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“OK, zoomer”. In search of Gen Z’s multiple identities

01.04.2022
Tags: Gen Z

In October 2021, the American critic and essayist Louis Menand wrote in the New Yorker that it’s time to stop talking about “generations”. 1 Even if we set aside the fact that they’re defined in a conventional and therefore broad manner, says Menand, generations don’t help us understand social history – or at least not as much as we think. He cited Bobby Duffy, author of The Generation Myth, 2  according to whom a generation is an interpretative factor among others, that ought to be combined with significant historical events as well as each generation’s development in time, in a way that any distinctive traits, stances and opinions can be specified.

His warning has a point. Indeed, why should someone born in 1964 be considered a baby boomer and not generation X (respectively: people born between 1946-1964 and 1965-1980)? How different is a Millennial born in 1995 from generation Z that conventionally starts with those born after 1996? And what does this age group succession teach us about the world around us?

The word “generation” is broadly used nowadays, both in public speaking and in research, though often with a semantic looseness. Oftentimes, it is mentioned in a purely empiric manner, thus being limited to referring to a certain age group, or an age cohort, as they’re called. According to Karl Mannheim, though, biological generations are a convention that can only be used as an analytics tool if it’s historicised, that is if linked to a broader historical and social context within which everyone who belongs in each “generation” forms common – albeit not uniform – viewpoints regarding the world, values, politics, and even aesthetics. 3  A generation is an operational notion only if it helps us examine the production of meaning within the framework of a community of people who form their multiple identity within history.

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In recent years, there has been an increased researchers’ interest in the younger generations in Greece as well. There are special researches that focus on young people between 17-29 years old, the age group 17-34 or the “new generation”, defined as Gen Z and the millennials. 4 As far as I know, though, Eteron Institute’s research report “Gen Z” is the first to focus on the Greek Generation Z as such, referring to the age group 16-25 years old, that is people born between 1996 and 2010.

Other than the conventional chronological definition, let’s remember two of the basic traits of this forming generation. The first is that we’re talking about a generation that is growing up in a digital world. Generation X’s first contact with the internet was as grown people, the millennials grew up during the passage from analogue to digital, so Generation Z is the first one to live right from the start within the world of Web 2.0, social media and digital platforms – Facebook, Netflix, Instagram, TikTok.

The second is that they’re growing up and form their consciousness within perpetual crisis conditions. Zoomers may have been at best middle school students when the global economic crisis of 2008-2009 broke, but their identities are formed during the trying decade of 2010 till today, within a succession of destabilising events: the economic crisis, the refugee/ migrant crisis (2016), the pandemic (2020), the climate crisis. And, of course, in the present day, this generation is marked by a global scale event: The war that Russia unleashed upon Ukraine – a war that might define this generation, just like 9/11 and the war in Iraq defined the previous generation’s politicisation 20 years ago.

“Generational” research is more advanced in the USA, where most discussion threads as well as concerns regarding the differences in values between generations start. Two recent researches by Pew Research Center 5 paint a very distinctive values outline of this generation, while asking at the same time “How different are zoomers from the millennials?”.

The two generations seem to share certain defining characteristics: They consider ethnic/race diversity to be positive, they accept that climate change is caused by humans, they support the Black Lives Matter movement, they are for same sex marriage and mixed marriage, they support free sexual self-definition beyond the male-female dipole (non-binary) and they support politically correct phrasing, especially in gender related topics. At the same time, Gen Z continues and expands trends that were prominent with the millennials: they’re the better educated generation in history to this date, they want an (even) more active state, they’re (even) more open in matters of sexual orientation.

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As we start picking on the concept of generations in Greece, will we reach similar findings? Eteron’s research highlights two important components of Gen Z: its digital citizenship and its still forming politicisation.
The digital natives’ generation seems to be well-informed, familiarised with and at the same time cautious towards the various available information sources it utilises. They keep up with current events, not just with a vivid interest (55% said they’re “Very much or A lot” interested and 30.5% said they’re “Somewhat” interested) but also with regularity. They’re for the most part informed by online sources: Almost half catch up with the news on a daily basis using online news websites (48.7%) or social media (50.2%). Even though the question isn’t being asked directly, the findings confirm the gradual forming of two worlds: The world of the older people that are informed via traditional media and the world of the younger, that are more familiar with online news following.

At the same time, it is significant that contrary to the majority of the older generations, digital natives are more cautious regarding the validity of the information they consume online. On a trust scale of 0-10, online information websites score an average of 6, while social media are on 5. The majority admit they have fallen victims to misinformation and fake news (71%), but also state that they try to cross-check the information they read in news articles (89% do so “very often” and “often”). It’d certainly be interesting to investigate if and to what extent they adopt news fact-checking practices or if they trust the existing fact-checking mechanisms that exist in Greece in multitudes, for the time being.

