Generation Z (or simply Gen Z) is the generation that follows the Millennials and includes everyone born from the mid to late ‘90s till early 2010.
Our aim is to question the generalised and derogatory terms often used to describe Gen Z members, to understand their characteristic traits and opinions and to empower their voices.
The project started in January 2022. Email: email@example.com
Talking about generations is at the same time enticing and reckless. In a sense, our culture is obsessed with chattering about them. Although the origins of generational theories go further back, one could argue that the 20th century elevated the “generation concept” to a point it became a valuable intellectual commodity. The interwar period brought forward an analysis of generation as a cultural and sociological phenomenon, especially in the field of literary theory with Gertrude Stein’s conceptualisation of the “Lost Generation” and in the social sciences with the publication of Karl Mannheim’s “The Problem of Generations”.
Gradually, and especially after the Second World War (perhaps as a reflection of the crisis that the traditional means of modernity interpretation were undergoing), the “generation concept” became an increasingly central element of the political-cultural vocabulary of the time. Given the fact that generation itself began to emerge as a political category linked to youth as a collective subject referring to the post-’68 international left, and that generational succession (with its inherent conflictuality) has become a cultural obsession of a culture that’s addicted to talking about boomers, Gen-X-ers, millennials and zoomers, I would go as far as say that generationality has become a grand narrative for the age of the end of grand narratives.
As the language of generational succession suggests, albeit in a conventional way, a system of periodisation and a conceptualisation of historical phenomena, it is in a way like a pop philosophy of history that flourishes where traditional schools of thought (the old ideologies, one might say) fade away in people’s minds. From this perspective, generational language also constitutes a methodology and a worldview, a way of understanding the world and participating in it: boomers are like this, millennials do that, what’s with zoomers? (question.)
Internationalised and digitised pop culture can’t stop talking about generations and their characteristic traits, just like narcissists can’t stop talking about themselves. This does not mean, of course, that the discourse on generations is a mere rant. Or, maybe, just like any rant, it hides a kernel of truth. The contemporary “generationalisation” of culture and history is a way for the current vernacular to visualise and process its own shifts and contradictions.
“Generationalism”, the contemporary obsession with generational identity, often “erases” or obscures other historical determinants of immediate experience, such as social class, language and nation, race and gender, urban and spatial planning, ability, symbolic capital and the people’s position within the existing power grid. To the extent that it doesn’t (also) talk about these things, the generational chatter simply ends up being a version of the political element’s appropriation by the cultural element, a narcissistic aestheticisation of politics that extends a subjective generational bias to the whole of reality.
Even so, however, we shouldn’t underestimate its moments of truth. The narrative quality that’s inherent in the conflictual generational succession scheme (with all its emphasis on subjectivity and the self) is a way for contemporary subjects to confront paradigm shifts at the level of an unstable and fragmenting social totality. It is in part an intellectual and emotional survival tactic. If your parents are jerks, is it because they’re boomers? If your peers can’t figure things out, does it mean that this is how millennials are? If as far as you’re concerned young kids are an enigma, maybe you should study Generation Z?
It was through such a prism that I read Eteron’s research on Generation Z, since the Institute kindly asked me to comment on it in my capacity as a columnist on issues of film, television and visual culture. As with any other abstraction, generational abstraction can be not only useful but also necessary in order to provoke reflection, but at the same time it is crucial not only to be aware of, but also to test its limits. That is, in other words, to confront it with real-life challenges. Researchers are of course aware of the fact that their project must historicise its object of study.
Thus, they make it clear from early on that they see the experience of Gen Z as a historical one: “Gen Z is at the same time the Instagram and Tik Tok generation as well as the ‘generation of constant crises’, a generation for which crisis conditions (economic, health, environmental) have become the norm rather than the exception.” Even more, they detect a conflictuality in this historical experience, and see Generation Z individuals as active agents of the contradictions of their time: “GenZ seems to have come of age in a context of distrust towards institutions and concern for the future.”
Indeed, if it is useful to talk about generations, then it is rather this immanent conflictuality (i.e. not necessarily as a conscious individual or collective practice but mainly as a historically determined way of existing in the world) that should come to the fore. That is, to illuminate the experience of the subjects you are investigating through the contradictions that life throws at them. The research rightly highlights the distrust towards the official political discourse and the dominant truth regimes, tracing its roots to the legitimacy crisis of the hierarchy and oppression systems brought about by the continuous, numerous and overlapping capitalism crises from 2008 to this day.
