The Humorous, Absurd, Plural, and Defiant Story of Generation Z
Planet Earth, Year 2020
Mass wildfires stain the sky dusty red. Voluminous and blood-flecked clouds flood the highway, till the horizon dissolves into nothingness.
A crown-shaped virus spreads destruction through a network of hyper-connectivity, ironically, concocted by its very own victims: humans.
The world finds itself in entrapment, simultaneously, opening up its cracks: hatred emerges, unfounded narratives gain popularity, inequalities exacerbate.
There are reports of inexplicable activities carried out by groups of modern youths. Rapping provocative songs. Dancing in grocery shops. Dressing in non-existent clothes. Picking up tear gas canisters with their bare hands while protesting against the regime. These young adults make the world look, and surely, question.
The cynics think they are acting out. The capitalists lease their mission. The optimists claim they will change the world. Whilst their full motive and courses of action remain studied, the public settles on a working label, referring to this new wave of beings:
Accounting for 35% of the global population, and representing a $143B of spending power, Generation Z—people born between 1995 and 2012— is the subject of many analyses and reports. These studies have done a remarkable job unpacking how GenZ's ideologies and behaviors noticeably diverge from their predecessors.
Contributing to this ever-growing body of work, I aspire to offer something different. Deviating from analyzing signals and making predictions, I want to tell a story; a story about Generation Z, their journey to popular discourse, and how they transpire our lives, both physically and virtually.
This essay is, first and foremost, a narration of the many lessons we can learn from GenZers—the people, not the consumers. Secondly, it is a personal investigation against the grandeur I hold about my generation, the Millennials. —
"Hard times don't create heroes. It is during the hard times when the 'hero' within us is revealed." —Bob Marley
One defining aspect of GenZ that underpins their development, and heightens their reality is their mighty access to information. Compartmentalized into seconds of moving images, 140 character tweets, and memes, a series of information snapshots is designed to keep GenZ "in-touch" and "in-tune."
On the surface, amassing these information nuggets seems benign. But, as you dig deeper, you'll start to see how this constant, direct window to the world has contributed to the subliminal "world-weariness" that permeates the mood of this generation.
Originally coined by the German author Jean-Paul, world-weariness (or Weltschmerz) denotes a sense of internal dysphoria between one's actuality and one's ideal image of the world. In the 1800s, this phenomenon was partly popularized due to the increased awareness of the world decay and the aristocracy post-Industrial Revolution.
Fast forward two centuries later, world-weariness made its comeback to modernity thanks to the formation of a new society where information is industrialized, removed from context, and readily available at the hand of 10-year-olds. "Zoomers" today possess power akin to an all-knowing immortal with rechargeable access to endless information, but such power is also granted with the burden of acute awareness, and in turn, weariness.
Against this backdrop of modern decadence—where identities polarize discourse, nature preservation remains as talking points, and facts have alternatives—Generation Z took it upon themselves to endure weariness, cultivate resilience, spread joy, and make changes.
Distributively, yet coherently, four imperatives of their generation emerge:
- Galvanize with humor
- Connect through realness
- Decentralize and multiply culture
- Revolt and rejoice
1. Galvanize with humor
If internet-enabled third spaces like Discord, TikTok, or Fortnite constitute the new social architecture of GenZ's lives, sarcasm is the invisible thread that ties together the fabric of their culture.
Derived from the Greek word "sarkasmos," which stands for "biting the lip in rage," sarcasm, despite its mockery and at times, nonsensical nature, is a concept that has roots in resistance and carries a subversive undertone.
Like the Jesters in a medieval court, Zoomers employ sarcasm to satirize the struggle of their times, simultaneously upending the "everything is fine" attitude that enables their forerunners' complacency. To grasp the simultaneity of GenZ's humor, it's helpful to experience it:
In a theatrical and parodied intonation, Matti—a 23-year-old—delivers a satirical narration of a real and lived hate crime. Social commentary comedy is not new, but humor coated shots of reality, like this TikTok, are a signature means of vocalizing for GenZ on the internet.
And just as poignant and indicative these vignettes are about our world, this approach to harnessing weariness also points toward another developing trait of this generation: resilience. The correlation between humor and resilience has been well studied and suggested in psychology papers and social studies worldwide. In "stitching" and "duetting" with one another's hilarity, GenZ turns humor into a dispersed system of social support that helps them endure the strife of their times.
GenZ lives and shares their truths, even if the truth is ugly. And through this digital network of satirized pains and unapologetic truths, GenZ shows us the problematic facets of the world that we have turned our back against.
2. Connect through realness
Social media and its derivative reality-touch-up apps have helped create a "billions dollar worth" of a "FOMO" economy, and herald in an era of aspirational conformity.
While the actual life of luxury remains exclusive, its aesthetic, with assistance from the army of modern QVC personalities that are "influencers," makes its way to social media, setting constructs and "inspiring" purchases.
