Last February, 16-year-old Ann Makosinski drew applause and gasps when she appeared on The Jimmy Fallon Show. The Victoria native was showing off her invention—a flashlight powered by the heat of a human hand—on a segment with two other young inventors. It wasn’t just Makosinski’s clever adaptation of technology that wowed the crowd; it was her inspiration: the plight of a friend in the Philippines who’d failed a grade at school because she lacked electricity to study at night. Her empathy-driven ingenuity has won her acclaim and the top prize for 15- to 16-year-olds at the Google Science Fair, a place on Time’s “Top 30 under 30” list, as well as a barrage of media coverage. As she exited the stage, Fallon shook his head in awe. “I’m going to work for her one day, I can feel it,” he said.
Fallon’s line may be a cliché, but it echoes a growing sentiment, as the spotlight is thrust on Generation Z, the unimaginative term for the cohort following Gen Y, or Millennials. While dispute rages over parameters, Gen Z are loosely defined as those born after 1995 and who are now 18 and under. It’s a big group: two billion worldwide, and one-quarter of the North American population.
Research, though still in beta, points to the emergence of a stellar generation: educated, industrious, collaborative and eager to build a better planet—the very qualities exemplified by Makosinski. In fact, in a manner typical of the need to neatly compartmentalize generations, Gen Z is already being branded as a welcome foil to the Millennials, born between 1980 and the mid- or late 1990s, who have been typecast as tolerant but also overconfident, narcissistic and entitled. Those characteristics weren’t an option for the first post-9/11 generation, one raised amid institutional and economic instability, informed by the looming shadow of depleting resources and global warming, and globally connected via social media.
Much of the current chatter surrounding Gen Z has been generated by the 56-slide presentation “Meet Generation Z: Forget everything you learned about Millennials,” produced by New York City advertising agency Sparks & Honey. It found that 60 per cent of Gen Zers want jobs that had a social impact, compared with 31 per cent of Gen Ys. It deemed them “entrepreneurial” (72 per cent want to start their own businesses), community-oriented (26 per cent already volunteer) and prudent (56 per cent said they were savers, not spenders). Gen Z is also seen to be more tolerant than Gen Y of racial, sexual and generational diversity, and less likely to subscribe to traditional gender roles.
Other studies paint them as the new conservatives. A Centers for Disease Control survey of 13,000 high school students released in June reported that teens smoke, drink and fight far less than previous generations (though they’re more likely to text while driving). “Overall, young people have more healthy behaviours than they did 20 years ago,” reported study coordinator Dr. Stephanie Zaza, who noted that use of drugs and weapons and risky sex have declined since the study began in 1991.
The influential author and consultant Don Tapscott is a Gen Z optimist. His 2008 book, Grown Up Digital, features a study of 11,000 kids who were asked whether they’d rather be smarter or better looking: 69 per cent chose “smarter.” So is social researcher Mark McCrindle, of Sydney-based McCrindle Research, who has been looking at Gen Z for seven years. “They are the most connected, educated and sophisticated generation in history,” he says. “They don’t just represent the future, they are creating it.”
That’s reflected in the new spate of teen celebrities, whose industry and earnestness runs contrary to Gen Y poster girls Lindsay Lohan and Lady Gaga. Teen innovators have always been with us (Braille, hip hop and earmuffs were all products of adolescent minds), but global social media combined with crowdsourcing, open-platform education and sharing have given this generation’s inventors unprecedented influence. In 2012, 17-year-old student Angela Zhang revealed a protocol that allowed doctors to better detect cancerous tumors on MRI scans; that year, 15-year-old Jack Andraka made headlines with his inexpensive, accurate sensor, able to detect pancreatic cancer.
Their defining characteristic, so far, is that they’re a new species—“screenagers,” the first tribe of “digital natives.” That’s the much-debated term that distinguishes the wired-from-the-crib from “digital immigrants,” for whom the Internet is a second language.
