coded

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

For our second feature of Coded, in which we seek to “decode” the off-the-beaten-path ZIP codes changing culture today, we didn’t stray too far off the known road. But what drew us to San Francisco’s Mission District wasn’t the headline-grabbing skyrocketing housing prices or billion-dollar start-ups. Inspired by an article in The California Sunday Magazine, we came in search of the “Real Teenagers of Silicon Valley,” the hundreds of Zs that have dropped out or opted out of high school and college, left their families behind, and made the trek to this tech mecca, often landing on $1000-a-month mattresses in shared rooms, in hopes of scoring six-figure salaries. And while these teens—living in glorified boarding houses and hustling for opportunity—conjured up images of the abusive teen modeling culture of the ‘90s (not to mention questions of ethics and child labor laws) what we found was the complex story of one micro-movement that exemplifies Generation Z’s desire to redefine work and education. And they’re forging an entirely new path to success along the way.


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Zach, 18, moved to San Fransisco when he was 16 and founded his own company two years later.

Charter Kids

In many ways, Zs have been chartering new waters their entire lives: They’re the first digital natives; the first to be raised by non-conformist Xers; and the first to see the crippling effects of student debt on their Gen Y peers, leading them to question the promises of the college route. While Ys followed the step-by-step map to success prescribed by their Boomer parents—enroll in all the extracurriculars, apply to all the safety schools, graduate into your dreams (at least that was the hope)—Zs are subject to much loftier guidance: Do what feels good; be different; express yourself. So, it’s no wonder this generation of extreme IDs and one-size-doesn’t-fit-all ideals would turn their backs on conventional paths and pioneer an underage migration to the booming tech industry of Silicon Valley.

Case in point: Jackson, 20, of Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, dropped out of high school when he was 17. Uninspired and unchallenged, he was getting bad grades not because he couldn’t do the work—but because he just wasn’t doing it. “High school was just monotonous and a very level playing field where everyone has to perform on the same level,” Jackson said. “So it was very easy to just kind of get bored.” He was already working for a nonprofit in town, and enjoyed this work more than school. So his mom suggested he think about leaving school in favor of pursuing work full-time. And he did. After spending another year working in Oklahoma, he bought a one-way ticket to his dream:
San Francisco.

As out of the ordinary as that may sound, it’s the narrative of almost all the Silicon Valley teens we met, including Zach, 18, of Los Angeles. When he started high school, he thought he’d finally feel challenged. So on top of his classes, he enrolled part-time at a community college and started working for a local company. “I was hoping as I did more and more activities I would feel happy. But what I found was that, at the worst of it, I had nine classes, was missing deadlines for my job, and I was miserable. And I did not feel like I was growing in the way I wanted to be growing.” So, Zach tested out of high school at 16, convinced his parents to let him move to San Francisco for three months to try it out, and was immediately hired by a fast-rising start-up, Yo, to be their first engineer. Two years later, he’s the founder of his own high school education nonprofit, Hack Club.

Upon arriving in San Francisco, both Zach and Jackson finally felt like they were where they belonged. “It’s extremely tightly knit,” Zach said. “Everybody knows everyone really, really well.” And as Jackson—who is living back in Oklahoma for the time being—put it: “Everyone is directly competing with each other, but despite that, we’re all friends and we’re all good. And everyone’s got each other’s back, because you know that it’s not easy to live in San Francisco as a dropout. There are more and more of us, but it’s still really tough at times. To have that support network is tremendous.” (For more on the rise of interdependence, see End of Indie, Humanly, Issue 02).

While the exact number of high school “opt-outs” living in the Bay area is hard to pin down, the Thiel Foundation and start-up incubator Y Combinator estimate it to be in the low hundreds based on a “huge spike” in applicants from wannabe and legit dropouts; Zach guessed more like 50 based on his social circle. Big or small, it got us wondering—is San Francisco the dropout capital of America? After all, famous nonconformists have flocked to the Golden Gate for decades: pioneers banking on gold, hippies seeking free love, and the original titans of tech— Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, Larry Page, and Sergey Brin, to name a few—all departed from traditional paths to forge their own way, changing the world in their wake. Now this new generation of young dreamers is doing the same, and the Mission District is their playground.

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San Fransisco’s Make School is a two year college-alternative for programmers.