Next to this mega-scale of conflictuality, of course, there is a smaller scale (micro-political in the molecular sense), which concerns the conflictuality within subjects: within and between them. If we see the “constant crisis” of which the research speaks, also as a crisis at an identity level, i.e. a crisis of how subjects themselves are historically produced, then we will find a conflictuality that divides them internally, both at the level of the generation as a collective-body-with-contradictions, as well as at that of the individual as a subject that’s in a continuous process of identification and de-identification with itself.
In this sense, if we choose to interpret the research politically, we find Generation Z positioned within a socio-cultural civil war around the challenges generated by contemporary conflictual practices and attitudes regarding nationalism, authoritarianism, racism, the environment and sexuality. The research rightly highlights the new contradictions that feminisms have created between subjects, citing as examples #MeToo and the modification of the legal definition of rape (to those we could also add the resistance current in the case of the murder of Zack Kostopoulos/Zackie Oh and the recent wave of femicides).
But if, in line with the pattern I have tried to outline above, we extend these oppositions within the subjects, then we might be able to discern the conflictual character of the new masculinities and femininities themselves (and that of non-binary self-identifications), as well as the ways in which the new forms of sexual self-expression test the limits and constants of the heteronormative world. According to the survey, nearly 90% of Gen Z agrees with #MeToo and gender equality, but I wonder if it has a common or coherent understanding of what it means to be male or female today.
Of course, the political interpretation of the generation issue (and therefore of a research such as this one) always has a pitfall. Or, rather, it is a discussion mined with feelings of optimism or pessimism about the future. Just as speaking from within a generation contains the risk of a biassed extrapolation of a limited experience to the entire reality, speaking from the outside of the generation you are commenting on contains the risk of projecting perceptions and expectations onto a human material that is indifferent (and/or resistant) to your own fantasies. In other words, even without realising it, one risks revealing more about him/herself than about what he/she is talking about.
Hence, it is very easy to evaluate the “new generation” (in this case Gen Z) through the investment of abstract qualities of progressivism or conservatism, as the presence or absence of hope for the future. Seeing youth as something that’s inherently good and hopeful may help one avoid the resentment of elders towards young people disguised as “criticism” (“they spend all day on Tik Tok” or “they listen to trap music”), but it puts them in the same loop of general condemnation or defence of “young people”. Certainly liking the young is kinder (and less miserable) than calling them out, but it’s no less abstract, generalising and homogenising as a practice. As far as I’m concerned, because of my profession (and maybe also my temperament), I’m interested in commenting here on a particular aspect of the contemporary contradictory youth experience: the relationship with the digital image.
It seems trite that if you are going to talk about Generation Z, then you have to talk about the digital field: about subjectification through contact with digital technology and ways of existing within the digital public sphere of new media. In this sense, the emphasis that Eteron’s research gives on interaction with the digital environment is definitely justified both empirically and methodologically. For people born in the 21st century and who have spent their formative childhood years during the era of fast internet (in Greece that’d be from the mid 00s onwards), the experience of the self is interconnected with digital environments. It’s not a coincidence that we think of zoomers as digital natives.
Of course, this in itself would require a deeper discussion, since on the one hand, digitality is more than the sum of individual digital media/technologies, and on the other hand, the relationship between digital and analogue is much more complex than it may seem from the outside. In any case, if there is a digital centrality in the experience of Generation Z (that the research examines mainly regarding the field of information and the formation of political opinions) then this should not be understood as an autonomy (an independent existence), that is as if the digital world unidimensionally absorbs every other aspect of the youth experience, but rather to serve as a new window (or tab) of understanding for the multiplicity of digital activity itself.
The basis of this reflection is already clearly summarised in the research analysis: “Indeed social media is part of Gen Z youths’ everyday life from a very young age – in fact Gen Z is the first generation that is ‘internet native’. Gen Z youths familiarised themselves with smartphones and high speed internet during the first decade of their lives”. Digital citizenship doesn’t just stem from demonstrating competence in the use of new media from a very young age. It is also about the fact that being online itself is a dominant activity in people’s lives. According to the research “they’re a generation that didn’t experience the world without the internet and spends (very) large parts of their day online”.