The result could well be the most profound generation gap ever: a digital divide between parents who see the Internet as disrupting society as we know it (and making them feel obsolete) and their kids, who are not only at home with the technology—“it’s like air to them,” Tapscott says—but are already driving many of the shifts happening in how we communicate, the way we access information and the culture we consume.
Gen Z are bellwethers, says McCrindle: “Where Gen Z goes, our world goes.” What that portends is seismic social disruption and the commensurate anxiety. “This is the first time in history kids know more than adults about something really imporant to society—maybe the most important thing,” says Tapscott. “[It’s] a formula for fear.” Despite this tension—or perhaps because of it—expectations for a generation have never been higher. Forbes has dubbed Gen Z “Rebels with a cause.” The Financial Times posed the question: “Generation Z, the world’s saviours?” Tapscott says Gen Z doesn’t have a choice: “My generation is leaving them with a mess. These kids are going to have to save the world literally.”
The emerging thinking about Gen Z stands at a remarkable disconnect from the particular anxiety that’s long surrounded the idea of digital natives, one stoked by such bestsellers as Nicholas Carr’s Is Google Making Us Stupid?, Mark Baulerein’s The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future, and Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other.We’ve seen more than a decade of hand-wringing over declining attention spans, eroding social skills, online bullying and sexting, along with the worry that communicating in short bursts and emoticons deadens the brain’s ability to think in complex ways. There’s also the debate raging over the elimination of cursive writing from many schools, and charges that the decline in traditional forms of learning such as memorization and rote signals a drop in standards.
Even before the crowning of Generation Z, some experts were challenging those assumptions, suggesting we may have been applying 20th-century expectactions to a new matrix where they no longer apply. Amy Bastian, a neuroscientist at Johns Hopkins University, contends that the greater the variety of things you do in the fine-motor domain, the more you improve dexterity, but refuses to declare cursive writing is better or more important for a child’s development than printing.
Where one skill is lost, another may be gained. If children are less likely to dig deep and find out the rationale behind something, or to memorize it, says pediatrician Michael Rich, executive director of Harvard’s Centre of Media and Child Health, it’s because “their brains are rewarded not for staying on task, but for jumping to the next thing”—a useful ability in the digital era. Tapscott sees the term “multi-tasking” as an old-fogey misnomer: “What we’re actually watching is adaptive reflexes—faster switching and more active working memories,” he says.
McCrindle speaks of non-natives having to adapt to the new “post-linear” digital reality, meaning events no longer follow a traditional chronology. “People watch things when they want to watch them; learning takes place anywhere, anytime.” We’re looking at the world through glass—tablets, Google Glass—designed for images, not words, McCrindle says. This is also a “post-logical” world that emphasizes emotional reaction: “Social media is more right-brain, not left-brain,” a fact to which anyone who spends time on Twitter can attest.
Gen Z is “a global experiment,” says McCrindle. No longitudinal studies have been done on the neural mapping of a species exposed to up to 10 hours daily of multi-media screens since infancy, he says. Our enduring fascination with how toddlers interface with technology is reflected in the popularity of the YouTube video titled “A magazine is an iPad that doesn’t work.” It shows a little girl sliding her finger in frustration over a glossy fashion magazine as if it’s an iPad.
So much remains unknown about Gen Z that trying to define them by a letter of the alphabet seems like a doomed effort; after all, the youngest of them are four. “Their formative years haven’t been lived yet,” says McCrindle. The survey from Sparks & Honey itself is limited in scope, based on interviews with a handful of teachers, two dozen Gen Zers and listening in on thousands of Gen Z on social media, says Sara DaVanzo, the agency’s chief cultural strategy officer. Marketing focus remains on Gen Y: “Gen Z hasn’t been fully embraced because it’s young with limited spending power; marketers don’t recognize their inordinate influence.” (Sparks & Honey advises brands to sell themselves as socially responsible to appeal to this burgeoning demographic, and to “co-innovate” products with customers.)
