End of Indie
This is a selection from Humanly, Issue 02, which focuses on Generation Z and teen culture.
For decades, the pinnacle of cool among teenagers has been being “indie,” aka independent. Yet, while Generation Z is pushing the limits of being quirky, weird, and original (they’re armed with the Internet, after all), it’s not through the rejection of mainstream. In fact, for this generation, being edgy, radical, and cool means risk-taking of the emotional kind: sincerity, vulnerability, inclusion, and—gulp—interdependence.
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The art of the eye-rolling, anti-status-quo outsider was pioneered by Xers: They didn’t fit into mainstream society, nor did they want to (cue Ethan Hawke’s too-cool character in Reality Bites, who wore his disdain on his flannel shirtsleeve). While Generation Z has no shortage of originality, what makes them markedly different is that they lack the angsty, mis-understood side. Throughout our travels around the country, we were surprised to find that even the most out-there, hardcore, and bleeding-edge teens were eager to engage with us in raw, real, open, honest—even profound—conversations.
There was Bella, 13, from Asheville, North Carolina, who has half her head shaved, owns a pet rat, and plays the fiddle (see Girlhood, page 52). Or brothers Henry, 13, and Isaac, 17, who grew up in the skate parks of Portland, Oregon—they rock unheard of indie T-shirt brands and make up their own weirdo music genres (hello, wiggle punk). And in Detroit, Michigan, Hector and Roberto, both 17, are thoroughly immersed in the b-boy subculture of their inner city breakdance crew. All were proudly individual, yet without any hint of the closed-off, aloof, “nobody gets me” vibe that’s been the status quo among teens for decades. Part of the reason is that what was edgy and avant-garde 20 years ago is just the norm today. Or as Sophie, 17, in Portland, Maine, told us, “It’s the norm to be radical” (see High Stakes ID, Humanly, Issue 02).
Of course, it can’t be discounted that the cultural meaning of “indie” has changed. Not only does nobody bat an eyelash when underground bands license their songs for Target commercials, but there just isn’t the same level of rebel cachet associated with defining and finding one’s own life path. Being independent used to be a declaration—now, it’s just the default. Life has become a more autonomous endeavor for most people, as the social support systems that used to be inbuilt—from nuclear families to religious communities to co-workers and neighbors that actually knew you—have virtually fallen away. Furthermore, indie is being encouraged: As many Zs (48%) report their parents are encouraging them to explore alternative paths as are those who’s parents are encouraging them to excel at traditional paths (52%). When half of a generation’s parents are urging their kids to be alternative, alternative loses it’s cache.
When asked which has more status— being alternative and edgy or being extremely normal—as many Zs voted for “normal” as did “alternative” (both 50%).
This indie lifestyle has only been reinforced by the power of digital. A wide range of digital solutions have conveniently stepped in where family, friends, and coworkers have dropped off—but to what end? We no longer ask friends for rides; there’s Uber for that. To take it a step further: Why ask your brother-in-law to help you assemble your new IKEA furniture when you can hire a TaskRabbit? Why crash on the couch of an old college pal when Airbnb is so affordable? Why approach the cutie at the bar when you can just “swipe right”? As tech entrepreneur Zach Klein, who co-founded DIY, an online school for kids, tweeted recently, “I hesitated to ask a friend to help me out of a bind and run a big errand. He came through and my trust deepened. Why that fear to ask?” Klein went on to add, “I crave more interdependent relationships, yet also sense that more and more the social climate wants to shift that dependency to apps... Is this an era where friendships are trending towards convenience?” Supporting this, the number one aspect of predigital life that Zs long for now is “Real friends—a time when people had 10, not 1,000 friends” (see The Real World, Humanly, Issue 02).
We aren’t the first to note that technological connectivity is in some ways making us less connected. But for a generation that only knows a world where we’re more likely to pull up an app than call up a friend—and who grew up competing with screens for their parents’ attention (41% of Zs versus 34% of millennials say this was the case)—there’s a massive craving to reconnect. As such, Gen Zs are behind a major shift in the sensibility of teenagers: from being indie to fostering interdependence. If the standard of cool has been to be tough and buttoned up, to have your shit together at all times, it’s refreshing—even risky—to be emotionally vulnerable. With no pension funds, no nuclear families, and no real rules around who they have to be, Zs are less about breaking free of the system than about pulling together ad hoc support systems of their own. Especially when they’re graduating into a world with fewer safety nets, it seems natural that Zs are craving deep, intimate bonds with people they can lean on and trust.
