Generation Z: ‘We have more to do than drink and take drugs’ | Society | The Guardian
T hey drink less, take far fewer drugs, and have made teenage pregnancy a near anomaly. Generation Z – one of several terms used to describe post-millennial youth born after 1996 – prefer juice bars to pub crawls, rank quality family time ahead of sex and prioritise good grades before friendship, at least according to a report published by the British Pregnancy Advisory Service last week. An onslaught of sneering headlines followed, characterising today’s youth as boring, sensible and hopelessly screen-addicted. So, are the kids all right? “We have so much more to do than [just] drink and take drugs,” says Demi Babalola, a 19-year-old philosophy and sociology student. “I’m not surprised those [statistics] show that’s the case: it makes sense. We have a lot more to distract us now.” What’s her biggest time stealer? “Social media.” Babalola toggles between Snapchat, Twitter and Instagram, although she rolls her eyes at the mention of Facebook, full as it is of “older people”. But it’s not just the breadth of entertainment and culture that is so instantly available – and disposable – to Babalola and her peers. There is also a growing feeling that the preoccupations of her parents’ generation seem, well, a bit lame. “Going out takes a lot of effort: it’s boring, repetitive and expensive,” she says. “Obviously, I used to go out a lot in my first year [at university], but now we do more kickbacks.” To the uninitiated, a kickback is the sophisticated Gen Z sweet spot between the lairy house parties of yore – the ones typified by vomit on the parental carpet and a trashing of the family bathroom – and a pre-teen sleepover. “We hang out, we listen to music, make our own food, and play games,” she says. “We’ll probably organise it a couple of days before.” Lewis Allery, 14, from Cornwall, agrees. “We’re quite different [from your generation] because there’s more stuff to do at each other’s houses and we have more technology – like, we have video games.” His teacher, Mr Worthington, laughs. “I gave them a free lesson the other day where they could do what they wanted.” He knew a mass bunk- off to the park or similar would be off the cards. “I came back after an hour and they were all sitting in a circle, looking down at their phones and chatting.” The cliche that many young people spend far too much time online, instead of indulging in a romanticised form of rebellion, may have some truth, but as futurologist Rhiannon McGregor points out, Gen Z-ers are more cautious and risk-averse than their parents, partly because that technology exists. “They’re aware from an early age of how they’re portrayed online and offline, so they curate themselves in a more conservative way,” she says. (In other words, no one wants to be publicly shamed getting messy or being recklessly daft.) “But they’re also more socially aware and see themselves as part of a global community. It’s easier to get and feel connected to someone in Africa or Asia and share concerns about climate change, for instance.” Clara Finnigan, 22, who grew up in Devon and is in her final year at the University of Arts London, points out that one size doesn’t fit all. She still goes out, “often to gay clubs”. She believes her generation is unfairly judged and that it reports levels of stress and depression that are higher than ever because of the economic and political state of the world it has inherited. “The whole anxiety of not having stability in your future is something that is definitely very present. I won’t probably ever own my own house, unless I get really lucky.” She slumps in her seat at the pretentiously swanky bar we meet in. “I just want what previous generations have had: you work hard, you reap the rewards of that. Sometimes I feel a bit hopeless because [my degree and hard work] won’t make a difference. “I don’t expect to have one full-time gig; my career won’t be defined by one job. I know I’ll have to do stuff I don’t enjoy to be able to do passion projects that I do.” Amelia Colthart, a 22-year-old graduate from Leicester, and Myesha Owen Munro, a 17-year-old A-level student from north London, both agree. “At my age, my parents and my grandparents owned their own home,” says Colthart. “I don’t go out clubbing – I know my limits. I go to friends’ houses [for kickbacks], but I have to prioritise my career goals because it’s a lot harder to achieve what I want.” Owen Munro adds: “My generation feels bitter about all the things we won’t be able to do because of what the older generation chose.” The subjects of Brexit and of dropping out of university to pursue less mind-boggingly expensive apprenticeships come up a lot. As does a consistent refusal to accept that anyone should be defined by traditional markers of identity. “We’re more inclusive,” says Babalola. “You can do what you want as long as you don’t harm anyone and stay safe. It’s about freedom. Previous generations always made distinct separations between being gay or straight. “I try to avoid labels – being a black girl means society already has certain stereotypes that are expected, like I should be outspoken or ‘sassy’ or loud or like certain music.” Another eyeroll. “It’s restricting.” “People are more sexually experimental in my school, more than I thought,” says Owen Munro. “The boys as much as the girls.” Do monogamous relationships hold any appeal? “Well, I don’t know anyone who wants to get married as a life goal. Why would you spend the whole of your life with one person?” While statistics show that smoking, drinking and clubbing may be in decline for today’s young people, the health and wellness industry is booming with the same demographic – in part, because these young people have had so much information at their disposal. “The risks and downsides of doing all of those things have been drummed into us at school from an early age,” says Colthart. “Self-care is a much bigger deal for us.” Generation Z-ers will, after all, be living longer and more healthily, and looking better for it. A report (pdf) from the Institute of Alcohol Studies suggests that changing demographics also play a part, reporting that “ethnic minority children … are less likely to drink, [which] can directly explain a small proportion of the fall in underage drinking” but also that there is evidence these same minority students can also influence their peers. “Non-Muslim children in schools with a high Muslim population are less likely to drink,” it states. So what is the new going out? Is the Generation Z idea of fun inexplicable to older adults? Owen Munro and Babalola instantly refer me to Snapchat, where they communicate in a constant group feed with their friends. Broadcasting the minutiae of her day – a good oufit, a trip to Westfield – is as second nature as breathing to Babalola. “It’s kind of documenting your life, but you have an audience and you immediately know who’s interacting. I enjoy it – it makes me feel important that 100 people are watching what I’m eating.” “It’s easier than Instagram,” agrees Owen Munro. “I hate putting up a picture and waiting to see if anyone likes it. It’s scary.” And what are Babalola’s plans for today? “My friends and I go out to London, or cycling. We might go to a cute cafe and take pictures.” Invented: free love. Known for: benefiting from free university education, a prosperous jobs market and robust economic growth. Big on: telling each other that if you remember the 1960s, you weren’t really there. Invented: irony, McJobs and disaffected slackerism. Known for: their diet of MTV, rave culture and indie films. Big on: reminiscing about 1988’s second summer of love. Invented: avocados and overly elaborate coffee orders. Known for: making “hipster” a dirty word and sending selfies mainstream. Big on: blaming Boomers for dismantling the concept of free university education, homeownership and jobs for life. Invented: the ability to hold a conversation and simultaneously scroll through their phones. Known for: being globally connected and politically anxious. Big on: experimenting with gender and sexual spectrums.