High Stakes ID
This is a selection from Humanly, Issue 02, which focuses on Generation Z and teen culture.
Searching for an individual identity is not a new topic when it comes to teens. But with the spectrums of identity broadening every day—along with the societal norms surrounding them—Gen Z is searching for selfhood at a time when anything goes. For some, this freedom is liberating; what was once considered weird is now acceptable. For others, this release from the status quo is another form of peer pressure; rather than feeling forced to conform, teens now feel the need to out-quirk their peers. For Zs, identity is more than a matter of clothing choice and cliques, it’s a high stakes issue that will ultimately define the next generation.
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Now that the radical is unexceptional, the sky is the limit for just how different you can really be—and the more niche the better—leading teens to take on obscure passion points, from falconeering to speaking ancient Greek.
Henry, 13, of Portland, Oregon, has had his fair share of oddball obsessions. Three years ago he was enthralled with origami, spending hours watching paper-folding tips on YouTube. Now, his passion is Kendama, a traditional Japanese toy similar to the classic cup-and-ball game. Like the origami days, Henry watches tutorials on YouTube, but he also posts videos of himself Kendama-ing on Instagram, where he keeps up with the large Kendama community. Henry’s brother, Isaac, 17, is in the niche-zone, as well: As a saxophone player, he doesn’t limit his interests to jazz and big band. Naturally, he prefers “weird genre mixes” like symphonic metal and jazz punk. Together the two get even more niche: They make up bands and new music genres. “We’ve got one band that’s called Whistle Shrimp. It’s a heavy metal whistle band. There’s also wiggle punk. That’s a genre,” Henry says, before Isaac picks up the thread: “It’s like a really heavy punk, but instead of singing, we just wiggle our faces and get into it.” John, 13, from West Texas, is a second-degree black belt in taekwondo and competes in the creative weapon category. He is known in his friend circle as “Dragon” and once drew attention to himself for inventing a new trick with a 5-foot-long bow staff. “I started doing this five years ago and I got so far ahead that my teacher couldn’t keep up with me,” he told us. “I was literally the best there and that’s out of probably 200, 300 kids.” Another teen in Charlotte, North Carolina, Eddie Nino, introduced himself first by his “artist name,” KIP, aka “Knowledge is Power.”
A by-product of this proliferation of quirky passion points is the extreme ID. At a time when the steps to success are no longer well-defined and the most extreme path wins, being uber-niche helps Zs stand out from the crowd. Supporting this point, nearly as many Zs feel pressure to stand out from their peers (43%) as they do to fit in (57%). Just look at the self-made teen idol Tavi Gevinson, whose niche interest in outlandish fashion brought her fame before she hit high school. Gevinson started her blog Style Rookie when she was 11, sat front row at Dior at the age of 12, and traded up fashion for feminism at 14 with her teen girl magazine, Rookie. Now just out of her teens, she’s an advocate for girls and a savvy entrepreneur. Then there’s Thomas van Linge, a 19-year-old from Amsterdam who makes some of the world’s best maps of Jihadist war zones. What started as an obscure passion turned Thomas into a global expert—his maps are used by the likes of CNN and the New York Times—even though he learned Arabic on YouTube and has never been to the Middle East. And in Silicon Valley, high school and college dropouts are flooding the tech scene with DIY talent and fresh ideas (see Coded, Humanly, Issue 02). For these teens, six-digit salaries prove it really does pay to be extreme.
It’s the norm to be radical.Sophie, 17, Portland, ME
Digital Radicals, Rebels, and Reformers
These fragmented identities and interests are amplified by the mass integration of digital into the lives of Gen Z (think Tumblr, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, and Snapchat), giving widespread exposure to radical and previously unheard of identities that teens are now free to try on (that band T-shirt just doesn’t cut it anymore). Where influence was once governed by geographic communities (school, family, city, friends, etc.), now the entire world is each teen’s oddball role model. And with this broadening of community has come a broadening of what was once finite: Where you used to be male or female, gay or straight, black or white, now you can be a female-presenting gender-nonconforming femme—or any other combination you can dream up. As Shae, a 17-year-old artist in Charlotte, North Carolina, put it: “Some of the best stuff that I’ve learned about life and about myself has been through the Internet.” Shae’s not alone: 44% of Zs rank YouTube as the best educational source today (44%), above teachers (39%) and textbooks (17%).