Opt-outs: the New Dropouts

The nontraditional path these tech-minded teens are taking is more the exception than the norm. But while their journey might not quite signal a sea change, their lifestyle exemplifies the growing disillusionment Zs have with the traditional educational path. Millennials produced the largest group of college graduates in history, but their higher education didn’t always do all it was supposed to—many millennials are under-employed and drowning in debt. In this context, it’s no surprise that 70% of Zs feel four-year degrees at universities are no longer the best, or only, path to success. And while the majority of Zs and their parents are still timid about seeking an alternative path, the shift in attitude is palpable. In Asheville, North Carolina, a group of parents lamented that college may not be the most viable path anymore, but making their kids the guinea pigs of an unknown road makes them uneasy. As Sarah, 42 and mother to a teen, put it: “It’s scary because in my mind, it’s, ‘Go to college,’ that’s where you’re going to go. I’m not sure that’s true anymore, but I’m also not sure what you do if you don’t go to college. It scares me.” And Tammy, 44, mother of 11-year-old Cody, explains, “It’s scary as a parent because we know the way we came up and you’re not sure of the way of the future.”

In the world of tech, however, innovators are creating the viable alternatives to education Zs and their parents are looking for. Take the Thiel Fellowship, for example. Founded in 2011 by famous college dropout Peter Thiel, co-founder of PayPal, the program offers kids up to the age of 22 a $100,000 grant to “stop out of college” in favor of starting their own companies. While critics were initially uncertain of the Fellowship’s mission, the program’s website notes that in the five years since its founding, Thiel fellows have started more than 60 companies with a combined worth of over $1.1 billion. And the fellowship has become increasingly competitive; of 2800 applicants in 2015, 20 were accepted into the program. It’s more than just a great option for kids who aren’t into the college experience—the program has also given credibility to the choice to drop out—both in society and for parents. As former dropout-turned-CEO, and Thiel’s executive director, Jack Abraham, said: “The fellowship is a champion of enabling people to take alternative paths and making it okay to go and pursue your dreams, go and build something great. I think one of the interesting things about our society is how much has been shaped by the people who have had the courage to drop out. If you could increase the instance of great people like that being created in society and their ideas being brought in the world, that could be a really good thing for everyone. And we’re thrilled to support and champion people who want to take that path.”

Above:

Make School Student Abenezer, 19, (left) and teacher Adam Braus

Ignat, 18, a Make School student

Another new-school option on the rise is Make School, a programmer’s alternative to college, founded by two college dropouts—or, as many prefer to be called, “opt-outs.” Jeremy Rossmann and Ashu Desai, both 24, went to MIT and UCLA, respectively, and both found the experience disappointing. Jeremy wanted to study computer science, but found the curriculum lecture-heavy and outdated: “It hadn’t been updated for years even though it was known to be a newly reinvented class. So by the standards of academia, it had been recently revamped. By the standards of industry, it was ancient.” Ashu had a similar experience at UCLA. Again, the narrative of the young, inspired programmer returns: Both Ashu and Jeremy found themselves consumed with creating products that excited them, subsequently letting their classes pass without them, their assignments also slipping by the wayside.

“That gave us this sense that maybe there was this missed opportunity in computer science education where you could actually learn a lot of these fundamentals, but in the context of building really interesting things,” Jeremy said. “There is no reason to have a curriculum that’s outdated.” So the two conspired to teach kids the skills they needed themselves, eventually forming Make School, a two-year college replacement program. What began as a summer academy for high-schoolers eventually turned into a gap year program, and, after a few years, became one of the first computer science college replacement programs in the country, which is in its first year now. Beyond focusing on building products rather than theorizing about them, the school also has deeply established relationships with some of the biggest names in tech, and students pay for their tuition through their internship earnings while in the program—once they’ve graduated, they pay no more than 25% of their salary for the first two years after graduating. Not a bad deal, right?

Half (50%) of Zs say they plan to charter their own, DIY, higher education.

