At ten years old, I designed a PowerPoint presentation to persuade my parents to buy me an iPhone and allow me to create an Instagram account. I was desperate to convince them of the necessary part that social media played in a modern fifth-grader’s life. If all my friends had these things, why couldn’t I? My first instinct was to make a PowerPoint to argue my case for social media, as opposed to having a direct conversation with my parents. At age ten, I had already accumulated enough technological prowess to effectively create a presentation as a means of expressing my ideas and making an argument. Unfortunately, my presentation wasn’t nearly as effective as I’d hoped, and I wouldn’t be allowed to get an iPhone or an Instagram until two years later. Looking back, this kind of early technological influence was really an unconscious generational phenomenon, forever marking Generation Z as the children who could make PowerPoints before they could do long division. In this essay, I discuss how both the rise of social media and the Covid-19 crisis have left indelible marks upon this specific age group, and these events have undoubtedly solidified the holistic identity of Generation Z.
In recent discussions concerning the definition of generations, and Generation Z in particular, a controversial issue has been whether generations warrant definition at all. On the one hand, some argue that generations are useful indicators of a certain age period, especially for the purposes of business or marketing and the tracking of societal development. From such a perspective, Alex Williams of The New York Times argues that Generation Z does have a distinct personality. In his article “Move Over, Millennials, Here Comes Generation Z,” Williams cites multiple reasons for this line of argument: the rapid increase in the use of technology, an “obsession with safety,” and an increased pragmatism rather than idealistic optimism (Williams). On the other hand, others argue that defining an entire group of people as a generation is impossible. David Costanza’s article “Can We Please Stop Talking About Generations as if They Are a Thing?” illustrates just this point. In his words, “the science shows that generations are not a thing,” and “the core scientific problem is that the pop press, consultants, and even some academics who are committed to generations don’t focus on the whys” (Costanza). Costanza argues that there is a severe lack of reliable scientific evidence to support any claims that generations are useful methods of characterization. Attempting to define generations has become controversial, as some believe such definitions can provide an accurate and useful characterization of a period while others suggest that they are baseless generalized claims rooted in intuition rather than science.
Though I admit that there may not be much current scientific evidence backing the concept of generational data, I maintain that identifying generations warrants intuition and social instinct over mathematical analysis. Personalities cannot be defined by numbers: they are shaped by experience. Some might object that no experiences can truly shape an entire age group in the same way, as people experience life individually rather than collectively. While this is true, there are certain events–for example, the dawn of the internet, the World Wars, and the Great Depression–that inevitably leave scars on an entire group of people. These scars will invariably have a collective influence over some future attitude, practice, or impression within that age period. My personal view then is that generations can be an incredibly useful tool of characterization, especially when considering the “coming-of-age” events that members of a generation experience together. Generations can reveal the collective identity of an entire age group, as they provide a lens through which one can view the values, ideas, and personality of an era. They allow for inherent understanding and insight between people, a kind of unspoken awareness and appreciation for others who share some of your outlooks and experiences.
Social media and the increased use of the internet have created an entirely new mode of communication within the Generation Z age group. Memes, tweets, text-posts, discussion platforms, and text-lingo all collaborate to form a distinctive method of communication. Show a meme to a member of an older generation, and it will undoubtedly be misunderstood. Show the same meme to a 19-year-old, and it serves as a visual language that communicates ideas in a way unique to Generation Z. Even Generation Z’s use of the hashtag has integrated linguistic meaning with technology. The hashtag is nothing more than a sign to signify the digital content of a certain topic (i.e., #woke, #puppies, and #snow would all correlate to digital content in these subjects). The fact that Generation Z has integrated this technological symbol into vernacular speech exemplifies the extent to which this generation has identified itself through social media.
