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Generation Z Characteristics

This is a selection from Humanly, Issue 02, which focuses on Generation Z and teen culture.

Known as the toddlers who famously tried to swipe left on their TV screens, Gen Zs were born between 1995 and 2010, and are 60 million in the US. They are, without a doubt, the most highly diverse and globally minded generation to date—58% consider themselves multicultural or transcultural, and 60% are friends with someone from another country online. But with only half of Zs in their formative teen years, it’s still too early to say exactly what defines them. What we do know is that “digital natives” is not the whole story. In fact, we found this generation to be as native to technology as they are nostalgic for the time without it, when information wasn’t 24/7 and it was friends—not Uber—who gave you a lift. So while we are cautious to come out with definitive characteristics for Gen Z just yet, here are the traits we found unique to the teens in this group, traits that will likely be influential forces shaping the younger Zs who follow them.


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Generations defined: Zs are born between 1995 and 2010; Ys, aka millennials, between 1980 and 1994; Xers between 1965 and 1979; and Boomers between 1945 and 1964.

Exposed & Resilient

When we asked McKenzie Booie, a teacher in Marfa, Texas, what she feels sets this generation of teens apart, her immediate response was “resilience.” While the explanation for this at first seems straightforward—this generation had no choice but to develop a thick skin to weather a decade of “disruption”—Booie described a more subtle aspect: “When I was in school it was mostly word-of-mouth or phone calls,” she said. “But now you have texting and kids find out immediately about what happened at lunch. The kids have to deal with a lot more because of that. Yet they brush it off a lot easier, too.” In other words, this generation has no choice but to let some of those texts, tweets, posts, and snaps roll off their backs. And while Gen Z’s peers play a part in this constant digital feedback, we heard it’s not just frenemies with iPhones who are the worst offenders: Parents are also guilty. Zs are the first cohort to be raised by parents—i.e., Gen Xers—who consider themselves as digitally savvy as their kids. Gen Xer parents have posted their sonogram photos as profile pics, ghostwritten their tot’s blog,shared their baby’s naked-bath time shots on Instagram, and some even notoriously purchased their child’s URL and social media handle before birth (one-quarter of Zs report their parents having done this). What’s more, the mainstreaming of video has made those tender moments of teendom exponentially more awkward for Zs. Case in point: Jackson, a North Carolina teen, told us his mom posted his skateboarding fail on YouTube. It went viral, and Jackson faced humiliation in front of a million viewers (according to him). This is, in part, why 87% of Zs yearn for the pre-digital era, and a time when not every moment was hyper-documented, broadcasted, and liked (or not liked) on social media, a topic we get to the bottom of in The Real World, Humanly, Issue 02.

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Hector, 17, (bottom) and Roberto, 18, attempt a breakdancing move for the first time in Detroit, Michigan.

Serious & Positive

This is a generation that spreads (good) “vibrations” and idolizes Pharrell because, well, he’s happy. But make no mistake: Zs do not see the world through rose-colored glasses. Unlike their Gen Y counterparts, who grew up during the positive political and economic climate of the Clinton era and dot-com boom, and had a shiny outlook to match the times, Zs do not remember a time before 9/11, war in the Middle East, terrorism, school shootings, environmental disasters, financial ruin, cyber-hacking—the list goes on. Much like their Gen X parents, who navigated childhood against a backdrop of the Cold War, AIDS, and the mainstreaming of divorce, this generation does not need to be reminded that the world isn’t always pretty. In fact, with social media, they have a 24/7 front-row seat to the good, the bad, and the ugly that makes the nightly news of their parents’ generation feel quaint in comparison. But despite being raised in such heavy times, we were surprised to find the teens we met void of the cynical attitude and pessimistic outlook that earned their parents’ generation that infamous “X.” There is a certain seriousness, or weightiness, to Zs, but also a conscious choice to see the positive in the world. In context of the times, this generation’s glass-half-full disposition has a gravitas that differentiates it from Ys’ trademark optimism. This upbeat take on the world, and earnest belief in creating positive change, has baked activism into their ethos: when asked the best way to make a difference in the world, 71% opted for “Positivity—being positive in my day-to-day interactions with others” over “Pocket empowerment—purchasing products that are sustainably made” (29%).

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Out of 30 characteristics, “Positive” topped Gen Zs list of how they describe themselves, right after “Funny.”

