Not all kids live in Dalston: let’s not pigeonhole Gen Z

Not all kids live in Dalston: let’s not pigeonhole Gen Z

JD’s new ‘Christmas’ ad celebrates 25 years of the drawstring bag.

The ad’s clever, of course, but it reveals the permanence of something even more important than the bag itself: youth. Watch the ad, and it’s hard to tell it’s exactly when it’s set. 

The main giveaway is the talent, though Kano’s refusal to age makes even that a tricky barometer. The tracksuits, the trainers and the bag all look as they did twenty-five years ago, while the soundtrack does the reverse: a nineties track that sounds modern. It’s set in 2023, it could be 1998.

Yet, too often we treat young people as aliens.

Maybe seven, eight years ago, I and everyone else my age who fell into comms sat bemused in endless strategy presentations about Millennials. Misty-eyed men with beards sermonised about how our generation was so different, so demanding. About how we had New Expectations of Brands. We didn’t. Rather, we wanted to finish work and go home to watch Leicester’s title charge, or head to the pub, or go shopping, or do something else entirely mundane. However, some shaky research - ‘Do you prefer a brand that isn’t evil?’ (who ticks no?) - quickly turned our generation into mythical activist employees and consumers.

The same snake oil is being sold about Gen Z. It’s easy to find any number of reports, comment pieces or panel talks about the new expectations of Gen Z: a mythical, radical generation that is sweeping all before it. Polling data is stretched, leading questions asked. (We’re in PR, we know how to do this). Research is backed up by interviews with Gen Z’s coolest, most radical fringe. The sort that work at creative agencies, or media houses, or whoever else is interesting and cutting edge for a report about an entire generation. ‘Tastemakers’. Kids that hang around the Spurstowe Arms, or the equivalent in the East Village or Le Marais.

A phenomenon is created, and interpreted by the misty-eyed men with beards, who then look at the young kids around them, the ones with brave clothes and braver opinions and entry-level creative jobs in agency land, and a consensus is formed. This is Gen Z. Campaigns are designed to reach and represent this audience. An audience that lives in a major city bubble, talking and hanging out with other people in this bubble.

While there is clearly value in creating work that is cool, that does align with a Dalston twenty-something, there is also a danger in imagining that the Dalstonite represents all youth - or that the Dalstonite is that different to any other kid.

Most young people don’t lead these lives.

They might follow a few people that do, but most are elsewhere, living lives more consistent with the rest of the country. We risk overstating or obsessing over changes, or imagining change where there is none. We think everything is different and new, because we are seeing a generation only through the eyes of its most radical fringe. 

It becomes easy to parody a generation. In doing so, we risk throwing the noughties-babies out with the bathwater.

This isn’t to deny that things change between generations, they obviously do. A generation that grew up with social media and smartphones, then spent university or early careers years locked down, will of course be different. However, a deeper dive suggests that Gen Z isn’t all that different to the rest of us. They want more money, but also a work-life balance. They like to fly places and wear nice things, but are also conflicted about the impact of this on the climate. They have a pervasive sense of everything going to shit. Music, games, sports are escapes.

Historian Dominic Sandbrook’s great insight is that for most people, including young people, cultural phenomena never happen. 

To the overwhelming majority, the sixties were dreary not psychedelic. The Sound of Music soundtrack sold more copies than Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. More young people were Liverpool fans than New Romantics. Yet the media, then later historians, obsess over those who were a part of ‘the culture’ and see them as representative of something greater. We do the same. Instead, we’d be better off learning from JD - young people today aren’t that different from 1998. They never will be.

The opinions in the article do not necessarily represent those of the writer’s employer.
Lead image credit: iStock/DiamondDogs

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