The language created by this generation’s affiliation with social media acts as a shared skill set for only this generation. This age period has also developed terms to describe new feelings and values that are entirely characteristic to only one generation. Woke, YOLO, bae, boujee, Okurrr, gucci, bruh, yessir, finsta, and yeet are only some examples of the various terms created by this generation to facilitate meaningful expression. These terms have, of course, been made widely available and understandable through the means of social media. Jamie Belinne, author of “Gen Z – The Communication Generation,” argues that “[y]ou can’t possibly keep up unless you live in their world” and “Gen Z has always had [social media], so it’s a way of life” (Belinne). Other generations may try to catch up with Generation Z’s grasp of technology, but no other generation will ever truly understand the language advanced by social media; it is a shared experience exclusive to this age group. On the whole, the widespread use of social media has created a use of language that inherently differentiates this specific age group from any other.
The globalized use of technology and social media has created a generation of youths more well-informed and with more experiences in diversity than prior generations. News is now instantaneous, and information is accessible to any and all age groups with a proficiency in technology. For a rough idea of just how effective social media is at facilitating the spread of news and information, we can look to a Business Insider poll of 1,884 people between the ages of 13 and 21 that found that “[s]ocial media is the top way that Gen Z finds out about what’s going on in the world, with 59% of respondents listing it as a top news source” (Taylor). Fact-checking, staying up-to-date, and participating in spreading awareness for local and worldwide issues are now woke and trendy, and the importance of staying informed is reinforced by social media’s involvement in the spread of information. Rebecca Salinas, an author for The Highlander, also asserts that “Gen-Z has taken advantage of the popularity of social media and are using it as an opportunity to speak out about social injustices” (Salinas). Generation Z is using its technological expertise and inclination for communication to address real issues and spread awareness about social injustices and societal issues.
Generation Z is also shaping up to be the most inherently diverse generation yet, not only in the physical sense but in diversity of opinion and thought. The Pew Research Center, a nonpartisan think tank that specializes in public opinion, demographics, and social issues, reports that “[m]ajorities among Gen Z and the Millennial generation say increasing racial and ethnic diversity in the U.S. is a good thing for society, while older generations are less convinced of this” (Parker et al.). Younger generations are also “more likely to have a positive view of interracial and same-sex marriage than their older counterparts” (Parker et al). The instant spread of information has created an unprecedentedly diverse society. Very few youths today have gone their entire lives without encountering individuals from cultures, religions, or racial and ethnic groups other than their own. This widespread access to information about different cultures, races, and religions is largely due to the modern availability of technology. The internet has allowed Generation Z to develop informed opinions sooner and more accurately than any generation before. According to the Pew Research Center’s study on Generation Z’s political and social beliefs, this generation is “diverse and on track to be the most well-educated generation yet” (Parker et al). With the wealth of information provided by technology, Generation Z has been able to develop diverse opinions, creating a generation of well-informed and information-oriented youths. This trend will likely carry into the generation’s future beliefs, values, and actions, thus shaping its identity for years to come.
Equally important as social media in Generation Z’s development is the Covid-19 pandemic. The pandemic has ushered in a new wave of youth political activism unprecedented in the 2000s. The crisis has provided the perfect conditions for such a political awakening: isolation-induced leisure time with which the public can focus on social issues, greater use of the global network of social media, and an increased drive to address societal problems. Generation Z has taken this opportunity to further define its political and societal identity. For example, the widespread exposure and execution of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement was advanced by the youth’s influence and coordination on social media. In her article “The Covid-19 Generation Divide Between Millennials and Boomers Ignores the Real Problem,” Natasha Lennard articulates this political energy. She writes that the BLM protests “have shown a righteous anger and resolve” in this generation, exposing previously untapped social power and resilience (Lennard). The recent presidential election similarly exposed the boundless political verve of America’s youth, largely due to Generation Z’s vehement opinions on social issues such as racism, climate change, and the handling of the pandemic. Lili Pike, a writer for Vox Media, reported that “[t]he Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) at Tufts University shows that youth voter turnout (ages 18 to 29) surged by around 8 percent this year compared to 2016,” and roughly “53 percent of eligible youth voters cast votes in this election versus 45 percent in 2016” (Pike). The health crisis created a polarization of political ideals, and such polarization has had a great bearing on the political identity of the youth. Because of the social unrest accentuated by the health crisis, Generation Z has been marked as a generation that desires progress, demands attention, respects diversity, and rebukes ignorance. There was a radical change in the youth’s political awareness between this election and the last, and it is more than reasonable to attribute such a change to the circumstances of the pandemic.
