October 26, 2019

Gen Z less attention-seeking than Millennials? As Gen X was to Boomers

Although Gen Z is not a culturally self-aware generation just yet, some of their core traits should be coming into view very soon. (I'm putting them as those born after 1999, perhaps 2005 and after, although we won't know for sure until they become culturally self-aware and can tell us roughly where the boundaries are.)

One of the main traits attributed to Millennials by outside observers, as well as inside informants, is their attention-seeking. It's wrong, or hyperbolic anyway, to describe it as narcissism. But certainly always wanting to be the center of attention, getting jealous when others receive attention, and behaving competitively in order to grab more of the spotlight from others. At each level of social scale, there's only so much attention to go around, so getting it is a zero-sum game.

That was visible by 2005 or so when MySpace exploded in popularity, and Millennials developed their lifelong addiction to taking and posting selfies. That was back when they were around 15 years old. In fact, they're still obsessed with selfies, despite their vanguard members aging into their 30s.

I don't see that behavior from Gen Z. They're around 15 now, and yet they haven't taken over today's counterpart to MySpace or early-era Facebook with endless selfies and status updates. I mean actual status updates, like when Millennials used to let the world know what they were up to throughout the day, imagining their audience following them around the reality show of their lives.

It's not enough to just "take selfies" -- they have to be addicted to it, and more importantly to spread them far and wide to reach the greatest possible audience. They might send them to one another, ditto for status updates and random thoughts via DMs, but not like the Millennials did at the same high school age -- or well into their 20s and 30s, for that matter. This is a difference of generational membership that follows them throughout their lifespan, not just a phase they went through.

It reminds me of the qualitative difference between Gen X and the Boomers before them, which was noted by all at the time the younger generation came of age (wallflowers, dropouts / burnouts, apathetic, slackers, etc.). The same contrast emerged with the Millennials after them, who seemed to resemble the Boomers in their attention-seeking and competitiveness. And of course the Boomers were noted for attention-seeking behavior relative to the Silents before them. Presumably the Silents got their name from a contrast with the earlier Greatest Gen, who were more fun-loving performer types.

A simple model of frequency-dependent selection could explain these oscillating dynamics, but I won't pursue that in detail here. The basic point is that when everyone else is a wallflower, an attention-seeker reaps massive gains due to no competition. But as more and more pick up that strategy, it yields lower and lower rewards, as the niche for attention-seeking behavior becomes saturated -- as it clearly has gotten by now with the Millennials. It's impossible to hog the spotlight in a world where everyone is an attention whore.

So that leads to selection for the opposite type, the wallflower. They don't get the rewards of "fame," but then in a world where those gains have all but evaporated due to over-saturation of the niche, you're not losing much by foregoing the attention-seeking strategy. And you save all the immense costs that go into seeking attention -- especially in an over-saturated niche for it, since you have to devote more and more resources into attention-seeking when everyone else is doing it to.

You lose next to nothing, you save a bunch in costs -- so long to the attention-seeking strategy. You might as well adopt that as a defining positive trait -- chasing after fame is a fool's game, pursued by insecure posers, and we're not that desperate.

These differences also make me think that when the 15-year cultural excitement cycle changes phase next year -- from vulnerable and refractory to restless and warm-up -- it will be more like the 1990 shift than the 2005 shift.

The manic phase of the early 2010s felt much more like the early '80s than the late '90s, which was fairly low-key for a manic phase. This is probably because the main group of young adults were attention-seeking generations in both the early '80s (Boomers) and early 2010s (Millennials), giving it a higher energy level, while the young adults during the late '90s manic phase were wallflowers (Gen X), making it feel more mellow.

If Gen Z are also wallflowers rather than attention-seekers, then the next manic phase of the late 2020s will be relatively mellow for such an exciting phase -- echoing the late '90s. And therefore the restless warm-up phase that builds up before it, during the early 2020s, will feel more like the early '90s than the late 2000s.

If Billie Eilish is any guide, the early 2020s will kick off a new cycle with bands more like Smashing Pumpkins than Queen or Black Parade-era My Chemical Romance, both of whom were over-the-top showmen compared to the anti-frontman alternative rock of the early '90s, even though all three periods were restless warm-up phases.

To close on an inspirational note for any Gen Z musicians out there:


  1. Social media first became popular in the late 2000s warmup phase - facebook going online in November of 2004, for instance.

    Each new cycle begins with the warmup phase.

  2. The wallflower strategy is more "last man standing" - to avoid self-destructing, when all the attention-seekers are self-destructing.

    To use a metaphor, during the fall of the Roman Empire it was the ones who picked up a sword to fight the barbarians, who ended up getting killed. Whereas the one's who kept their head down, survived and got better resources.

  3. If you look at movies, especially coming-of-age- movies, throughout the 90s and early 2000s, they tend to have heros who are more introverted and sensitive. "Can't Hardly Wait" is one example, where the protaganist is an emo aspiring writer with a crush on the prom queen.

    They even have a scene where a "wigger" character admits that he's an insecure phony.

    In "Clueless", the heroine's love interest at the end of the movie turns out to be her laidback, nerdy environmentalist step-brother. Likewise, in "She's ALl that" the female love interest is a wallflower.

    This phenomenon also applies to the 1960-1975 period. Benjamin from "The Graduate" is more of a wallflower.