The multitude of available sources, though, may be balancing the lack of trust or “loyalty” to a specific media outlet or information source. The fact that among the factors considered in order to determine whether a news article is true or not, the factor “if the original source was a well-established media outlet” comes in fourth place (22.6%), is an indirect but impressive indication of the cautiousness towards traditional media – even more impressive if we take into account that amongst higher education graduates the relevant percentage drops to 17.7%.

If this is a generation that moves on the internet and social media like fish in clean waters, but still doesn’t seem to trust its information sources, the more political question raises: Who do zoomers actually trust?

For a mainly customised generation, it is significant that the highest trust rates are those of family and friends (respectively 49.3% and 39.5%). Then, somewhere in the middle, one finds education, new and traditional media (33.6%, 31.4% and 29%), while right at the bottom with a wide margin, we have political parties/figures & trade unions as well as the church (6.8% and 3.8%). The lack of trust towards politics can also be detected in the low percentage of zoomers who follow politicians or political parties on social media (just 17.7%) and also on the percentage of those who either share political posts on social media or post their own political content on those platforms (21.9% and 20.9%). This distance from the political system is a clear indication of “anti-systemism” – or rather, of a political representation crisis that isn’t relevant just to the younger generations.

New politicisation fields emerge though, that stray from “traditional” politics and so far, political parties seem to be having a hard time responding to that new reality and therefore fail to offer adequate representation channels. Climate change is a major concern, as 60% state they’re very worried about its repercussions – though this is a percentage that is in line with the general population’s opinion across Europe. 6

Additionally, new types of social movement actions emerge, that are linked to democracy issues, such as the Golden Dawn trial (72.2% agree with the hashtag #δενειναιαθώοι -which means “they’re not innocent”), gender issues, such as the #MeToo movement [86.9% agree with the goals and mindset of the movement and that includes men (81.1%) but even more so, women (91.8%), as was to be expected], issues of employment instability, such as the hashtag #cancelefood (64.2% agree with the hashtag, 21.7% don’t have an opinion and only 9.5% disagree with it). Democracy & human rights – gender identities – material injustice is a determining triptych for the youth’s political identity.

On the other hand, the anti-vaxxers’ movement doesn’t seem to have a significant influence on the younger generation, as just 18.8% agree and 59.8% disagree with it. This finding could be combined with the fact that in first place on the list of those the youth trust the most are specialists/ scientists (61.8%). This could be due to the pandemic, but in any case it shows that zoomers are more inclined to trust scientific knowledge – which makes sense given this generation’s tendency to follow the path of continuous growth in terms of the population’s education level. The protests/ movement against the establishment of a university police unit weren’t that impactful either, as 48% agree, 18.8% disagree and a significant 31% didn’t express an opinion. Those two facts could be interpreted as a symmetrical denial towards different versions of antisystemism: of the irrational anti-vaxxers’ movement but also of the old-school movement theme of anti-oppression.

Beyond the realm of symbolic or digital politicisation, the physical political participation seems to still be of a noteworthy significance, though it’d hardly be comparable to the “over-politicisation” tendencies found in previous generations in Greece after the change of the regime back to democracy in 1974. 25.6% stated they have participated in a protest/ demonstration, 21.1% said they’ve contributed financially to a political/ social event or festival, 7.3% said they participate in a local political group where they live and 9.5% are members of political parties or youth wings of one, while 54.3% hasn’t participated in any of the above. Surely, one must take into account that during the pandemic and given the limitations imposed by social distancing, the physical dimension of politics would in any case be undermined. Still, zoomers aren’t opposed to institutional politics per se: 84% stated that they intend to vote in the next elections, which will be the first for most of them.

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If we were asked to summarise the politicisation terms set by Gen Z, as demonstrated in the findings above, we could say that what emerges is a “rationalised anti-systemism” with leftist inclinations. Recently, triggered by young people’s preference for political figures such as Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders (as a reaction to the rise of ethnocentric-oppressive new-conservative populism that we saw in 2016 with Trump’s election and Brexit), some thinkers such as Keir Milburn wondered whether we are seeing a global emergence of “generation left”. 7 Let us be cautious in any case.