With this in mind, it seems to me that the quantitative depiction of this online presence based on the participants’ responses is rather conservative. We read that “51.6% spend 5- 10 hours per day online, 36.7% spend less than 5 hours, and 10.6% more than 10 hours”, but it is probably not sufficient to think of digital presence as a separate leisure activity that can be contrasted with other activities or quantified accurately in terms of time. It would probably be better to think in terms of a continuum of digital-analogue presence, as if digital presence mediates and ‘colours’ all aspects of the young person’s experience.
In this context, it is difficult to define how many hours “you are online”, since the temporality of digital presence and the way it is diffused in the overall social experience, does not necessarily correspond to the time you spend in front of your laptop or holding your smartphone. Similarly, the way the “analogue” self flows into the digital self, makes it hard to clearly distinguish between the “inside” and the “outside”. If we look at things in such a way, then it will perhaps seem like the research treats Gen Z’s relationship with the digital in terms of passivity, as if there’s just consumption of content and interaction with an interface/platform. But if there is something specific to Gen Z in terms of its relationship with the digital, then in my opinion it is less about the uniqueness of their digital native status or the temporal measurability of their online life, but the distinct expressiveness that many young people channel in their digital presence.
This expressiveness is a productive force in the sense that it’s actively shaping the terms of the digital-analogue continuum of life. It is the productive force behind the desire, creativity, imagination, emotion, skill, technology, knowledge and general intellect of people moving in the digital space. The digital expressive media of Generation Z – that self-fictional universe of memes, stories, selfies, weird jokes, confessional shitposting and libidinal streams (all of them directly related to the specific expressivity of the digital image) – shape the digital self but also the very platforms, the interfaces that make the existence of a digital self materially possible.
Of course, the way we perform and curate the digital self is not a singular and homogenised process. The research rightly notes that zoomers “tend to prefer a personalised digital environment where information-entertainment-socialisation all merge and boundaries become porous”, but we need to look at the specific and new features of this digital personalisation. Perhaps here it would be helpful to compare this with the dominant digital experience of performing/curating the self of the immediately preceding generation, that of us millennials.
For many of the people who were digitally subjectified within Web 2.0 of active online participation, which followed the passive consumption of content that corresponded to Web 1.0, the space of digital self-fashioning was a constellation of forums, blogs and early social media, organised around the idea of a carefully curated online profile that digitally represented the self as the sum of public self-expression of one’s preferences. It was a time when Blogger, Tumblr, MySpace, Hi5 and, later on, Facebook were thriving. In these mediums, self-presentation resembled a digital archive, a scrapbook or an album. The public display of the self was made so as to be meaningful, long-lasting, coherent, and able to be communicated (or consumed) as a package.
Back to Generation Z, the research tells us what we already suspected: that the preferred social media platforms for young people today reflect a change, a shift. When asked which social media they use the most (with a choice of up to two), an overwhelming 74.9% chose Instagram while 19.1% chose the fast-rising Tik Tok app. Right after presenting this result, the researchers rightly add that “The young people’s preference for image-focused platforms such as Instagram, TikTok and YouTube has been amply documented.” If we focus more specifically on Instagram and Tik Tok, which are probably the most prominent reference points for the formation of the new trends, we can detect a logic of performance / curation that presents several differences from what we outlined earlier.
Instead of duration and coherence we find a more chaotic, discontinuous and fleeting performance of the self, which also corresponds to a different algorithmic logic, programmatic construction and interface culture of these platforms. Social media such as Instagram and Tik Tok rely solely on the direct active participation of users in content production, while also encouraging a more fluid image expressiveness through the provision of possibilities for easy, fast and complex iconography through a wide variety of templates, filters and other image and video editing options.
All this should not be seen in terms of exercising an unlimited digital freedom that unleashes the imagination with regard to the self-plasticity of the self and the self-expression of young people. This would be overly one-sided and rather politically naïve. On the contrary, we should instead also view them as a more profound degree of the subjects’ integration into the logic of platforms. In this sense, the virtual self-expression of zoomers is more immanent to the flows and functions of digital machines.