But digital is more than just a means for teens to discover new forms of identity; it’s also the platform with which they can test out and broadcast their own outlandish IDs, as well as find like-minded individuals. And as people from around the world use social media to come together to share these passions, those who used to be on the bleeding edge have finally found their tribes. West Texas teacher McKenzie Booie sees this kind of social media community changing the effects of bullying and peer pressure: “Even if a teen doesn’t have someone at school that can back them up, they have a community somewhere else that can.” Not only does this signify a new way in which civilization is organizing itself beyond country lines, it also changes the definition of local: Social-Global-Mobile tribes, or online “neighborhoods” where the common ground is passion rather than place, are emerging to sweep teens off the limited ground beneath their feet and usher them into the ranks as the world’s first native global citizens (see SoGloMos, Humanly, Issue 01). A full 58% of Zs report they have more in common with their online friends than they do with their real world neighbors.
This sense of voice within a community has also led Zs to become loud Social Justice Warriors (SJWs) for the issues they care about, advocating for the visibility, acceptance, representation, and legal rights of their identities. And while Ys were scorned for their online “clicktivism,” which was regarded as passive and disengaged, Zs are making waves with their Internet zealotry: Social media platforms are the new picket signs and hashtags are the new slogans. This is also giving rise to a new kind of teen celebrity: the Tumblr, Twitter, or other typewritten activist who gains notoriety through viral posts or large followings. For instance, 18-year-old Suraiya, a Dallas native of Iranian, Indian, and Pakistani heritage, who rose to accidental fame when she tweeted a selfie of her hairy happy trail and sparked a massive debate about beauty standards and body positivity, especially for girls of non-white roots. Or—more intentionally—Mars, a 15-year-old artist and activist (who prefers the non-gendered pronouns they/them) who is committed to freeing up space for creatives of color via their 48K-strong Instagram. In the flow from discovery to community to advocacy, teens have made social media—once regarded as shallow and selfish—a virtuous cycle of widespread identity acceptance.
As national debates crop up around whether “he” and “she” should be replaced with the more gender-neutral “ze,” every aspect of identity—from gender to sexuality to race—is in question. For many young people who find traditional demographics unnecessarily rigid, identity is not a binary proposition but instead falls on an ever-growing spectrum: Gender comes in 58 flavors on Facebook (one third of Zs say 58 options isn’t too much, but just about right), race is debated to be subjective, and sexuality has shifted from straight and gay to LGBTQA+. Case in point: Z poster child Jaden Smith recently shook up the gender binary conversation when he became the new face of Louis Vuitton’s womenswear campaign, appearing in the glossy adverts in a knee-length skirt. But it’s no surprise Vuitton would chose Will Smith’s convention-bending son as his new muse; Jaden often wears skirts and dresses, including to the prom of fellow teen darling Amandla Stenberg, who recently came out as bisexual during a takeover of Teen Vogue’s Snapchat. “It’s a really, really hard thing to be silenced and it’s deeply bruising to fight against your identity and to mold yourself into shapes that you just shouldn’t be in,” she told followers. Fourteen-year-old Disney star Rowan Blanchard also recently came out as queer via Twitter, saying: “Being queer to me just means not putting a label on sexuality—just existing.” And though technically a millennial, Gen Z influencer Miley Cyrus recently told Paper magazine of her dating philosophy: “I am literally open to every single thing that is consenting and doesn’t involve an animal and everyone is of age… I don’t relate to being boy or girl, and I don’t have to have my partner relate to boy or girl.”
This migration away from the binary isn’t just for celebrities: 80% of Gen Zs believe at least one demographic—race, sexuality or gender—falls on a spectrum, and 57% say there should be pronouns other than “he” or “she” for people who don’t identify as entirely male or female. Even for teens in rural West Texas (population: tumbleweeds), once-taboo topics like transsexuality are not only normal, but they’re accepted. As 13-year-old cheerleader McKaila put it: “They’re just trying to be the person they think they need to be because they don’t feel comfortable being who they were born as…It’s something they want to change about themselves to feel more beautiful.” Or Brandon, 17, in Portland, Maine, who began dressing like a girl and—after some initial murmurings—was accepted as a gender-nonconformist by public school peers. At Casco Bay High School—a small, independent school in Portland, Maine—it is the students themselves that are pushing for gender-neutral language, rules, bathrooms, and education. As principal Derek Pierce put it: “This student body is a pretty remarkably progressive continuum. It’s the first time that I’ve felt like, wow, there are kids going to the left of me and teaching me things that are new. New paradigms. Transgender awareness has been big and a fast evolution in schools here. The concept of gender fluidity. It is fascinating, interesting, and true.” And when asked what gender is now, a group of preteens in Asheville, North Carolina, responded all at once: “It is just whatever they want to be.” “Whatever they feel comfortable being.” “Whatever they feel that they are.”