Covid-19 has also had a dramatic impact on the education of Generation Z. With the worldwide closure of schools, the pandemic has seen the dawn of online learning in place of an in-person education. Having to turn the entire education system on its head in the span of a few months has been challenging, and the percent error for such a radical experiment is bound to be high. Current high school and college students are far less likely to receive an education in line with previous standards, resulting in the possibility of an entire generation of young adults cheated out of their full academic potential. In “The Coronavirus Generation Will Use Language Differently,” John McWhorter, a current professor of linguistics at Columbia University, speculates that this generation of students will “be missing the benefits of the more artificial, yet useful aspects of language that, in societies with writing, most students experience mainly in the classroom” (McWhorter). While this may have a more pronounced effect on students in elementary and middle school, there will likely be similar deficits in literary standards of students in higher education due to the disconnected nature of online learning. Linguistically, the increased use of online platforms runs the risk of interrupting the cultivation of elevated communication skills. McWhorter further states that the pandemic will “put a major dent in [students’] capacities in the artifice of formal expression,” arguing that the students affected by online learning will “[embrace] even more than ones before them the picture over the sentence, the short over the extended form” (McWhorter). Students today may be stunted in their ability to articulate past the vernacular of the short, direct, abbreviated speech facilitated by the rise of technology. After months of academic activity being held online, students across the generation will likely feel far more comfortable communicating through a screen rather than face-to-face, and the standard communication skills typically present throughout older generations may be lost on Generation Z. The impact of online learning on Generation Z’s education will be dire, and therefore profound in its impact on the generation’s holistic identity and development.
However, I would also like to raise some objections inspired by my inner skeptic. She feels that I’ve been ignoring a potentially damning flaw in my argument: haven’t major events such as the Covid-19 crisis affected every generation, not only Generation Z? Events as widespread as the current pandemic cannot possibly limit their impact to only one generation. Robert Glazer argues this very point. In “COVID-19 Will Permanently Change the Way Every Generation Lives–Here’s How,” Glazer addresses the elephant in the room, stating, “[w]ith little warning, COVID-19 is changing everything about our lives – changes that are universal across generation[s]” (Glazer). He explains how Covid-19 has affected every generation; even if each generation experiences different effects, the pandemic is still affecting everyone, not merely one age cohort. It follows that events that have been used to identify one generation–9/11 with Millennials, Covid-19 with Generation Z, etc.–are incorrectly attributed to that one age group. These events have indisputably affected every generation alive to experience them, and as such perhaps cannot contribute to the identification of a single generation. While it is true that these events are experienced collectively, it does not necessarily follow that these events did not shape a particular generation. For one, experiencing a pandemic while trying to pursue an education will inevitably affect how Generation Z views the importance of higher education. Having a collective coming-of-age event marks a generation as distinct, different, and unique. It’s true: societal events affect all generations universally. However, generations do provide a general idea of the cultural, linguistic, and ideological values of a certain age group, as each age group has been shaped differently by these shared experiences. These events produce a network of camaraderie for a specific generation, and as such shape generational identities differently.
