In With The New: How History Repeats Itself and Gen Z’s Coming Out Party

September 04, 2015 | By Chloe Fox

Generation Z, the generation after the millennials, is entering adulthood on a tidal wave of glitter, weed and presidential Kardashians.

In 1991, just as baby boomers across the country looked down at the pragmatic self-reliance of the up and coming Generation X with surprise and frustration, William Strauss and Neil Howe emerged with “Generations,” an ambitious book to help make sense of generational archetypes and cycles.

“Whatever your peer group,” they wrote, seeing into the souls of baffled Baby Boomers everywhere, “you feel that something is out of joint when your next-juniors turn out differently.”

I was reminded of this warning all week as I tried to make sense of the glittery extravaganza that was the MTV Video Music Awards last Sunday night.

There were, for anyone who missed any discussion of it (read: anyone without an Internet connection), really only four highlights you needed to know about the show: 1) Miley Cyrus doesn’t like clothes, but really likes weed; 2) Justin Bieber is soul searching and crying inelegantly as he does it; 3) Nicki Minaj started beef with Cyrus just as she put her beef with Taylor Swift to bed; and 4) Kanye West is a bro who is going to run for President in 2020.

Save Bieber’s crying — which really, there isn’t much to say about — each of those news bits spawned dozens of think pieces regarding feminismmarijuana legalizationcultural misappropriation and racial politics.

But I was left thinking mostly about one thing and one thing only: that I feel a million years old.

Miley Cyrus and Jared Leto at the 2015 VMAs (image courtesy of MTV)

The New Yorker called the VMAs “a pageant it is impossible not to feel too old to be watching; somehow, we are each born too old ever to be caught watching it.” But something was different this year.

From celebrities I’ve never even heard of (Seriously, who the heck is Bella Thorne and why does she have 6.3 million Instagram followers?) to marijuana becoming so ubiquitously mainstream it comes off as decidedly less cool in the process (“We have entered the age of Disney stoner comedy,” announced Esquire), this year’s VMAs felt like a turning point not just for pop culture, but for the country writ large.

For the first time in roughly 20 years, there are no millennials in high school. Millennials, as I’ve mentioned before in this column, are almost fully launched in America’s workforce— only a handful of us remain in college. Generation Z — those born after the millennials, from about 1995-2009 — are officially the target audience of spectacles like the VMAs, and this year’s show felt like their coming out party.

Generation Z hasn’t really been named yet, but advertisers are already foaming at the mouth as they try to figure out what makes them tick. Generation i or Gen i has been emerging as a popular name for the first truly digitally native generation, and early forecasters predict that “kids these days” are more independent than millennials, are better tuned to filtering out things they’re not interested in and focusing on what they are, and are very conscious about cultivating their own personal “brands.”

Kylie Jenner and Tyga at the 2015 VMAs (image courtesy of MTV)

I’m not wont to ascribe broad generalizations to a huge swath of the population — Generation Z, by the way, is estimated to be as large as the millennial generation — but in the interest of playful fortune-telling, let’s take a look at what the generational experts, Strauss and Howe, predicted in 1991.

According to their theory of recurring generational lifecycles, Generation Z should fall into an “adaptive” lifecycle, as opposed to millennials’ “civic” lifecycle, Gex X-er’s “reactive” lifecycle, and Baby Boomers’ “idealist” lifecycle. Some highlights from their crystal ball:

  • While civic generations (aka, millennials) live through a “secular crisis” (ahem, 9/11), adaptive generations are too young to have participated in the crisis. As a result, “they fail to experience a cathartic rite of passage — and fail to acquire the self-confidence of their next-elders.” (For anyone who thinks millennials are too cocky, this is welcome news.)
  • Since Generation Z is growing up “wondering how (or if) they can live up to the expectations of powerful elders who are sacrificing so much on their behalf,” they end up being well-behaved and try to “emulate successful adult behavior.” As a result, adaptive generations end up with a “cult of professional expertise (beating the Civics’ at their own game),” and, as young adults, they “infuse popular culture with new vitality.”

In other words, according to Strauss and Howe, while millennials are competent, but overbold, Generation Z will be open-minded, but neurotic.

Who knows if these predictions will stick as Generation Z continues to grow up, but one thing is for sure: they have officially arrived on the scene. Nothing made this shift more painfully obvious to me than Kanye West’s cringeworthy/brilliant/paradoxical speech at the VMAs for Video Vanguard Award.

“We are the millennials,” the 38-year-old said, misidentifying both his own generation and the one he was speaking to. 

And then, taking on a decidedly elder-statesmen, paternalistic tone to the vast audience of teenagers, “This is a new mentality.”

While his pregnant wife nodded in agreement, he waxed un-poetic about his life’s regrets and lessons, but kept returning to the same refrain, like it was a crutch holding him up as the stage lined by high-schoolers crumbled beneath him.

“Listen to the kids, bro,” he said, over and over again. “Listen to the kids.”

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