39% of Zs say interdependence, and the ability to let down one’s guard and rely on others, has more status than independence.
Take, for instance, teen b-boys Hector, 17, and Roberto, 18, in Detroit. In a discussion that touched upon topics from gang violence to hip-hop to weed, the conversation turned to something that surprised us: how they inspire each other to be good men. Hector, whose brother has served time in jail for selling drugs, says of Roberto, “He’s one of the best friends you could ever have… Look at where we’re at, how many people get shot. Once you find that one person who believes in you, you hang out with them and you can stay in a good mindset because there are other people that are there. I look to my friends for a lot of inspiration so we can all get out of here.” Both boys praise their mentor, Benito, for helping them find a positive, creative outlet in breakdance. And their definition of success? Returning to their community post-college to be mentors themselves, supporting their families, and being good fathers (when the time comes).
If you’ve ever talked to a teenage boy, you know that it can be hard to get the full story. Hector and Roberto felt like true post-millennial teens: Not once did their cell phones come out of their pockets while we talked with them. Instead, they embraced the awkwardness and vulnerability that came with sharing their stories. And while Gen Ys are practiced at curating the best versions of themselves—see personal brands and duck-lipped selfies—Zs have the second-mover advantage of seeing the pressures and loneliness that have come with keeping up appearances. We couldn’t help but feel that Hector and Roberto’s open, earnest, and raw sincerity was the height of what’s edgy and fresh right now. In fact, “Sincere” topped Gen Zs list of how they describe themselves, coming in sixth out of thirty descriptors. Roberto even admitted to us that despite today’s super-casual dating culture, where a blowjob can be a precursor to actually having an in-depth conversation, he’s waiting to date until he’s more emotionally ready. Gen Ys may have taken hook-up culture to a whole new level (Tinder, Hinge, Bumble—oh my!); Gen Zs are yearning for connections with strings attached.
I teach my daughter about social justice and caring about quality of life for everybody and not just ourselves. We have really honest discussions about the state of the world and other people’s experiences.Sarah, mother of 13-year-old Bella
You could say that inner city kids deprived of strong family foundations are just more likely to rely on one another, but at wholesome and hippie-ish Casco Bay High School (CBHS) in Portland, Maine, we saw a slightly more organized, if not radical, version of interdependence at work. A public charter school designed around the Expeditionary Learning principles of Outward Bound, CBHS’s curriculum includes outdoor expeditions, like multi-day kayaking, camping, and backpacking trips (dubbed “Quests”). However, what seems to have the most impact on students is the interdependence of the school community: Each student is assigned a “crew” of 10 to 15 students with whom they study, travel, and rely on for all four years; older students mentor younger ones; collaboration, inclusion, and compassion for others is a hallmark of daily lessons; and the cultivation of trust and friendships is as highly valued as academic performance. Talk about trust—there’s even a swimming class wherein students teach their peers, often immigrants who are hitting the pool for the first time, how to swim.
Hasanain, 15, who transferred to CBHS after experiencing bullying in another school over his Arabic heritage, told us, “It’s a really great community. Everyone is really close to each other… We have many activities where they actually force us to be with upperclassmen and communicate with them to get our task done. For example, the first month of freshman year they send you out to this island for five days with your crew, which is like 13 people. You eat with them, you sleep with them, so you get to know them very well. And that’s pretty much how the community works. You’re forced to talk to people.” Josie, 17, agrees, “The cool thing about Casco Bay High School is while friend groups exist, they’re not exclusive cliques. That’s one reason I really love it here. I feel like I can talk to almost anyone in the school.”
CBHS principal Derek Pierce explains, “We have a collective ‘we are all in this together’ mentality. There is a movement in education that is about every kid going their own path at their own pace. I think that loses something. Our approach is more that we are all looking at the world together and collaborating on what makes this a successful community. The fact that we are all in it together makes it stronger because we have this peer power. You are not an island. That is exciting and motivating for kids. We are all fighting the same battles while picking our piece of it.” Funded in part by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and named a “model school” by the International Center for Leadership in Education, CBHS reports a nearly 100% college acceptance rate among its graduates, and several hundred educators visit their school each year to learn their teaching methods.