At this point we could probably use Maurizio Lazzarato’s concept of “machinic enslavement”, which is how he describes the way that modern media invest in senses, emotion, cognition and language in order to harness the most fundamental impulses of human activity and life itself, which thus function as components of a machine. This perspective paints a darker picture of “digital natives” status, but it should still not be seen one-sidedly. Felix Guattari, whose theory was Lazzarato’s foundation so to speak, reminds us that machines have a “living” side, an expressive capacity, a reserve of potential. For Guattari, the machine has power: the power to set creative processes in motion.
In terms of common, conventional categorisation, people who grew up in the 21st century are considered to be “image-driven people”. And Generation Z, which according to the dominant demographic classification mainly consists of people born around the turn of the millennium, is also regarded as the first “authentic” image-driven generation. What we usually mean by this, is that these people have learned to interpret the world and participate in it through the production and reproduction of images – or, more precisely, through a virtual grid of observation, classification, organisation and representation of the world at the level of the exchange of signs and symbols.
However, despite the usual abstract appeals to the “age of the image”, it would be rather inaccurate to argue that this is an exclusive property of the “digital age” (an image, after all, is more than just a sum of pixels on a screen, just as digitality is more than an electronic device interface). Therefore, when the survey states that a characteristic trait of Generation Z is its “preference for pictorial social media, such as Instagram, as well as its ability to express itself in a multimedia fashion”, we should not take this as a statement of a magical (positively or negatively charged) quality of young people in terms of their contact with the image, but as an account of new ways of virtually organising and expressing this semiotic exchange.
In this sense, the sentence that follows a bit further down in the research analysis is more significant: “Gen Zers are usually very comfortable combining image, video and text”. In other words, closer to my area of interest, we could say that Generation Z shows a remarkably spontaneous fluency in the use of cinematic grammar. Their distinct digital expressiveness, as reflected in the above mentioned social media, is a clear indication that individuals are not just directing themselves. Even more so, they render their iconoclastic gaze visible, making explicit the fact that they are organising the world through a new way of producing and reproducing images. And this, of course, should not come as a surprise, since it is a reflection of tectonic technological changes in the realm of external (material) reality.
As Evan Calder Williams has recently shown with the introduction of the term “shard cinema”, the cinematic way of seeing has spread everywhere through the dominance of the digital camera and the visual culture it has created. This, in turn, has changed images themselves. With their smartphones and laptops, young people are creating complex and dense images to which it is not easy to apply the traditional binaries between word and image, thought and emotion, material and digital, original and copy, production and reproduction, subject and object.
One will often come across articles on how “bizarre” and “incomprehensible” Gen Z’s online expressiveness is: How little sense today’s kids’ memes, Instagram stories or Tik Tok videos make (ironically, the majority of those articles are written by millennials, who are just a few years older, but then again, pop culture is obsessed with intergenerational relationships to the point of creating contradictions even where they don’t exist). Still, it’s not that hard to decipher Gen Z’s expressiveness, or at least to identify some of its main pillars. For example, it seems obvious that younger people’s preference for more ephemeral and temporary audiovisual production options (both of those are features of Instagram/Tik Tok) shows a different relationship with temporality, reflecting perhaps a pervasive no future atmosphere that has led to a crisis of even the very ideas of duration and futurity.
The expressiveness of Generation Z seems to have fully embraced the logic of the limited life cycle of digital signs and events, and therefore has no difficulty in parting not only with stories that will be lost forever, but also with entire profiles, accounts and pages that are treated as emphatically disposable and fleeting. On the other hand, for a person who has been moulded into a previous digital paradigm and feels that the digital self must be absolutely archived, the loss of a properly sorted profile can be a minor semiotic (and emotional) death.
In this digital give and take, the notions of authenticity and uniqueness (both modernist burdens that weigh down expression and consciousness) are losing more and more of their value. The semiotic exchange in which the online avant-garde of Generation Z participates, rather embraces the ideas of ironic pleasure, the immanence of humour, the constant reference to external reference points, the declaration of identity through the repetition of motifs (memes templates viral challenges etc.) with slight variations. After all, repetition itself is a form of difference and copies breathe through their impertinence towards the original.
