August 6, 2019

Gen Z is not yet a culturally self-aware generation

It's striking how long it's been since there were pop culture narratives that announced a new social-cultural generation.

Millennials started with the indie hit Thirteen in 2003, and really thrust themselves into the mainstream with Mean Girls in 2004. Those two set the tone for the rest of the 2000s (Juno, Superbad, etc.), and their influence runs right up through the latest major generation-defining movie, Lady Bird from 2017. That movie is Millennial to the core, starring later Millennials who are portraying earlier Millennials. It is set in 2002, perhaps imagining itself to be a "Millennial movie before it was popular," i.e. before Thirteen or Mean Girls.

That span of time has also seen a proliferation of reality TV portraying Millennials, mainly on MTV. For shows following a social circle over time, it began with Laguna Beach in 2004, which was spun off into The Hills in 2006, and culminated in two series -- Jersey Shore, and 16 and Pregnant, each beginning in 2009.

Rather than a new series of reality shows following a new generation, those original ones are still on the air, only now showing the Millennials not as teenagers but as adults 25 and older. Jersey Shore: Family Vacation portrays 30-somethings rather than early 20-somethings, as does The Hills: New Beginnings. Teen Mom OG has changed the format from showing current teenagers who are mothers, to those who are late 20-somethings but who were teenage mothers a decade ago.

You might offer the younger characters in Stranger Things from 2016 to now (but the other half of the young cast are Millennials in their 20s), or those in the indie movie Eighth Grade from 2018. Maybe in five years we'll look back and see them as the first in a series of Gen-Z narratives. Still, where's the first mainstream movie like Mean Girls or The Breakfast Club?

Until we see something like that, it's premature to refer to Gen Z as a social-cultural generation. They must have a collective self-awareness of their culture being a distinct break with the last generation before them. And so far, just about all narrative "youth" culture is still focusing on the Millennial audience, many of whom are now over 30.

Gen Z may (or may not) be aware of themselves as a distinct group in the technological, economic, or political domains of life, but certainly not as a distinct social-cultural group.

It seems like the first generation-defining movie comes out around the time when a generation's earliest members are 20 years old -- The Graduate (1967) for Boomers (late '40s births), The Breakfast Club (1985) for Gen X (late '60s births), and Mean Girls (2004) for Millennials (mid-'80s births).

This suggests that, given the absence of such a movie by 2019, Gen Z does not include late '90s births, who are more like late Millennials. Then Gen Z begins at least in the early 2000s -- possibly later -- and we won't know until the first defining mainstream movie comes out. Eighth Grade may be the indie prelude, though, so the major hit may arrive sooner than later, which still puts Gen Z as those born sometime during the 2000s.


  1. It might be something like Euphoria or its precursor Assassination Nation. Primary concerns will be gender fluidity, trans rights, and maybe "white supremacy".

  2. Those are Millennial fixations, not Gen Z's. It's like saying the Boomer awakening circa 1970 would pave the way for the next generation being obsessed with the same social-cultural issues, only more so.

    Fast-forward to Gen X in the John Hughes movies, and it has nothing to do with sexual liberation, race and ethnicity, young people righteously confronting the stodgy old system, etc etc etc.

    Gen X was not having any of that "cleansing burst of synchronicity" Boomer bullshit.

    That basic pattern held from the John Hughes movies through Saved by the Bell, Clueless, and those late '90s teen movies (She's All That, American Pie, etc.).

    If anything, Gen Z will be marked by apathy toward Millennials' idee fixe du jour. Not that they'll turn into hardcore right-wing reactionaries -- more like blowing off the Millennial lefty bleeding hearts for thinking trannies and non-binaries are a serious issue, or for thinking anyone who doesn't amp up that rhetoric is therefore a fascist.

    (I see the DSA cratering among Gen Z, and remaining popular only with the SJW generation of Millennials and some late X-ers.)

    1. "(I see the DSA cratering among Gen Z, and remaining popular only with the SJW generation of Millennials and some late X-ers.)"
      Agreed. The spastic cherry on top. The two uptalking guys spazzing out with their "bourgeois narcissism"* over sensory overload and gendered language at the DSA convention was a defining moment of Millennials. The sensory overload guy went back at the end about how he wasn't listened to and he sounded like he was on the verge of shooting up the place.
      *Thanks Angela Nagle

  3. About a decade ago you posted about generations being marked by periods of student activism and predicted the current wave. The Millennial wave is still ongoing and I don't see another Generation forming until about a decade after it ends. IE Bombers go sick of activism once Nixon was gone Gen X formed ten years later, the rather mild Gen X activism ended after the OJ trial.

  4. None of the actors are Gen Z in those two you mentioned. There's one peripheral character from Euphoria who was born in 2003, but otherwise they're born in 1997 at the latest.

    The first movie to define a new generation doesn't have to be cast with members of that generation. The Graduate starred Silents, not Boomers.

    But there's typically a fair share who are members of the generation shown -- Molly Ringwald and Anthony Michael Hall from The Breakfast Club (the others were late Boomers), Lindsay Lohan and Amanda Seyfried from Mean Girls (others were late X-ers).

    The indie hits are even more likely to showcase actual members of the generation -- Heathers was almost entirely Gen X teenagers, Thirteen starred two Millennials, and the cast of Eighth Grade are almost certainly Gen Z.

    Given that Euphoria is more of an indie project, it should be mostly Gen Z. But it's Millennials all the way down.

  5. The whole gritty / emo / dark tone is a distinctly Millennial tone for their collective social-cultural awareness. It's so in-your-face -- attention-seeking -- and Gen Z seem to be more introspective and not so inclined toward performativity for what they believe is some mass audience of followers (and haters).

    Eighth Grade hints at that -- she's uploading YouTube advice videos that no one watches, all earnest and self-help-y toward an imagined audience, but she gives that up by the end. And she's not constantly posting selfies, name-dropping what she's eating, and other social media attention-whoring that Millennials started way back as teenagers and are still dominating into their 30s.

    Seems like there's an oscillation of attention-seeking, and Gen Z are going to be more like Gen X (and the Silents), as Millennials were similar to Boomers.

  6. Gen Z is an extension of Millennials but more withdrawn and weirder. Everything that came after Gen X/ Oregon Trail is the same.

  7. Gen Z seems like one giant mystery to me - the youngest member of my family is 28... would love to see more posts analyzing the generation and how it compares to the late Xers and millennials that are of my peer group


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