Growing up disillusioned of Instagram-engineered constructs, and algorithm that favors visual obedience over "oddity," GenZ rejects the aesthetic of perfection. Enacting the antithesis to past ideals, GenZ infiltrates homogeneous social feeds with realness, stretching conventional expression to its two extremities:
Raw and Expressive.
GenZ's expressions and creations are intentionally messy, blurry, and at times,"ugly." When their content is edited, it's so that they look slightly off, if not completely wacky. Whereas the top-down angle is millennial's go-to selfie pose, GenZers often take photos of themselves from the chin up while shortening their necks and smiling with half their faces.
GenZ embraces the expressive, gender flouting and "most is more "aesthetic, spearheaded and exemplified by queers and trans femmes of color. As a group of youths that inherits the fruits of civil activism before their generation, Zoomers grow up with more visibility of queerness and a more positive outlook on "differences" than their predecessors.
Bypassing the idea of mere acceptance, GenZ glorifies "personal quirks" and "marginality." In fabulous gowns, bodily spandex, glitter showers, and genderless garments, GenZ commands a fierce desire to own and to make their identities known.
Regardless of medium and expression, the true key to GenZ's hearts is realness. And as they dethrone the homogeneous notion of aspiration, GenZ positions radical relatability—connecting through differences—as the ideological driver of their culture.
3. Decentralize and multiply culture
The manufacturing and broadcasting of "popular culture" since the coinage of the term has historically been at the disposal of brands and media. While cultural creations exist well beyond consumerism, they gain popularity when they are seen in advertisements, and become iconic when they power the images for brands like Nike or Apple.
In his book "Cultural Theory and Popular Culture," John Storey, a cultural study professor at the University of Sunderland, describes this relationship by defining pop culture as "negotiated."
"Pop culture is negotiated: partly imposed on by the dominant classes, and partly resisted or changed by the subordinate classes." — John Storey
In his 1993 definition, popular culture is a top-down, centralized, and binary concept.
This has changed.
The rise of social media and mass smartphone adoption has undoubtedly assisted people—the so-called "subordinates"—to wrest back the power of making, distributing, and driving culture.
It is impossible to talk about culture without talking about the immense contribution of Black Culture to the make up the world's ethnology. To examine this cultural shift, it helps to take a brief look at the distribution of Black Culture then, and now.
Throughout history, Black arts—from music to fashion—has made its way to mainstream media primarily through appropriation and commodification. This process dilutes the message, obscures the origin, and isolates the arts from their creators. Mark Anthony Neal, Chair of The Department of African & African-American studies at Duke University, explains that it allows society to embrace Blackness without embracing Black people.
Today, Fresh Kid, an eight-year-old rapper from Uganda, can share his rap about poverty on YouTube and become a national sensation. Natalie McGriff, a seven-year-old, can design, publish, and sell her own children's book on positive images of young girls of color.
The internet and the rise of platforms like TikTok, Twitch, GIPHY, and more, have helped—albeit with plenty of shortcomings—creators of color worldwide take more control of making, sharing, and owning their expressions.
As culture decentralizes, platforms also evolve.
Starting in June 2020, TikTok started to add "irrelevant" content in its users' feeds to make space for differences and promote diversity of thoughts. In November 2020, Snapchat announced its Spotlight program. Each day, users can submit their Snaps to "Spotlight" for the Snapchat community to pick their favorite. Top picked creators can earn a share of the daily $1M price.
Due to this distributive nature of culture and tech, experts argue that the mass market is slowly turning into micro-markets, demographics are splitting into ethos-led communities, and mass cultural hype, as we knew it, might soon be a thing of the past.
The decentralization of culture also happens within the self.
Generation Z views social media with skepticism and employs tactics to put a leash on these platforms. In this modern epic of "GenZ versus The Algorithm," GenZ pluralizes their identities and distributes them across the multiverse of digital third spaces.
These days, Zoomers perform on Instagram, caricaturize on Finstagram (fake Instagram), collaborate on Discord, discourse on TikTok, fantasize in Animal Crossing, and organize grass-root movements using various messaging apps.
GenZ rotates between disparate roles, identities, and ideals in each of these micro-universes, while presenting different parts of themselves to varying audiences, peers, and collaborators. By being everywhere, yet nowhere, GenZ anonymizes their beings, controls their narratives, and defies demographical norms.
GenZ embraces all adhering and contradicting selves of their identities. This profound power over the self gives them the power to multiply culture from the inside, and reject top-down monotony.
4. To revolt and rejoice
The head-turning Greta Thunberg. Nigeria's astutely coordinated #SARSMustEnd Movement. Namibia's Anti-Femicide Protest. The George Floyd Protests. Immense vocality and activism are some of the most written-about traits of Generation Z.