Rather than launch themselves in a chimerical pursuit of an authentic and unique digital self, Gen Zers manifest their expressivity through a multimedia (and sometimes quite experimental) participation in shared communicative-semiotic events. Perhaps it may seem as if this expressive experimentation is something that concerns only the form and not necessarily the content. On the other hand, one could argue that there is no real distinction between content and expression. Expression itself contains an essence – perceptual, interactive and emotional – that permeates every form of communication without being limited to the linguistic one. For example, the spontaneous combination of image, voice, text and movement (as well as of rich subtext) that we see in many of Tik Tok’s hand-crafted viral videos points to a conception of composition and editing more diverse and communicative than those to which we are accustomed.
The idea that Generation Z (or at least a large creative portion of it) demonstrates proven communicative wealth through its digital expressiveness is in contrast to the frequent claims that it is a generation that cannot read and write, is addicted to screens or that they’re borderline functionally illiterate. According to this point of view, young people merely consume images passively. The problem here is not only that the active image-producing power of the digital subject is obscured, or that the aforementioned point of view overlooks the fact that the gaze itself is an active practice. The main issue is that it implies a clear hierarchical distinction between the word and the image. According to this very common stereotype, especially among sophisticated circles with high cultural capital, the image is always inferior to the word – and the preference for it must be accompanied by a sense of micro-shame, or at least awareness of its poverty.
Fortunately, Jacques Ranciere has shown in great detail that this perception is an outgrowth of a dominant logic that takes the visual as the lot of the multitude and the verbal as the privilege of the few. Taking this thought even further, he stated that there is no point in juxtaposing words with images. On the contrary, words are already images, that is, forms of distribution of the elements of representation. And in this very sense they are political, since they contain the possibility of a radically different representation. It is this thought that also enables us to move from the poetics of the digital image to politics of the digital image.
We mentioned earlier that the research raised a number of questions about political issues in order to gauge the participants’ stance. From climate change to the Golden Dawn trial and from university police to gender equality, the sample of participants seems to lean quite heavily on the side of contemporary identity, visibility and anti-discrimination politics. Moreover, given all of the above, it should come as no surprise that Gen Z is extremely friendly towards forms of political expression that are more or less inherent in the digital sphere, such as support for the #MeToo movement (86.9% are in favour) or the #cancelefood campaign (64.2% are in favour). But apart from political attitudes at the level of explicit opinions, it is also worth looking at the political subjectification of Gen Z through the digital realm itself. That is, in a way that is linked to the new virtual expressiveness and communicability that we have so far tried to outline in the context of this text.
The broadening of the possibilities for political expression is quite evident to those who closely follow the production of images by young people on social media: We are witnessing a shift away from logocentrism and literalism in favour of a turn towards a connection with the senses and emotions, but also an awareness of the performativity, corporeality and theatricality of political expression itself (which of course makes body, gender, sexuality and desire politics a privileged field for contemporary subjects moving in the digital space).
But it would be a mistake to assume that Gen Z’s digital political expressiveness is limited to issues such as these. For example, it was very interesting to see the recent trend in Greek Tik Tok where many young people shared and exposed in the form of viral ironic/humorous videos their experiences of the conditions under which they were asked to work during the summer season on Greek islands. If we reflect upon this trend in relation to the international post-covid trend of young people’s dismissal of work (the current crisis of positive investment in work) that has been coined as the Great Resignation or the Big Walk-Out, then we can see how digital iconography can not only bring to the surface molecular political processes of the social, but also give them new, refreshing, creative and radical forms of expression.
Of course, on the other hand, it’d be rather naive for this broadening of possibilities to make us over-optimistic. The concept of “machinic enslavement” that we used earlier can help us think productively within the contrasts of the actual situation. As the digital realm is itself enclosed by tech capital and its devices, radical social practices within it tend to be absorbed by platform capitalism itself as a technological and desirable calibration of the digital machines themselves. In other words, the operational integration of this digital expressiveness, helps the platforms become an even more compelling and sought-after product and infrastructure.
It is well known that the field is never neutral. It is itself a realm of contradictions, only at a deeper level, below the ground – and therefore its particular conflictuality has to be mined, in order to draw a geological picture. In this sense, the radical political image dynamic seems to be a living productive force suffocating within the productive relations of the existing technological, infrastructural and power grid. “Abandon all hope, ye who enter the Hell of images”, wrote Paul Virilio, echoing the famous Dantean inscription. Indeed, there is no hope, but there is a lot of potential.