Defining a generation with such a broad brush overlooks the fact there will be losers, says Tapscott. He points out that while the top third of young adults in North America may be seen as spectacular compared to previous generations—better educated, with SAT and GMAT scores at all-time highs—and that the middle third is likewise more capable and knowledgeable, the bottom third are dropping out of high school due to various forces: family breakdown, pernicious cultural influences.
“It’s not a failing of technology,” he says. “It’s a failing of public policy.” But the fact remains that digital connectivity has costs. Tapscott speaks of new class lines forming between digital haves and have nots.
There are other consequences of digital life. Sparks & Honey reports that reliance on mobile devices has led to kids having poor spatial skills and trouble navigating streets without GPS; hours spent in front of screens puts them at increased risk for obesity. And Gen Z, like every generation, has its jerks: Nash Grier, the 16-year-old Vine sensation, was recently in the news for making homophobic slurs.
If you define a generation too early, “you’re really looking at the way their parents are operating, not who they are,” says Robert Barnard, CEO of Toronto-based Decode, a company that provides data on youth. Still, he argues that the older end of any demographic tends to be an early influencer or indicator of a generation’s values. He also makes a distinction between broad “generational traits” and “life-stage traits” consistent across generations. In other words, Gen Z can be more bright-eyed about saving the world because they’re 14 years old, as opposed to being 28 and competing in a brutal job market.
However accurate our projections of Gen Z may or may not be, in what can be seen as self-fulfilling prophecy, our assumptions about how Gen Z is changing the world are themselves shaping a generation that will change the world as we know it. Emojili, the first emoji-only social site, is about to launch—a the perfect platform for a generation we believe to be post-literate. Publishing is increasingly embracing short reads, or “mini-books,” evidenced by Amazon’s StoryFront. Increasingly, universities are courting those high-achieving high school and even grade school students with programs offering exposure to higher learning. The University of Toronto engineering faculty, for instance, offers Girls’ Jr. DEEP summer programs for Grades 3 to 8—an edge the Millennials surely wish they had had.
Entrepreneurship is also a big buzzword: in a world where full-time jobs and pensions are in decline, it’s a glossy way of saying Gen Z is on its own. According to the Sparks & Honey survey, this cohort places less value on higher education (64 per cent want advanced degrees, compared to 71 of Gen Y). In response, universities have replaced the emphasis on the now-dated corporate M.B.A. with “entrepreneurial hubs.” The Thiel Fellowship hands out $100,000 to kids willing to forgo university. Makosinski, about to enter Grade 12, expresses ambivalence about university. “There are so many choices out there,” she says. She’d like to spend her second year at 30 Weeks, a New York City entrepreneurship program. She also has ambitions to start her own business, a YouTube channel, after she improves the efficiency of her flashlight. She has invented a game-changing tool that could eliminate the battery, but she’s smart enough to see a viable future in YouTube, a concept alien to many adults.
Technology is seen as the great generational divide here, but if there is a pan-generational leveller, paradoxically, it’s technology, and the fact we’re all equally hooked; adults are just addicted to older, in some cases obsolete, technologies. “Parents of Gen Z kids think their kids are using too much technology,” says Barnard, “but they’re addicted to it themselves, and don’t know how to deal with it.” The only real difference is the platform. The most active people on Facebook, Barnard notes, are 30- to 40-year-old women; their children use Slingshot or Tumblr. (Sparks & Honey noted Gen Z places greater value on privacy than Gen Y, because it chooses anonymous, ephemeral communication tools such as SnapChat, Secret and Whisper, although the bigger appeal of these technologies may just be that they’re newer.)