The rise of social media and the Covid-19 pandemic will undoubtedly serve as identifying, collective experiences for Generation Z. The generation will emerge from the consequences of such events with a more firmly rooted identity. It will have undergone a massive, shared political awakening; such political unrest and urgent desire for societal change are influential experiences that have already altered the identity of this youth. Generation Z will also have experienced a period of extreme political polarization, which will surely affect the political tendencies and cooperative efforts of this generation in the future. This age period will have experienced massive linguistic and educational shifts, resulting in a naturally unique identity of expression and standard of communication. The consequences brought about by the pandemic and the power of social media will change how this generation thinks and behaves in the future, just as past events have done for other generations.
To be able to recognize the differences between your own experiences and another’s and then identify the consequences of such experiences are fundamental skills for creating any significant connection or relationship. Understanding how recent, significant events have changed Generation Z is therefore key to forging connections between this age group and other ones. Whereas members of Generation Z need to understand the communication styles, education, values, and ideas of older generations, these older generations also need to learn about Generation Z and the factors that have influenced its holistic identity. Particularly, they need to understand how both the age of the internet and the Covid-19 health crisis have left irreversible, unique marks upon Generation Z and solidified these young adults as a collective, identifiable generation.
Belinne, Jamie. “Gen Z – The Communication Generation.” NACE Blog, National Association of Colleges and Employers, 23 July 2019, https://community.naceweb.org/blogs/jamie-belinne/2019/07/23/gen-z-the-communication-generation. Accessed 2 Dec 2020.
Costanza, David. “Can We Please Stop Talking About Generations as if They Are a Thing?” Slate: Technology, 13 April 2018, https://slate.com/technology/2018/04/the-evidence-behind-generations-is-lacking.html. Accessed 17 Nov 2020.
Glazer, Robert. “COVID-19 Will Permanently Change the Way Every Generation Lives–Here’s How.” Forbes, 1 April 2020, https://www.forbes.com/sites/robertglazer/2020/04/01/covid-19-will-permanently-change-the-way-every-generation-lives-heres-how/?sh=6ba328a1493b Accessed 9 Dec 2020.
Lennard, Natasha. “The Covid-19 Generation Divide Between Millennials and Boomers Ignores the Real Problem.” The Guardian, Guardian News & Media Limited, 4 June 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/jun/04/how-coronavirus-could-bridge-generational-divides-not-widen-them. Accessed 7 Nov 2020.
McWhorter, John. “The Coronavirus Generation Will Use Language Differently.” The Atlantic, 10 May 2020, https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2020/05/how-coronavirus-generation-will-use-language/611473/. Accessed 9 Nov 2020.
Parker, Kim, Nikki Graf, and Ruth Igielnik. “Generation Z Looks a Lot Like Millennials on Key Social and Political Issues.” Social and Demographic Trends, Pew Research Center, Published 17 Jan 2019, https://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2019/01/17/generation-z-looks-a-lot-like-millennials-on-key-social-and-political-issues/. Accessed 2 Dec 2020.
Pike, Lili. “Why So Many Young People Showed Up on Election Day.” Vox, 7 Nov 2020, https://www.vox.com/2020/11/7/21552248/youth-vote-2020-georgia-biden-covid-19-racism-climate-change. Accessed 9 Nov 2020.
Salinas, Rebecca. “The Politics of Generation Z: How Social Media Has Changed the Way Injustice Is Resolved.” The Highlander, University of California Riverside, 5 Oct 2020, https://www.highlandernews.org/75143/the-politics-of-generation-z-how-social-media-has-changed-the-way-injustice-is-resolved/. Accessed 18 Feb 2021.
Taylor, Kate. “Instagram Is Gen Z’s Go-to Source of Political News — And It’s Already Having an Impact on the 2020 Election.” Business Insider, 1 July 2019, https://www.businessinsider.com/gen-z-gets-its-political-news-from-instagram-accounts-2019-6. Accessed 18 Feb 2021.
Williams, Alex. “Move Over, Millennials, Here Comes Generation Z.” The New York Times: Fashion, 18 Sept 2015, https://www.nytimes.com/2015/09/20/fashion/move-over-millennials-here-comes-generation-z.html. Accessed 17 Nov 2020.