This year, Gen Z (born after 2000) will become the largest generation in the U.S. To better understand different generations, the 1997 book The Fourth Turning describes generational cycles. By understanding Gen Z as the children of a crisis (2008-present), the book sheds light on several characteristics of Gen Z which could help us anticipate its future. By looking at their digital behavior we speculate on the extent to which these characteristics have manifested.
According to Strauss and Howe, Gen Z is the “Artist” generation. The Artist is one of four archetypical generations – all corresponding to being born during one of the four turnings. The Artist generation is born during a time of crisis. As a result, Artists grow up overprotected by adults preoccupied with the crisis and therefore become highly sensitive: Gen Zers struggle with mental health more than any other generation and show more conservative behavior. The popular Netflix show 13 Reasons Why, which explores suicide and mental health among teenagers, captures the spirit of Gen Z (protective parents have even rebelled against its popularity). All in all, The Fourth Turning seems prescient. What could it teach us about the future of Gen Z?The nature of Gen Z will change as Gen Zers grow older. That is because generations are not static objects with fixed characteristics. Instead, generations are life trajectories that change based on formative experiences. For instance, by growing up during the crisis, the Artist generation became overprotected, sensitive and conservative during childhood. But as they grow older, Artists long for a richer social life, which was suppressed by their protective upbringing. We can already see this by looking at the digital behavior of Gen Z. Since they strive to break free from their “suffocated” upbringing, Gen Z’s digital platforms establish new types of social networks. Indeed, digital platforms have become fundamental to Gen Z’s social life. Videogames are not merely games, but also hangout spaces (Fortnite) and creative playgrounds (Roblox). Social media are not merely communication networks, but also supportive communities (TikTok). Furthermore, the intensification of visual communication (from text and image to video and livestreaming) creates a new type of intimacy between teenagers. For instance, teenagers share intimate videos of themselves on TikTok (e.g. sharing personal problems, dancing, comedy), compared to more superficial text- and image based communication on Facebook or Instagram. Lastly, the rise of augmented reality games (e.g. Pokémon Go, Harry Potter: Wizards Unite) add a physical social layer to the virtual world of Gen Z.All in all, generational cycles help us to understand Gen Z. Growing up during a crisis period, their overprotected upbringing has made them sensitive and conservative. As a result, their next life stage could be characterized by the longing for a richer social life, as we have already seen reflected in their digital behavior, which will boost the innovation of virtual worlds and intimate interfaces.