What is not in doubt is that the power balance has shifted to the more digitally proficient, says McCrindle. The “don’t trust anyone over 30” mantra espoused by youth in the 1960s has gone full circle: now no one trusts anyone over 20. One need only look to Vogue editor Anna Wintour’s literal embrace of Tavi Gevinson, who founded the influential fashion blog Style Rookie at age 11, in the front row of fashion shows. Now 18, Gevinson is an actor and editor-in-chief of the online magazine Rookie, whose feminist message is heralded as an antidote to rampant sexualized imagery of girls. The child savant is a hot ticket, evident in the gush over Flynn McGarry, the 15-year-old Los Angeles cooking prodigy, whose pop-up dinners are sell-outs. In Silicon Valley, competition for young talent is now so intense that interns as young as 13 are scouted; Facebook flies in kids with their parents to meet Mark Zuckerberg. It’s not uncommon for some to make a year’s salary in a summer, or receive a $100,000 grant—another example of how Gen Z is vaulting over the Millennials, while simultaneously becoming a threat to Gen X and Boomers.
The new obsession with seeing youth as prophets has made 16-year-old Adora Svitak an in-demand speaker on the global think-tank circuit. The activist and author came to public attention at age 12 with her 2010 TED Talk, “What adults can learn from kids,” in which she called for “bold, childish ideas.” The talk has had over 3.4 million views and been translated into over 40 languages. Turning to children for advice has also been institutionalized in the trend of “reverse-mentoring.” Tapscott was an early adoptor, employing a 13-year-old to head his digital team more than a decade ago. He currently has five teenage “mentors,” he says.
Ironically, one of the lessons the kids have for adults is about the perils of being defined by online behaviour. “Our whole lives can literally be centred over a little piece of metal; it’s pretty crazy,” says Makosinski, who says her parents are strict about her Internet use. She depends on the Internet as a resource for everything, but knows when to take a break, she says: “Sometimes I’m just like, ‘I’m going to close my Facebook for a bit and detox.’ ”
Speaking on Skype from Barcelona, where she’s holidaying with her family after giving a talk in Paris, Svitak says the fact so many kids spend so much time online saddens her. Her fondest childhood memories involved playing outside: “When you look back, you are not going to remember the emails you sent,” she says, noting that when given the choice, kids will invariably select a video game over taking a hike: “If what’s on a cell is brighter or flashier, kids will choose that.” Adults need to exert their influence, Svitak says: “We can’t leave parenting up to the Internet.” Tellingly, even defending the value of adult wisdom and experience has fallen to youth, seen in Rookie’s popular advice column: “Ask a grown man/Ask a grown woman.”
It’s also Generation Z, demarked by the end of the alphabet as we know it, that’s calling for the end of generational segmentation. It doesn’t ring true any more, Svitak says: “It ignores a lot of the things that shape personalities and collective thinking.” It also ignores the fact characteristics are fluid throughout life. “Understanding shared Baby Boomer traits is easy because most of their lives has passed,” she says. “But anyone making generalizations about me will have to realize I will change many, many times.” Svitak’s generation is global, one with all of history and geography at its fingertips, able to draw from all eras and places. Her friends are both older and younger, she says, naming a pan-generational list of role models that includes Hillary Clinton, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, J.K. Rowling, Olympic long-distance runner Emil Zátopek. Likewise, Makosinski cites electrical engineer and inventor Nikola Tesla and the Indian musican Ravi Shankar as inspirations. “I’m fascinated by the 1960s,” she says.
Brands appeal to need, anxiety, aspiration. The creation of the Gen Z brand is no different, right from the marketing report that sparked the chatter. Sparks & Honey’s quest to identify such a young demographic was spurred by client need, says DaVanzo. “Many of our [client companies] are struggling with planning for the future in a world defined by chaos, volatility, uncertainty, ambiguity and change.” The idea of a Gen Z brand has been embraced by media as a kind of talisman for our hopes and fears.
Svitak doesn’t want any part of it. She plans to write a book on generational change—one that’s introspective. “Too often it’s from a marketer’s perspective,” she says. For now, though, our understanding of her generation comes from outside, with the understanding that the way we see Gen Z reflects everyone else’s needs, as much as who they are.