Kids need to feel known, loved, and cared for. That is when you get their best.Derek Pierce, principal at Casco Bay High School
Part of the reason for Z’s fresh level of vulnerability, not surprisingly, is how they’re being raised. Principal Derek Pierce—a former Hollywood scriptwriter—isn’t the kind of principal that would intimidate anyone, much less a child. But radical openness is something we heard from parents as well, who told us they too feel like they’re raising a kinder, softer, gentler, and more sensitive generation. Carrie told us of her 12-year-old son, “Malcolm is an unusual creature in the first place. He was born incredibly gentle and kind and loving. People used to ask to borrow him. They would say, ‘How did he get like that?’ People would be unnerved by just how connected he was. However, his hardest things that we have been dealing with are navigating the social world. He would never be unkind to someone, so trying to understand why people are sometimes mean has been an ongoing challenge.”
Sarah, mother to a 13 year old daughter, describes her own, often vulnerable, parenting style: “Communication is really huge. I’m not perfect as a mom, but I do my best. When I screw up, I’m accountable to her, even though she’s a child. Some people would say, ‘You don’t owe her an explanation,’ but I believe I do. So, I role model that to her a lot. Loving communication was a big thing with us.” And Tammy, mother to a 20-something and a tween, told us, “I definitely feel like it’s my job to make good citizens. I don’t mean in a country, but like someone who everyone would want to be a part of their community… The first thing I ask their teachers is, ‘Are they kind? Are they compassionate to others?’ I want them to be kind, caring people, and think of others.”
While perhaps not as profoundly impactful as their own parents’ tutelage, the principle of compassion is increasingly seeping into main-stream culture, and that’s bound to further shape how Gen Zs see the world. For example, while Gen Ys came of age in an era of Clinton denials and Bush bravado, this generation is growing up with a president who’s not only funny (see Obama’s “Slow Jam the News” musical take on student debt on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon) but emotionally available (yes, he cries about gun control). In fact, while the highest levels of politics are typically known for being cold, detached, and authoritative, Obama has brought interdependence all the way to the White House. Vice President Biden told CNN recently that when he confided in the president that he was considering selling his home in order to help support his ill son’s family, Obama told him, “Don’t sell that house. Promise me you won’t sell the house. I’ll give you the money…. Whatever you need, I’ll give you the money.” Interdependence at the highest rung of society certainly marks a cultural shift.
While Zs probably aren’t yet tuning in to comedian Marc Maron, younger Ys are responding in droves to the emotional vulnerability of his podcast WTF, which has become a bit of a sensation for its celebrity interviews wherein public figures open up in a way they rarely do (Robin Williams admitted to suicidal thoughts, comedian Todd Glass came out, and President Obama used the n-word). Maron himself taps into the zeitgeist with his ad nauseam confessions about his fears, faults, failures, divorces, anxieties, and addictions. Maron told The Believer, “What appealed to me [about doing the podcast] was the intimacy of the medium, the fact that I was doing it from my home, and the fact that I wanted to talk. I was not there to plug things. I don’t do a hell of a lot of research… I’m just looking for authentic engagement of some kind.”
Another example of culture inciting people to rely on each other more is Patreon.com, a crowdfunding platform that evolves the group-oriented perspective of sites such as Kickstarter, Indiegogo, and GoFundMe to delve into deeper, more enduring, more personal connections. Patreon connects content creators with users who “tip” them every time they release output, be it a song, album, book, or recipe. Fans and creatives communicate more regularly and thus form a more intimate and lasting bond.
One of the most high-profile Patreon users is musician and artist Amanda Palmer (formerly of The Dresden Dolls) who had raised $1.2 million on Kickstarter, the largest sum for any music project to that point. Her subsequent viral TED Talk and book, both titled The Art of Asking, outline what she believes is the future of the music industry: Don’t make people pay for music, let them. Palmer’s Patreon subscribers collectively pledge $35,000 per “thing” she makes, and she makes something about once a month. While Palmer admittedly has a deeper relationship with her cult-y fanbase than most—she regularly crashes on fan’s couches, gives private house shows, and has let fans paint on her naked body more than once—she is an example of a new level of trust and reliance between artists and fans (see Steady Pay-tronage, Humanly, Issue 02). Expect to see more musicians and artists develop interdependent relationships with their fans: The website Undertow Music Collective books intimate live music shows in the private homes of fans, and bands including Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, Mike Doughty, and Califone have already staged national living room tours.
Gen Zs are more than twice as likely to say personal culture, rather than American culture, influences them most (41% vs. 19%).
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