22/03/2016

Switching on the switched-on generation

BY Julian Gorham

A recent article in the Guardian says that while technology is important to millennials, it is essential to the generation who come after. Aged 14-21, they are permanently switched on, multi-screening and multi-tasking.

Sometimes known as Generation Z, the author calls them Generation K, after Katniss Everdeen the determined heroine of the Hunger Games. Like Katniss, they feel the world they inhabit is one of perpetual struggle – dystopian, unequal and harsh.

Generation K is coming of age thinking their lives are likely to be more of a struggle than those of their parents’, they worry about getting a job and about debt – and not only student loans.

Generation K is also growing up during a time of increased existential threat – perceived, if not actual. Although the vast majority will not have experienced terrorist attacks, gun crimes or extreme brutality first-hand, they have all done so virtually. Beheadings, bombings and violent murders are being piped into their smartphones 24/7.

“For a generation that is all too attuned to spin, Photoshopping and sponsored content, authenticity is particularly prized.”

This generation is not only profoundly anxious (there has been a threefold increase during the past 10 years in the number of teenagers who self-harm), it is also deeply distrustful of establishment institutions and, if anything, sees them as another source of anxiety.

When asked what comes to mind when they think of global corporations, they typically volunteer words such as exploitative, selfish, arrogant, greedy, cheating and untrustworthy.

Their feelings about government are similarly negative. Generation K doesn’t feel that politicians care about ordinary people, and believes that the rules of the game are rigged.

So what engages Generation K? Bernie Sanders for one.

According to the Guardian article, part of Sanders’ appeal to Generation K is his promise to take on the special interests of big business, as well as his commitment to social justice, which matters greatly to this generation. The selfie generation isn’t, it turns out, that selfish after all: They believe that helping others in need is important, they cite inequality as one of the issues that worries them greatly, almost as much as terrorism.

According to the article, Generation K does not believe that life is a meritocracy. In fact, not one teenager surveyed agrees with the statement that “society is fair and everyone has an equal chance”. Instead, they believe that it’s the colour of their skin, their sex, their parents’ economic status and their social standing that will determine their future.

Sanders’ appeals to the young, speaks to something else too: how important they consider authenticity. Forget Kim Kardashian or Harry Styles, there’s Felix Kjellberg, the 26-year old Swedish YouTube superstar, better known by his YouTube handle, Pew Die Pie. In a recent Variety survey of US teenagers, he was ranked second in terms of celebrity popularity, beaten by another YouTube star, KSI.

Kjellberg doesn’t sing or act, but films himself playing video games. He comes across as 100% real. In his videos he laughs, swears and goofs around. For a generation that is all too attuned to spin, Photoshopping and sponsored content, authenticity is particularly prized.

“Today’s teenagers don’t only want to buy stuff, they want to imprint their voice on products, services and media, and become part of the design and creation process.”

It seems Generation K is far lonelier than we might realise and yearns for connection, virtual or physical. Surprisingly, despite (or perhaps because of) all the time they spend texting, gaming and on Snapchat or Tumblr, when asked which activities they most enjoyed, teenagers list those with an element of physical togetherness, such as gigs or trips to amusement parks.

But authenticity and connection are not the only concepts at a premium says the Guardian article. Members of Generation K increasingly value things they can actively co-create. Today’s teenagers don’t only want to buy stuff, they want to imprint their voice on products, services and media, and become part of the design and creation process. Producing something themselves resonates with their desire to be self-sufficient, and to have physical experiences in a digital world – as well as their desire to have control and impact.

Generation K has been going crazy for Starbucks’ ‘secret menu’, which allows them to create any concoction they can come up with in any branch of Starbucks. The cotton candy frapuccino is one of their favourite tipples. By tapping into the zeitgeist of co-creation, and helping teens amplify their inventions on social media, Starbucks has made a genius move – its fastest-growing market now comprises teenagers who don’t even drink coffee.

Selfie-taking yet unselfish, connected yet lonely, anxious yet pragmatic, risk-averse yet entrepreneurial, Generation K is a distinct cadre, a generation very different from those that preceded them. But of course, as ever, it is not about age it is about attitude. In truth, the switched-on generation comprises people of all ages, choosing to be whatever age they want at the click of a mouse.