    And the movie "Gattaca"(1997), while not a teen movie, features an aspiring astronaut who adopts a false identity to get hired at a company, and spends the whole movie trying to avoid the attention of his coworkers.

    Compare to all the teen movies that came out of the 80s, which featured characters who were more attention-getting. "Ferris Bueller's Day" off, "Heathers", "Fast Times at Ridgemont High".

    In "Back to the Future", Marty McFly puts on a huge guitar concert near the end of the movie. In "Risky Business", Tom Cruise throws a huge party at his parents' house, with prostitutes.

    Even when an 80s teen movie featured a protagonist who was supposed to be more 'sensitive', like Lloyd Dobbler from "Say Anything", they turn out to be more attention-getting - i.e. holding a boombox outside his girlfriend's window at night.

  4. So are Millenials a rising crime group, while Gen Z are a cocooning group?

  5. Millennials are both cocooners and attention-seekers. It sounds paradoxical, but it's not.

    They refuse to let their guard down or form social bonds, especially in public spaces and with strangers (cocooning, linked to falling crime rates).

    But you don't need to let your guard down in order to get attention from others. Think of the Slutwalk era of the early 2010s -- very exhibitionist, but also very cocooning. Look, but don't touch -- don't even approach. Just shower me with attention, praise, and validation of how awesome I am, but don't expect any kind of social bond to form between us.

    The counterpart to this seeming paradox is Gen X -- they're less cocooning / more socially open (linked to the rising-crime era), but also indifferent to / avoiding attention.

    The more concordant cases are the Boomers -- outgoing, as well as attention-seeking -- and Gen Z -- cocooning, and wallflowers.

  6. You can't forget the original introspective '90s teenagers -- My So-Called Life. That spanned the shift from the restless warm-up phase into the manic phase, late '94 and early '95.

    It's a good reminder that just being introspective, avoiding attention (other than Rayanne) doesn't mean boring, depressive, angsty, no-friends-having, etc. They're a pretty close social circle, have plenty of adventures, upbeat when push comes to shove (only angsty for show, when it doesn't count), and are coming out of their shells.

  7. Saved by the Bell is a mash-up of Boomer and X-er traits, even though it was out before My So-Called Life and was more popular. So, can't really give it the claim to "original '90s teenagers".

    The super-cool popular dude who everyone wanted to be like, just wasn't part of '90s teenage life. No frontmen. Slater is partly a throwback to Boomer class clown (Welcome Back Kotter) and jock types. Screech of course being the goofy nerd from Boomer times (also Urkel from Family Matters). Kelly is the female counterpart to the super-cool dude who everyone wants to be, from Boomer high schools.

    Lisa is the only one who is contemporary (primarily defined as a mall-dwelling shopaholic). Jessie could have been an early '90s enviro / campus activist type, but she also works as a Boomer study-striver / activist type from circa 1970.

    They do have Gen X-ers playing the roles, and Gen X themes that were not so present in the '60s and '70s. So it's not pure cosplay of earlier generations. But it does make it seem not really of its time either, trying to shoehorn Boomer character traits into Gen X-ers of the '90s, in pursuit of cross-generational continuity. (We're all one big happy family that's going to work through this thing together, supervised by actual Boomer Mr. Belding.)

  8. The more wallflower nature of the 90s created some strange subgenres of music which hadn't been seen before, nor since. One is a very soft kind of innocent love music, that presumably appealed to bookwormish girls. Its notable for the high level of innocence it conveyed.

    One example, which you've mentioned, is "Kiss Me" by Six Pence None the Richer. Two other examples: "Say that you love me", by the Cardigans, and "I love you always and forever" by Donna Lewis.

    This subgenre is notable because you don't really see this kind of music or sound in other decades - its purely a 90s thing. Its not really the same as Dido in the early 2000s, which is more edgy and indie. The subgenre I'm talking about is more innocent and fairy-talish.

    "I love you, always forever" - Donna Lewis:

    "Kiss Me" - Six Pence None the Richer:

    "Lovefool"(Say that you love me) - Cardigans

  9. The second unique and fleeting subgenre I remember from the 90s was a slacker subgenre, but existing apart from mainstream slacker culture(like Green Day, for instance). The music I'm talking about was more ethereal and soulful.

    Some examples are:

    "Standing Outside a Broken Phone Booth with Money in my Hand"
    (Primitive Radio Gods)

    "In the Meantime" - Space Hog

    "Counting Blue Cars" - Dishwalla

    "Pepper" - Butthole Surfers

    Once again, you don't hear anything similar to this kind of music since the 90s ended. For some reason, neither the love subgenre, or the ethereal slacker subgenre, continued into the early 2000s.

  10. If the 5-year phases are the most basic unit of measuring a zeitgeist, then they must also represent generational cohorts. For instance, those born during the early 80s manic phase - from 1980-1984 - feel generational solidarity(in the past, you said Millenials begin during 1985, but then amended that to say that the high school "Class of 2002"(you and your college friends made fun of them) represents the beginning of Millenials; which would mean that the manic phase peaked 1982-1983).

    Not to say that each cohort is more manic, or defractory, or warmup; but rather that they go through all the historic events and social trends with each other, creating solidarity.

    If 5 years is a base measurement for zeitgeist, then it must also represent generational cohorts.


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