The expression ‘teenager’ was first coined in the US in the 1940s, though most associate its origins with the rocking ‘n’ rolling adolescents of the 1950s and ‘60s. But in his sprawling tome, Teenage: The Creation of Youth Culture, UK writer Jon Savage argues that youth movements began way before the post-war boom, during the romanticism of the late 19th century (others have pointed out that even that misses the mark by at least a couple of thousand years—the Greeks, for instance, glorified adolescents) followed by the “militarist vision for youth” of an ever-ambitious Germany and “the cult of masculinity” of Britain’s elite to ready her boys for wars in far flung corners of the empire.
Savage also references US psychologist G. Stanley Hall’s 1904 book, Adolescence, that coined the contemporary “definitive term for the elongated hiatus between childhood and adulthood” before concluding his own book in the year 1945, following the arrival of fashion and music magazine Seventeen. Aimed at self-absorbed, middle-class high-schoolers, its publication coincided with the dawn of mass consumerism, the term ‘teenager’, said to represent all-American optimism, essentially a marketing gimmick to make the kids feel as if they were part of some grand gang and encourage them to buy more stuff. Sound familiar?
Of course, those original teenagers are now baby boomers, a most maligned generation blamed for Brexit, Trump, gender inequality (the male half, at least), climate change, lack of affordable housing and everything in between; ironically now the antithesis of that rebellious yet hopeful youth movement that they first spawned. Pertinently, ‘baby boomer’ (a reference to post-war population spikes) also first appeared in US publications in the 1940s so, for a time, baby boomers and teenagers were actually the same thing (and in the case of Donald Trump, emotionally still are).
Generation X—often called the ‘forgotten generation’ with ‘middle child syndrome’—sits between baby boomers and millennials, and though the term has also been around since the post-war period, was not widely used until the 1990s following the publication of Douglas Coupland’s book Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture, the ‘X’ signifying that generation’s reluctance to be defined (they were previously referred to by the far less sexy moniker ‘baby busters’, owing to a fall in birth rates). The notion of a millennial was first floated by Neil Howe and William Strauss in their 1991 book, Generations. “We thought that an upbeat name would be good because of the changing way they were being raised,” Howe tells NPR. “They would be the first to graduate high school in the year 2000, so the name millennial instantly came to mind.”
In typical middle-child fashion, it’s said that Gen Xers (hand up from this writer!) generally just get on with it, leaving the bickering about smashed avocado and sorting the recycling to the baby boomers and their millennial kin—intergenerational ire, that, hilariously, spans millennia. In the first century BC, Horace referred to the propensity of the “beardless youth” to squander money, unable to “foresee what is useful”, while Aristotle, three centuries later, described the young as “high-minded” because they have neither been “humbled by life” nor “experienced the force of circumstances”!
Never lend your car to anybody to whom you’ve given birth” – Erma Bombeck
While many millennials, often accused of being entitled and tech-obsessed, likely remember those innocent times before Facebook and iPhones, the newest kids on the generational block, Generation Z–or the iGeneration—have never had to untangle a cassette tape or fumble with a floppy disk. Eighteen-year-old UCLA student and lifestyle blogger Hannah Payne tells the New York Times that they are the “first true digital natives”, able to “almost simultaneously” create and edit a document, while posting to Instagram and speaking on smartphones with their friends: “Generation Z takes in information instantaneously and loses interest just
Dan Schawbel, managing partner of New York consultancy Millennial Branding, advises advertisers that in this ever-digitising era if they can’t communicate their message in five words and a big picture then “they will not reach this generation”.
But if you’re fretting about our selfie-society becoming vainer and more vacuous still, take comfort, for Generation Z may well just be Generation Sensible. Or even Generation Integrity. Consultancy group Sparks & Honey found that 60 percent of the iGeneration want to have an impact on the world (compared with 39 percent of millennials), while a report by the British Pregnancy Advisory Service found that Gen Zers would rather frequent a juice bar than a pub, prioritise family over sex and even value good school grades more than friendship.
Anxiety about the future, both personal and on a grander scale, is a common theme. High school student Seimi Park, 17, tells TNYT, that for her generation, “optimism has long ago been replaced with pragmatism”, while Neil Howe, an economist and co-author of dozens of books about generations, compares them with the Silent Generation who were shaped by the first world war and the Depression: “There has been a recession, jobs are hard to get, you can’t take risks.” But Generation Z are certainly a resourceful and industrious bunch. The Harvard Business Review found that 70 percent of teens are self-employed and making a few extra bucks by teaching music or through YouTube videos.
“We have so much more to do than drink and take drugs,” 19-year-old student Demi Babalola tells the Observer. “… We have a lot more to distract us now.” Namely, technology. However, futurologist Rhiannon McGregor adds that it is because of technology that caution exists, aware of how they’re portrayed both online and off. And with that comes a greater social awareness, a generation that sees itself as part of a global community easily able to connect with other countries to share such things as concerns about climate change.
“Geographic location is not a problem and does not define who we are,” Jogle de Leon of North Carolina tells Business Insider. “Asian culture, like anime and K-pop, is becoming more popular among Gen Z.”
Various studies have found Generation Z to be less likely than previous teenagers to fall pregnant or be in physical fights. More than a quarter have volunteered, more than half wish to spend time working abroad and nearly three-quarters wish to start their own business, while their number one priority in the workplace is equality. Thanks to this consumer savvy, open-minded, overwhelmingly progressive generation who often shun brand loyalty for individuality, race is ever less relevant, and gender and sexuality ever less easily defined. Maybe then, eventually, the need to define generations will fall by the wayside too, in which case, how fitting them being bestowed the last letter, the letter ‘Z’. The end of prejudgment, and the beginning of a brave new world? Who knows, but the future certainly seems brighter under their thoughtful care.