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Garret, 16, in Portland, Maine

Niche & Extreme

In our travels across the country, we met teens who practiced the Japanese skill toy Kendama, schooled us on intersectionality, owned a pet rat, chatted about metaphysics, and went by their “artist name.” A generation ago, this would have been bleeding edge; today it’s the norm. As Addy, 18, put it, “We’re all commonly uncommon.” Part of this can be explained by the “apple doesn’t fall far from the tree” adage: Zs’ Gen Xer parents have pushed their own, counterculture sensibilities (er, agendas?) onto their kids, taking great pride in their teens’ half-shaved heads, fascination with falcons, and wiggle punk bands (yes, this is actually a thing). In fact, nearly half of teens we surveyed (40%) reported that their parents encourage them to be edgier, or more alternative, than they really are or want to be. Teens today also increasingly come from multiple racial and ethnic origins, making them naturally more niche (a full 13% in our survey identified as multiracial or “other”). But the biggest factor shaping Gen Z’s quirk-factor is the Internet. Today, the evergreen adolescent quest to find one’s identity is akin to staring at the Google search bar. Not only can Zs look up, seek out and double down on any interest, no matter how obscure, but also tap into a global pool of others who share their exact passions and validate these interests. This newfound freedom of identity may sound like a dream to high school misfits of generations past (population: most of us), but for Zs, it’s both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, there is the ability to express oneself more completely than The Breakfast Club buckets of yesteryear; on the other hand, trying to stand out from the “out crowd” is as daunting, if not more so, than trying to fit in to the “in crowd.” To do so, many teens are experimenting with extreme aspects of themselves, from opting out of high school in pursuit of coding gigs (see Coded – 94110, Humanly, Issue 02) to exploring the ever-growing range and intersections of sexual orientation, gender, race, and more (see High Stakes ID, Humanly, Issue 02). In fact, 61% of teens say that at least one aspect of their identity would be considered “extreme” by others, making them, arguably, the most avant-garde generation to date.

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The number one way Zs describe their social media style is “Really-real: I’m as real online as I am off.”

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Henry, age 13

Brothers Henry, 13, (left) and Isaac, 17, in Portland, Oregon

Truth-seeking & Precocious

Unlike Ys, who were told “You can’t believe everything you read online,” Gen Z sees the Internet as its Bible and Google as its God (see Indigo Kids, Humanly, Issue 02): a full 69% say YouTube is where they go to learn about pretty much everything. Whether they are making up their minds about politics, brands, religion, or gender, their tendency is to dig—deep—and direct themselves accordingly. Much like their fend-for-themselves parents, who navigated broken homes with a latchkey, this generation is navigating uncertain times with a search bar. Interestingly, this is what we most loved, and loathed, about Zs; while their self-directed, open-up-your-laptop attitude was refreshing on the heels of highly-directed Ys, whose helicopter parents were famous for micromanaging their every move, it was also a little unnerving at times. In fact, the only thing we could uncover that we didn’t love—and we mean LOVE—about Zs is that, well, they’d already uncovered it all. Career? Launched it. Spirituality? Found it, #woke. Feminism? “Lena Dunham’s a good start, but…,” according to one Portland, Maine teen. Armed with information and oddly wise beyond their years, there were more than a few moments when we felt like we were the teens, and they were the adults. Don’t get us wrong—we were okay to not talk about selfie culture, “it” handbags, and celebrity gossip. But, goodness, a little high school gossip would have been refreshing along the way. Every generation has its label—Xers were slackers, Ys entitled—and Zs, well, they are a little precocious.

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Brianna, 18, outside the Boys & Girls Club of Portland, Maine, fills us in on teen cliques, college application stress, and the widening spectrum of gender.

Open & Interdependent

Gen X was a closed book (hence the “X”), and Gen Y a curated one, but Gen Z is, well, just themselves. The teens we spoke with weren’t trying to be cool, at least not in the deep-dark-and-mysterious way Xers championed, nor in the picture- perfect-Instagram-worthy way Gen Ys pioneered. Instead, they were open, emotional, honest, and generally very respectful. Sure, angsty teendom reached its apex with My So-Called Life, but it’s not like we’ve seen incredibly engaged teenagers since then. If anything, the past generation of teens was often portrayed as detached, glued to their screens, unable to engage in a “real” conversation, and seemingly unaware of what was happening around them. Not so for Gen Z. Sixty percent say social media has weakened human relationships rather than deepened them (40%), and 37% have unplugged, or purposefully disconnected from technology, within the past three months (check out one 16-year-old’s story in “Why I’m Ditching My Device”, Humanly, Issue 02). Of course some of this is just tech backlash, a movement bound to happen after a decade of non-stop digital. And some just have a nice disposition. But openness, real connections, and most notably interdependence—the ability to lean on one another—has become a survival mechanism for Gen Z, a good chunk of whom will have to forge new, solo paths at school, work, and in family life (half of working Zs will do some independent work, according to the Freelancers Union, and solo dwellers represent the fastest-growing households in America). While inter-dependence has been gaining steam for some time with the rise of the sharing economy, Zs are breeding a refreshing and more personal version of inter-dependent relationships that goes beyond the convenience of coworking spaces or the cost-savings of Airbnb rentals. For a look at this new, more vulnerable take on interdependence, check out End of Indie, Humanly, Issue 02.

Bella and Ella photo Bella and Ella, both 13, with Malcolm and Jackson, both 12, in Asheville, North Carolina
We live in a safe haven in Asheville, where you can be anything you want. I know a transgender kid. But once you get five minutes out, it’s like Southern pride. Malcolm, 12, Asheville, NC

This is a selection from Humanly, Issue 02, which focuses on Generation Z and teen culture.

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