015, underscores this idea: it's not that young people lack concentration. They are in fact capable of intense focus for short bursts of time. They possess what the publication termed an "eight-second filter".
Gen Zers are also savvy consumers of media. "They're not screen addicts," said the Fast Company article. "They're full-time brand managers." When I read this, I remembered how Morgan Hipworth had talked about "brand" in a way I hadn't expected from a teenager: "I only wanted my brand to be associated with certain cafes," for instance. Or, of his social media presence, "People don't follow you for bad content, so I try to take that seriously."
Still, there's money to be made out of young people, however discerning their consumption patterns, and marketers have already begun to codify their preferences. After all, Gen Z will make up 20 per cent of US consumers by 2020. Fashion trade journal Women's Wear Daily has called them "the next big retail disruptor"; Lucie Greene, the worldwide director of the Innovation Group at the J. Walter Thompson marketing agency, calls them "Millennials on steroids". According to the many reports I've seen churned out by trend watchers, post-Millennials favour Lorde over Lady Gaga, Snapchat over Facebook, YouTube over Netflix. Their iconic toy is a folding scooter. And they like leggings more than jeans. What else do you need to know?
Well, there's one thing. Something which might go some way to understanding the post-Millennial experience across the US and in Australia, and which happens also to have powered a lot of the group's activism. It's Harry Potter.
I first came across the Potter idea via Charlotte Alter, the writer of that Time piece on the Parkland students. She tweeted: "One thing I noticed while reporting on the #NeverAgainMSD students: this is not just a generation that has grown up with school shootings – it's also a generation that grew up reading Harry Potter. Harry Potter has become their playbook: the Ones Who Lived fighting an 'evil' force that has infiltrated the government and brainwashed adults using only the powers they've learnt in school: illumination, protection, disarmament."
Alter cited further evidence. The students called Rick Scott, the Florida governor, "Voldemort," referring to the dark wizard who is the main villain in the J.K. Rowling series. Bill Nelson, the senior senator from Florida and a Democrat, was "a cross between Dumbledore and a dragon": a fierce, fire-breathing force for good. There are familiar themes: useless administrators; unfair tactics employed by those in power; beloved teachers helping out children fighting for justice. Emma González identified "Harry Potter alone" to New York magazine as her inspiration. Her favourite characters, she texted, were Ginny and Luna: "Ginny is strong, level-headed and passionate (small + powerful); Luna is gentle, kind, strong, and just has a wonderful world view."
Georgie Stone spent her teenage years fighting for a change in law for other Australian trans children. Photo: Kristoffer Paulsen
When I talk to Australian post-Millennials, the Harry Potter passion is also immediately apparent. Georgie Stone is a 17-year-old from Melbourne who became, at 10 years and nine months old, the youngest person in Australia to be granted permission by a court to take hormone blockers, which is the first stage of medical treatment for transgender children. Until December 2017, Australia was the only country in the world which required transgender people under the age of 18 to apply to court for access to the second stage, hormone therapy; along with her family, Stone spent her teenage years campaigning to change the law for other transgender children.
Stone tells me she didn't have any trans role models growing up with whom she could identify. But, she volunteers, "I was a massive fan of Harry Potter and Hermione" – the character played by Emma Watson in the movies, which Stone first remembers watching at the age of six or seven. "I loved how she expressed herself and how bookish she was and how smart she was." The fact that Watson herself went on to advocate for women's rights at the United Nations didn't hurt, either.
The initial Harry Potter book, Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, was published in 1997, the year after the oldest Gen Zers were born. But the first of the wildly successful Harry Potter movies came out in 2001, when they were turning five. (The eighth and final movie was released in 2011.) Kristin Gill, the publishing manager of Penguin Young Readers in Australia, says that the Harry Potter series, which has sold more than 400 million copies worldwide, "changed the landscape of kids' books". Young readers "grabbed onto something that makes them feel valued, relevant, and like they are part of something bigger and able to affect change".
Gill is quick to point out there are plenty of classic books which tackle injustice. But "if there's a film attached to it" – as with the Potter series – "there's a real movement."
Ajantha Arpy, who at 22 sits on the cusp of Millennial and Gen Z, is studying a combined bachelor's in science and arts at the University of Sydney, majoring in ancient history, Latin and neuroscience. He somehow also finds time to serve as president of the university's Quidditch Society. (Quidditch is played by the wizards and witches studying at Hogwarts School in Harry Potter but has been adapted into a popular contact sport in real life, combining elements of rugby, dodgeball and catch.) Why does he think Harry Potter is such an important touchstone?
"You learn from those characters to be unafraid of who you are," Arpy says. He was into "nerdy things" as a child, and he credits the online Harry Potter community for pushing him into science and, in particular, psychology. I was interested to hear that his two favourite characters – Hermione and Luna – were girls.
"Both Hermione and Luna had valuable lessons for anyone growing up," Arpy says. "One of the big causes that is closely allied with Harry Potter is equality – not just of gender, but also sexuality." He points to Hagrid, a "giant, buffoonish, wonderful man" who is revealed as a half-giant. Although he's stigmatised by some, Arpy says, "we're invited to see him as an equal. He is someone who matters to us."
Quidditch itself, I learn, is a sport which demands inclusion. The rules state that of the seven people on the pitch, there can usually be no more than four people of the same gender. Since its real-life invention in 2005, Quidditch has become popular on university campuses worldwide, and is now played in more than 26 countries. "A lot of people come to Quidditch and may be iffy about the idea of girls playing sport or tackling girls," Arpy says. "Then they get absolutely decked by one and they come 'round to the idea that everyone's equal."
Quidditch player Ajantha Arpy, 22, says the Harry Potter series helped shape his values: "You learn from those characters to be unafraid of who you are." Photo: Wolter Peeters
In considering the tumultuous world into which Gen Z has been thrown, and which we hope they will sort out for us, I kept thinking of something Georgie Stone said. I'd asked her how she balanced activism with schoolwork, but it turns out the premise of the question was wrong.
"I didn't set out to be an activist," she said. "Trans kids are really politicised and our bodies are politicised and we have to go to court to access treatments. I didn't want that for others."
Stone hit on a parallel with Rowling's books. "That journey Harry goes on, he doesn't really have a choice. He has to kill Voldemort." It was like what Emma González had said in her now-famous "We call BS" speech in Florida. "Every single person up here today, all these people should be home grieving. But instead we are up here standing together because if all our government and president can do is send thoughts and prayers, then it's time for victims to be the change that we need to see."
Mark McCrindle cautions me against comparing Gen Z with the youth insurgency of the 1960s. "They aren't protesting for protesting's sake," he says. "They're linked up and connected when the need occurs." That feels right, in that the current crop of young activists have had their circumstances thrust on them. But equally, isn't tuning in to the injustices of the world something which happens with every generation? The difference now is that young people have a bigger platform than ever before.
Arpy, the Quidditch champion and budding neuroscientist, explained it best. "You get hooked on a wonderful story about a magical faraway land. But then as you progress through, you start to realise that magic has its own problems, as well. And that this wonderful world isn't as wonderful as it seems." He's describing the Harry Potter series, of course. But it also happens to sound a lot like growing up.
To read more from Good Weekend magazine, visit our page at The Sydney Morning Herald or The Age.
Source: Read Full Article