Hunter, 18, is part of this first group of Make Schoolers. Originally from Boston, he taught himself programming at an early age and—like so many others—found himself forgetting to do his homework because he was so fascinated by the projects he was working on. When he was searching for colleges after graduation, he found his options disappointing until he met Make School cofounder Jeremy. “It just clicked. It made sense right away. I didn’t even have to think about it and I ended up coming to San Francisco.” Now, just six months into the program, he got a job offer from Google. Josh, 18, went to UCLA for a year, but—surprise—was disappointed in the work he was doing. “I found myself working on more outside projects and skipping classes. I would show up for tests and got good grades, but I started realizing that going to college for getting good grades wasn’t what I wanted to do. I wanted to go to college to learn something, to create things, and to make an impact.” Which is exactly what he’s doing at Make School.

While this may sound like we’re glamorizing dropping off the traditional path, it’s not all wine—er, grape juice—and roses. Not every teen is built to forge their own path, a fact the tech teens themselves admit. Zach, the 18-year-old from LA—a shining example of the alternative path if there ever was one—recognizes that it’s not for everyone: “I think college certainly has its merits and you can’t deny its track record. I think what it came down to for me, was I felt that the path for me and the path where I would be happiest and learning the most… was not going to school. For other people, I can see it being wildly different. I have a lot of friends who are much smarter than me who are my age and did decide to go the college route and are so happy they made that choice. So while I’m staying up late working, trying to hit a grant deadline, they’re able to have more time where they can figure out who they are, explore more subjects, stuff like that.” And according to Jackson, some kids that made the trek to San Francisco found out they weren’t suited for the lifestyle and quickly headed back home to give college a try. On top of that, college can provide things that no other path can, a fact recognized by Make School student Josh, who says he may still return to UCLA to pursue his interest in psychology. “It really takes research to get into some psychological field. So post-Make School, if I find myself still really passionate about artificial intelligence and machine learning then it might be the best choice.”

New Collar

This teen movement is about more than education; it’s also fueling a completely new relationship to work. While we all know of the rise of the indie workforce (which is projected to comprise 50% of the working population in just five years), and the booming sharing economy, the careers Zs are building go beyond new work styles: They are redefining life cycles. When you drop out of high school (arguably your last chance to be a kid), skip the extended adolescence of college, and start working at 16, you’re liable to hit your “midlife” crisis by the time you’re old enough to drink, and reach burnout by the time you’re 25. Not to mention obsolescence: In a field where programs created in January are outdated by June, can anyone really have a sustainable, life-long career? This question is especially poignant when viewed through the lens of the deteriorating infrastructures meant to guarantee retirement at a reasonable age. Three-quarters (75%) of Zs believe retirement is a thing of the past and they will work well past 65. Do the math and, if you start work at 16, that’s a lifetime spent in the office—whether or not the office is your apartment.

But aside from 70-year careers, Zs are being given sky-high bars for success—especially in Silicon Valley. As if “30 Under 30” lists weren’t bad enough, now teens are living in the shadow of “20 Under 20,” not to mention towering wunderkind role models like Mark Zuckerberg—a billionaire by age 23—or Tumblr’s David Karp, who founded his billion-dollar company at age 21. And though the teens of Silicon Valley wouldn’t want to be anywhere else, the life they’re living isn’t without its stresses. “From the outside, everyone in Silicon Valley seems so happy and dandy like they’re having a great day, their start-up is going amazing,” Make School student Josh said. “But really they’re grinding 24/7. And putting their life on the line in order to create what they think is going to change the world.” As Jackson described: “There’s definitely a pressure standard that’s put on these kids. A lot of them, it’s their first real job, they’re starting their own companies, and they’re raising money from people who have been in this for a very long time. And they have no tolerance for screwing around. So it’s a real reality check for a lot of kids.” But, he added, “The ones that can handle it I think really flourish in that environment because they’ve looked for that kind of challenge their whole life.”

Of course, the intensity of the tech teen lifestyle isn’t happening in a vacuum. Across the country, kids are feeling pressured to start younger, work harder, and go longer. When asked what age they needed to “make it” by, a group of teens in Charlotte, North Carolina collectively answered between the ages of 17 and 18. And they’re not alone: Sixteen percent of Zs say they need to “make it” before they turn 20, and 62% by age 30.

41% of teens report already being paid for some “gig work” of freelance employment.

Above:

Zach and other tech teens in the Bay Area don’t want the spotlight to be on their age; they want it to be on their talents.

In Zach’s home office, a sticker for Hack Club, his coding education nonprofit.

