I have a persistent vision of my 14-year-old daughter in the woods behind our house, holding her breath with a bow to her cheek as she stares down a buck, waiting to see the whites of his eyes.
This is all completely reasonable since, according to a recent article by economist and researcher Noreena Hertz, I’m raising a member of Generation K.
I call 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.Economist and academic, Noreena Hertz
Generation K consists of anyone born from 1995 to 2002. That means they're currently between the ages of 14 and 21, and researcher Noreena Hertz interviewed 2,000 of them over the course of 18 months. She was interested in figuring out what defined them as a group. Her findings were enlightening and unnerving in equal measure. (Here's another article that nicely sums up her results.)
Hertz asserts that Generation K has come of age in a world defined by three features: Technology, Recession, and Terrorism. They are also a generation full of contradictions.
Another common name for this group is the "smartphone generation." A vast, virtual world is at their literal fingertips. Social media has evolved alongside technology. Connection is instant and constant. This is having all sorts of possibly life-altering consequences (like this and this).
But in a stroke good fortune, there's evidence teens are beginning to express real disdain for the trappings of celebrity, the airbrushed lives that are curated and put on display. Among the teens Hertz interviewed, their favorite celebrity wasn't Taylor Swift but a 26-year-old YouTube star from Sweden named Felix Kjellberg—otherwise known as PewDiePie.
Kjellberg doesn’t sing or act, but films himself playing video games. Key to his appeal is that Kjellberg, in a beanie in his bedroom, 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.
This is a generation that also places a high value on connecting with others, both in-person and virtually. Kjellberg says he thinks his appeal is because “many people see me as a friend they can chill with for 15 minutes a day. The loneliness in front of the computer screens brings us together.” Interestingly, 80% of teens surveyed by Hertz said they preferred face-to-face meet-ups with friends rather than connecting online or by phone. So even with all the options for isolation provided by today's technology, teens continue to pursue close in-person relationships.
My data showed very clearly how anxious they are about everything from getting into debt or not getting a job, to wider issues such as climate change and war – 79% of those who took part in my survey worried about getting a job, 72% worried about debt, and you have to remember these are teenagers.
This may be the first group in history to do less well financially than their parents. According to Hertz' survey they are an anxious group. But it seems the result of all that financial uncertainty might be a good thing: Gen K is much more likely to prioritize saving than the Millennial generation who is just ahead of them. "Every participant in a recent series of focus groups with 16-to-18-year-olds told Hertz they were consciously saving money for later in life."
The anxiety they feel about their financial futures also seems to be having an impact on how they use and look at money. Hertz said the majority of the teens she surveyed preferred using cash to credit cards. Cash is authentic and makes is easier to track what they're spending.
They're also more concerned with social justice than the generation they follow.
The selfie generation isn’t, it turns out, that selfish after all: 92% believe that helping others in need is important, 70% cite inequality as one of the issues that worry them greatly, as many as those who are worried about terrorism.
On September 11, 2001, I was seven-months-pregnant with my own member of Generation K. So I’m not surprised to find that they're stressed out by the threat of terrorism. I can personally trace that thread all the way back to the womb.
This is a generation who grew up through 9/11, the Madrid bombings, the London bombings and Islamic State terrors. They see danger piped down their smartphones and beheadings on their Facebook page.Noreena Hertz
Perhaps just as they've become more fiscally responsible having grown up in a recession, Gen K will become more tolerant having grown up with such vivid examples of intolerance.
Raising Generation K
I see most of Hertz' survey results borne out in my own living room. My teenage daughter's life has been unquestionably impacted by the iPhone she's been toting around for the last several years. She has an awareness of money and budgets that eclipses mine at the same age. And she worries—about ISIS and our political system and Zika. But the anxiety she feels about all these things doesn't leave her feeling powerless. She's an optimist. She seems to believe on some deep, internal level that she has the resources (or will have, as an adult) to meet these challenges head-on.
For me, this is where the moniker that Noreena Hertz has coined makes the most sense. I read The Hunger Games as my Generation K daughter was reading it. (Interestingly, it took her two tries—she first picked it up at age 11 and quickly deemed it "too scary." When she tried again two years later it struck a chord and she raced through all three volumes.)
Katniss Everdeen is a reluctant hero. She doesn't do what she does out of a sense of justice or glory. She does it because she feels she has no other choice. There is no one she can consistently rely on for help, so in the end, Katniss saves herself. She is an authentic, often frightened, persistently isolated, ultimately successful heroine. And that says a lot about the challenges Generation K is facing, and how they'll likely approach those hurdles as they grow into adulthood.
Selfie-taking yet unselfish, connected yet lonely, anxious yet pragmatic, // Generation K is a distinct cadre, a generation very different from those that preceded them.
It will be years before it's really clear whether the name "Generation K" suits the teens we're busy raising today. In the meantime, anything we learn about their unique challenges and the way they look at the world will only help us raise them to be the kind of people we hope they'll become.Robin’s first career was producing TV shows. Her second, and most meaningful, was producing four great kids. Her latest career is figuring out how to teach them to use social media responsibly.
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