The numbers speak of a more moderate situation, at least regarding Gen Z in Greece. For 19.9% of the zoomers in Greece, the distinction between Left and Right is no longer relevant, following the commonality of the times, or rather of previous years. Their political self-placement, though, tends to be more on the Centre-left than the Centre-right: 26.9% place themselves between 1-4 (with 1 = Left and 10 = Right), 17.9% place themselves between 7-10 and the most popular choice is 5, which is the most central end of the Left towards the Centre (14.8%).

We could say that it’s a Left-inclined generation, rather than a Left one, especially if we combine its political self-placement with the qualitative politicisation elements that we mentioned earlier: human rights, climate change, gender issues, inequalities. At the same time, we can’t possibly claim that this is a uniform situation. No generation is immune to neo-conservative radicalism. One only needs to remember Trump’s or Marine Le Pen’s popularity with anti-systemic outsiders’ groups of young people, or Eric Zemmour, the far-right presidential candidate in France who is trying to arrogate younger audiences with a slogan aiming for their identity-nativistic reflexes (Generation Z = Generation Zemmour), or, in Greece, the participation of 16-year-olds in racist violence incidents in and out of schools, their presence in the protest gatherings for the “Macedonia” issue etc.

In any case, this research, just like any research that has something to say, creates more questions than answers. The first mapping in generational terms was a significant step; we now need to dig deeper.

We need to follow the tracks of the main research question: What differentiates Gen Z from the previous generations? Those textbook “crisis children” may be developing a distinct political culture. They’re born and socialise through social media, prefer participatory platforms but are at the same time cautious towards them, they politicise intensely but use hybrid methods to do so. The particular historical circumstances in the European South for the past ten years, may have encouraged the forming of a new, politically “critical” generation – meaning a generation that, in countries such as Greece and Spain, combines an intense politicality with low levels of satisfaction regarding the ways democracy functions. 8

Can we tell if what’s forming is a generational political conscience, though, and not just shared traits? A political conscience that would shape shared codes, not just political but also values and aesthetics through common experiences?

Mainly, the question is if zoomers are expanding, delving deeper and radicalising the millennials’ “legacy”. If they’re participating in the “culture wars” that increasingly divide Western societies regarding gender, sexuality, ecology and diversity issues; if they perceive them as issues that are interconnecting with social class, material instability and inequality issues – according to the intersectionality term that the millennials adopted. 9

An additional question would be whether with each new crisis there’ll be new values’ crossroads. In Greece, can we confirm the same willingness that young people have expressed around the world, to accept more public interventions, after the global experience of the pandemic? 10  And also, equally importantly, how will the liberal and pluralistic self-consciousness of this generation be affected by this new global event that will most likely seal not just their history, but also that of the whole world: the Russian invasion in Ukraine?

Let’s keep the matter open: Are Greek zoomers part of a “global” generation that is becoming aware of itself through core events within a crisis continuum? And what sense can their open, hybrid and contradictory identity make – if indeed it makes any sense?

Read the report and the articles on the research.


Footnotes

  1. Louis Menand, It’s Time to Stop Talking About “Generations”. From boomers to zoomers, the concept gets social history all wrong (New Yorker, 2021) []
  2. Bobby Duffy, The Generation Myth: Why When You’re Born Matters Less Than You Think (Basic Books, 2021). []
  3. Κ. Mannheim, “The Problem of Generation’s” in Essays on the Sociology of Knowledge, RKP (London, 1952) []
  4. Respectively: Research “YouWho”, Athens, National Centre for Social Research (EKKE)(2020)· Nicos Poulantzas Institute/ ProRata, “Youth. Habits, Opinions & Political Behaviour” (2020 & 2021). Kapa Research, “The identity of the new generation. Generation Z and the millennials in the fore” (2021). []
  5. Pew Research Center, “Generation Z Looks a Lot Like Millennials on Key Social and Political Issue”s (January 2019), and “On the Cusp of Adulthood and Facing an Uncertain Future: What we Know about Gen Z so far” (May 2020). []
  6. See Special Eurobarometer 513, “Climate change” (March-April 2021). []
  7. Keir Milburn, Generation Left (Polity, 2019). []
  8. Gema García-Albacete, “Has the Great Recession Shaped a Crisis Generation of Critical Citizens? Evidence from Southern Europe” in South European Society and Politics (2021). []
  9. R. Milkman, “A New Political Generation: Millennials and the Post-2008 Wave of Protest” in American Sociological Review, 82(1) (2017). []
  10. European Bank for Reconstruction and Development – EBRD, “Transition Report 2020-2021: The State strikes back” (November 2020). The same conclusion was reached by Eteron’s recent research “What do we think about the post-pandemic economy” conducted on Greece’s general population (February 2022). []

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