On top of changing norms around gender and sexuality, Gen Z is the most diverse generation to date, adding race to the ever-expanding spectrums of identity. The United States Census Bureau predicts that as early as 2018, the “minority” population of those 18 and younger will actually be the majority of that age group; by 2043, the same will be true of the entire population. Though sociologist Dr. Ted Ward predicted the implications of this demographic shift in the 1980s, Gen Z is the first generation to truly understand and embody his concept of Third Culture Kids (TCKs), or individuals straddling different cultures, languages, and ethnicities, who reconcile the differences by making up their own unique third culture. Where kids from two disparate cultures—say, someone growing up in America with traditional Indian parents—previously felt the need to identify as one or the other, now it’s understood that this experience is uniquely its own, and the sum is greater than its parts. As Walter, a Blaxican (half Mexican, half Black) put it, “Being mixed is its own identity.” In fact, nearly half of Zs we surveyed (42%) say that because they straddle two or more cultures, they have developed their own “third culture,” or personal culture.
High school teacher Lauren Taqui has noticed the effects of this phenomenon even in small town Texas: “I think that this generation is much more aware of diversity. They’re more aware of the results of integration and how important that is. I think previous generations didn’t really see that and they continued sort of seeing students as ‘other.’ So many of our students are biracial and that’s just the way things are now. There’s more of an acceptance of that than there has been in the past.” And back at Casco Bay High in Portland, Maine, which has a large Muslim population, the administration started a program called Courageous Conversations to get the student body together to talk about their differences. “We’re trying to go at these issues a little more directly than we have in the past. To have kids more openly dialogue,” Principal Pierce said. “The nature and content of the dialogue is so beyond what adults in our society are capable of. It was astounding. It was beautiful. It really was. Just be open and honest, but they are way ahead.”
While the concept of TCKs originally arose out of mixed ethnicities, seemingly disparate interests and other identities come into play, too. For example, the young skateboarding girls of Kabul, turned on to the sport by the nonprofit organization Skateistan, are now part of a unique third culture: liberated skater girls living in a society where even riding a bike is taboo. Or the Christian LGBTQA+ teens that come together and speak out under the #faithfullyLGBT hashtag. And back in Marfa, Texas, the quarterback of the high school football team is also the head of the robotics team. Where once you were a jock or a nerd (as any good teen movie of the past can corroborate), today’s teens can be their own unique combination of both—and more.
We’re all commonly uncommon.Addy, 18, Charlotte, NC
For all the elements influencing these radical shifts, one is evergreen: Like all generations before them, Zs are reacting to their own parents and siblings—Xers and Ys. While Ys certainly felt free to be multifaceted and try things on, there was a finite end to their search; it was more accepted to be gay and many millennials tried out bisexuality, but this complete gender and sexuality fluidity was not yet mainstream. Zs, on the other hand, feel no need to find a finite end product—the limit of the Google search bar is the limit of their soul search. Meanwhile, in their youth, Xers felt forced to conform or rebel, and those that chose the latter are proud purveyors of their counterculture youth—and want to make sure everyone knows it. With Nirvana tees on two-year-olds and summer beekeeping camp, Xer parents see their children as a symbol of—and homage to—their own cool factor. As such, Zs have been encouraged to get weird since birth. In fact, 40% of Zs say, “I hate to admit it, but my parents are cooler than I am.” Case in point: Portland, Oregon teen brothers Henry and Isaac say they owe their eccentric interests to their Converse-wearing, skateboarding Xer dad. When asked how he got into skateboarding, Henry said he was “born into it”—whether he liked it or not. And as music-obsessed Isaac put it: “When I was probably six or seven I started listening to music. My dad would make me mix tapes on like a 1981 Walkman. It was like the Beatles and Avril Lavigne and my dad’s friend’s screamo band and some Metallica. When I was in kindergarten and we had to write our favorite songs... mine was ‘Iron Man.’” When toddlers are handed their individuality through Black Sabbath songs and baby-sized skateboards, it’s no wonder they grow up searching for where to go from there.
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