The concept of a teenager really entered popular culture in a post-war 1950’s world where there was growing anxiety around the change in attitudes, tastes and behaviour of young people. The emerging counter-cultural spirit was personified in James Dean’s ‘Rebel Without A Cause’, which was the first mainstream cinematic outing for what became an archetype for the rebellious teenager: angry, sexual, brooding, anti-authoritarian, and parent-defying. As the 50’s became the 60’s, the division between generations became a gulf. Any self-respecting teenager came to view older people as the enemy – a nebulous, smothering body hell-bent on crushing youthful fun - and everything that came with it (music, sex (especially since the contraceptive pill became available to all women in 1967) fashion, art, books and drugs etc.)
The 60s and 70s
As successors to the social change of the 60’s, 70’s teenagers were perhaps even more engaged with carving themselves into the arm of history. Rage over the seemingly never-ending Vietnam war reached boiling point. Watergate and Woodstock happened. The punk movement blossomed on both sides of the pond, with The Sex Pistols’ ‘God Save the Queen’ reaching no. 2 in the UK charts – a song that was so emblematic of youthful two-fingers up to the establishment, it was pretty much banned everywhere.
The 80’s and 90’s are often viewed as tame, less revolutionary decades particularly in terms of youth counterculture after the social upheaval of the 60’s and 70’s – but actually a lot happened in those following decades.
On the lighter end of culture, the 80’s belonged to John Hughes’ slightly rose-tinted, but in retrospect, perceptive, perspective of teen-life that absolutely pitched parental figures as depressing and grey betrayals of their revolutionary 60’s teen-selves. On the heavier end of culture, there was the proliferation and crossover into the mainstream of the ragingly eloquent and politicised rap-music typified by bands like Public Enemy who called out racial injustice, police brutality and economic inequality. The 90’s ran with this trend for smart and sage-like role-models making the likes of Chuck-D, Kurt Cobain, and Zach de la Roca teenage heroes of the early ‘90’s, until those more tumultuous years (LA riots, suicide of Cobain, impeachment of Clinton) gave way to the shinier, cheerier cocky and coked up Britpop/Blair/Bush mid-to-late ‘90’s years.
What all the decades in this very brief, potted history of youth counter-culture has in common – is that from the ‘50’s to the late-‘90’s, whatever you were into, to be young was to be oppositional and for lots - outrageous. The point of your music, sex, fashion, books, TV, film and art was to upset, worry and scandalise parents and grandparents, and if it wasn’t doing that, then it wasn’t doing ‘it’ right. Embedded into the anxieties older people had about youth culture was always the suspicion it, and the idols who brought it, to the young masses, encouraged drinking, drug-taking, promiscuous sex, politically revolutionary thought and action and generally rebellious behaviour – and to a greater or lesser extent, it did just that.
Then as the ‘90’s become the new millennium, highly significant changes transformed the world as we knew it and precipitated the slow decline of the ‘teenager’ of the previous decades. A new generation were born who are now teenagers and young adults and they’ve subverted every teenage stereotype and preconception we had about teenagers. They are now known as Generation Z.
Generation Z would be the first generation who would be born to a liberal generation of parents who were far harder to shock, and worse (or better, depending on your perspective), would share their children’s cultural tastes. Previous generations could scare their parents with their records, taste in partners, politics and/or tattoos – Generation Z would never reallyexperience that rebellious teenage rite of passage.
Young people traditionally like to feel like their cultural spaces belong to them, so in a world where parents will happily rock up to Coachella and Wireless festivals, the notion of spaces exclusive to young people, older people disapprove/don’t understand/are afraid of, are becoming rarer – except online. A major reason most youth culture tends to now operate online is not just for reasons of convenience, but also because online are the only spaces that both exclude and mystify older people – and also, most importantly, scare them. Today’s parents aren’t going to be shocked by their kids going to Glastonbury and getting a crappy Celtic tattoo, but show them what their kids gets up to on 4chan, or ‘Rinstagram’ and it scares the bejesus out of them.