But teens aren’t alone in their enthusiasm for this extreme work-focused lifestyle. In San Francisco and Silicon Valley, a fascination with all this new, young talent has put the spotlight where these teens don’t want it: their age. As much as teens are hoping to be the next Mark Zuckerberg, companies are hungry to hire or fund savants like him. And that’s great—to a point. With some companies touting dropout-only hiring policies, or favoring the young over the experienced, these teens are now fighting against feeling fetishized for an aspect of themselves they can’t control, when all they really want is to be taken seriously in the tech world. As Jackson said: “The young person as a hot item, it’s the same thing as going to companies and having them say, ‘we only hire dropouts’. It’s like, you’re just doing that as a publicity stunt for likes and comments. You’re trying to get retweets. You’re not trying to build a company.” And Zach: “The idea that companies are trying to hire everyone super young, I would not respect or look up to any company that has that recruitment strategy. I think it’s like hiring someone because they’re a man or they’re a woman. It’s something that you can’t control and I don’t think it’s very indicative of your skill or your ability to do work.”

Of course, the flip side is the idea that young people are just more creative with their solutions, as well as more exposed to tech in general. As Thiel Fellowship director Jack Abraham said, though you can be creative at any age, “People in an industry who have looked at a problem every which way for a decade might have written things off as impossible that someone who is young might not have had the exposure to. They don’t have the sort of baggage and failed attempts and history of why things won’t work. They’re more programmed just to think from a blank slate. And I think part of that naiveté can actually lead to people pursuing some really great ideas.” On the extreme side of this thinking is venture capitalists’ dismissal of anyone over the age of 25; and the Thiel Fellowship, too, has an age cutoff of 22—that’s astonishingly low. But, as Jackson lamented: “That’s just kind of the sad truth of the matter. It’ll probably be replaced by something more sustainable in the long term, but for now, that’s what comprises the culture in San Francisco.”

This feeling of being fetishized was amplified by the release of The California Sunday Magazine article—one of our inspirations for this round of Coded—which ended up hindering our own reporting; many of the featured teens felt the “Real Teens” article made them look naïve, and have since decided not to give interviews that are requested based on their age. And the Mission District “unofficial tech teenager headquarters” that’s at the center of the story—which we ourselves hoped to gain access to—is no longer open to the press. Which makes sense. After struggling through high school and taking the leap out to San Francisco on their own, the teens of Silicon Valley simply want freedom from expectation. And while their way of getting it may seem extreme to generations that clocked hours bagging groceries or interning everywhere they could get a foot in, Zs are really just pioneers of a new class of workers. And their experience is reflective of what all Zs are struggling with: There’s no clear path, so it’s up to them to forge their own.

Decoding the New Collar

Silicon Valley teens are just one example of a new class of workers making independence central to their occupations. Here’s what makes them unique.

Kevin, 26, a Make School student

Young and restless: While millennials may have normalized independent work, the trend will tip with Gen Z, half of whom are expected to be independent workers—with many launching their first entrepreneurial ventures before they even reach legal working age.

Opting out: Dropping out may once have been considered the first step towards loserville, but Gen Z “opt-outs” are chartering brave new experiments in education and work that challenge the traditional life path of the four-year degree followed by a lifelong climb to the corner office.

Interdependence: By leveraging the sharing economy—i.e. the talents and resources of others—the new collar are able to think bigger, reach farther, and do more, all while maintaining their solo status.

Gigsters: Each generation has its novel alternative work scene: Gen Xers pioneered the hipster ad exec, while Ys embraced insistently playful post-cubicle workspaces with snacks and slides. For Gen Z, the bleeding edge of the workforce is independent gigsters, untethered from any single boss, client, desk, or schedule.

Hustle hard: From creative moonlighters to Etsy moms to boomers gone solo after the latest round of corporate layoffs, a diverse range of people are embracing the entrepreneurial spirit and hustling hard to cobble together careers outside of the 9-5.

Pioneering the ultra career: This new class of workers is starting to work in their mid-teens and—since one in three children born today could live to be 100—have no plans to retire by the age of 65. The result is a new career arc that’s paced more like an ultramarathon than a sprint to success.

Coming to San Francisco, it was the first time that the people seemed to speak my language and understand what I was talking about. And being young on top of that, it’s honestly a little crazy. Hunter, 18

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

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