While it can be easy for these insurgencies to captivate us, they can just as quickly cause dismissal as the youths' episodic mischief-making. However, the ways that young people bring about change in the world begs to differ. Endowed with technological prowess and lessons from past movements, Generation Z's modern change-making is judicious, multifaceted, and joyous.
GenZ's activism's judiciousness starts with the expansion of "Ground Zero" to the digital realm. Today's grassroots movements often start online before they manifest themselves on the street. While online forums and social media provide young activists a space to orchestrate their work, Internet products like crowdfunding sites help them gather financial support to sustain their movements.
The thoroughness of GenZ's activism also shows in their acknowledgment of individual change enactment. This awareness of personal activism lends itself to their changing relationship with money. Referred to as "the leaders of speaking with their dollars," GenZ view money as a means to their end— identity expression and change-making—not the end itself. GenZ is using their money to support small businesses and elevate brands that champion local heritage and values around the world.
"If I can't dance, I don't want to be part of your revolution." — Emma Goldman
As a generation that understands the power of viral content, GenZ expresses resistance through lyrical verbiage, spoken poetry, meme-able catchphrases, and dance challenges: a phenomenon, I've started calling joyous activism.
While skeptics might label these tactics as "slacktivism", in reality, online joyous activism is key to amplifying change. A 2015 survey by YPulse shows that 62% of young people believe they can make their voices hear more online than offline. Another study in 2020 from Reach3 Insights shows that TikTok users are more likely to attend a Black Lives Matter protest than non-TikTok-users.
By leaning on the melodically sticky language of the internet, GenZ infiltrates the attention economy, spreading and evangelizing their cause.
Another significance of these feel-good dance moves and catchy tunes is the mere fact that they feel good. Protesting and demanding systemic change is as hard as, if not harder, than it sounds. Joyous activism offers the intermittent relief and refuels that change-making demands. In an interview with Huck Magazine, Ben Smoke, an activist, puts this beautifully:
“You cannot but try. And if you can’t find joy in the trying, you won’t find joy in standing up for what is right and what should be happening." — Ben Smoke
The story of Generation Z is a story of revolution and rejoice.
Despite their time's weariness, GenZ bravely weaves positivity in the fabric of their lives. This shared sentiment subsequently becomes the engine that kindles their resistance to old values while powering their reimagination of the world today.
No, GenZ is not going to save us.
If this narration of GenZ—with their world-changing imperatives—might sound like a fantasy, it is because, in a way, it is.
This essay is a personal narrative. One that starts as a celebration of Generation Z's audacious ingenuity and creativity but slowly and dangerously resembles a sort of responsibility abdication rally.
"You all come to us young people for hope, how dare you." — Greta Thunberg
If this essay makes you feel hopeful about the future, I am glad. If this essay alludes you into thinking that the future is redeemed and guaranteed by GenZ's good deeds, then let me be clear:
Generation Z is not saving us.
They are fighting for their lives, putting their backs against the fallout of past generations' doings. GenZers are both the heroes of our times and the victims of their circumstances. Their imperatives are as self-imposed as they are inescapable.
"GenZers are both heroes of our times and victims of their circumstances."
Behind the memes, the jokes, and the dances are a generation with growing mental health conditions. The other side of a sarcastic video on TikTok might reveal a victim of discrimination. With every word of appraisal for embracing self-truth, an equally substantial act of abuse emerges. Any advance in liberation can instigate even more devious suppression.
The fight between "old constructs" and "new values" for a better future is hardly a fair-fight, and its outcome is anything but guaranteed. GenZ might be giving this fight their all, but at this moment in the timeline of change-making, they aren't the ones who hold immediate power and resources.
We, the millennials, the Gen Xers, and yes, the Boomers. We, whose negligence has created the modern dystopia Zoomers inherited. We, whose prejudices and old-habits still give novelty to "the ways things have always been done." And we, whose resources steer the direction of innovation and dictate its beneficiaries.
The next 9 years will be critical. Every action that we take—both collectively and individually—can help us either curb the speed of destruction or vastly accelerate it.
With their authenticity and activism, Generation Z has awoken the world's consciousness and set change-making in motion. It is our duty—more urgently now than ever—to shoulder their weight and help preserve and nurture this world.
Our life comprises the narratives we tell ourselves and the actions we take in the name of them. If you have made it this far in the essay, there is one thing that I'd like to ask.
I ask if you can consider this essay a narrative, in the name of which, you can take a simple act of questioning:
If GenZ were destined to fulfill the 4 imperatives bestowed upon them,
"What is then our role in realizing this prophecy?"
This essay is supported by Your Majesty's 4:1. An initiative that allows Your Majesty's curious minds to spend Fridays carrying out individual research and, or non-work related projects that help create a better internet for everyone.
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This essay is also the second issue of Method of Elenchus: Viet Hoang's biannual newsletter where he shares long-form essays that foster new ways of looking at culture, business, design, and technology.