After 2000 the internet ceased to become something niche and geek, and something that would become (nearly) as essential to our everyday lives as food and water. The birth of Generation Z coincided with the meteoric rise of the internet, and this would become as influential in their development and internal and external lives as their parents, school and friendship groups. Unsurprisingly, Generation Z dispensed with the signifiers that shaped previous generations of teenagers, and the titans of the internet became their icons and heroes. Pop and rock stars were replaced by YouTubers, influencers replaced models and magazines, blogs replaced underground books and writers, TikTok replaced Top of the Pops, and a smorgasbord of communication apps replaced the need to actually go out and see your friends IRL, whether at a park, concert or youth club.
The new kind of teenager
All of these factors and many more – education, economics, surveillance-heavy parenting and lives, anxiety about the safety of the world – fundamentally altered the behaviour of Generation Z, transforming the expected behaviours of young people (drink, drugs, sex, smoking, ideological politics, wanderlust, driving cars, travel) and replacing it with behaviours previously associated with something far more conservative. Alcohol, smoking and recreational drug-taking have sharply declined in young people (with many opting for teetotal and clean lifestyles.) Sexual promiscuity, sexual activity, and multiple partners are now out, and monogamy or few sexual partners and porn-watching (instead of having sex) are in with the kids. Travel and learning to drive are declining – though obviously this is as much a function of economics than anything else – Gen Z’s and millennials are financially worse off than their parents and grandparents. The ages current Generation Z’s (and beyond) will move out of home (on average) is worryingly high and well into the ages previous generations were onto their first or even second child. A lot of this is hardly the fault of Generation Z (low paying jobs/sky-high house prices), but this doesn’t make the outcome any less depressing – it is essentially extending childhood and delaying adulthood for an entire generation. And it doesn’t matter how cool your parents are or good the digs are, there is far less room for personal, professional and emotional development if you are still living under your Mum and Dad’s roof aged 30.
All of this has forced us to re-address the value of youthful rebellion and spirit. Sure, it resulted in some of the previous generations having brushes with the law, living in questionable flats with questionable people, dodgy relationships, and long walk home from a forbidden concert at four in the morning, but long-term injury or criminal records aside, were these things so bad?
The new ‘rebellion’?
I would argue that in fact, taking risks is an essential part of development for any young people, and crucial for establishing your boundaries, limits and overall resilience. Having your kids live their lives vicariously through Netflix, and YouTube might not make you lose sleep wondering where they are on a Saturday night now, but that anxiety might come later if they still at home aged 28 watching Netflix and YouTube, unsure about what to do with their lives, because they haven’t actually experienced enough to really know.
This is why the recent shows of re-emerging youthful rebellion and activism have been not just refreshing – but a total relief – and a great sign for the future. From the Parkland students campaigning on gun reform in the USA, Greta Thunberg-inspired school walkouts across Europe, rising youthful political activism across the world – there seems to be an awakening of a Gen Z-shaped giant. Unlike millennials, who were lulled into a social-media torpor, believing that clictivism, hashtagging and heart-felt posting would be enough to change things, Generation Z seem to be waking up to the fact they need to get boots on the ground and out into the world in order to really make change happen. Like the Vietnam protests in the ‘70’s or the poll-tax riots of the ‘90’s, governments can’t ignore what’s loud and in their faces, and no one scares governments more than large bodies of angry and motivated young people.
Of course the same people and parts of the media that have been calling Gen Z (and millennials) ‘snowflakes’ for their cautious and often conservative approach to life, have been as quick to attack this growing show of rebellion. Young protestors were (somewhat oxymoronically) also called snowflakes for showing up and protesting about something they were passionate about. They were also called lefties, the unwashed, scroungers, communists, champagne socialists, middle-class twats – and worse. And that’s just great.
It means, Generation Z are finally taking their place in the grand pantheon and tradition of young people pissing off and scandalising the right kind of older people. And if young people demanding to live on a planet that isn’t on fire (even at the expense of an afternoon of school) really makes a certain kind of commentator clutch their pearls – than it says a great deal more than the commentator than it does about the kids.
Gen Z’s should wear all the pejorative names and sneering articles slung at them with pride, because that’s what happened at every point in history when young people rose up and asked for something different and better.
So, go forth little snowflakes, and create an avalanche!
Chloe Combi, Author and Generation Z expert, Thought Laboratories