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: