Greg Dixon

Greg Dixon is deputy editor of Canvas.

Gen Z: Child of our times

They’re the kids born totally wired, the first generation who will spend their whole lives in a world where the planet’s accumulated wisdom is available instantly at the touch of a finger. And the first of them have just left school. Greg Dixon looks at what’s shaped Generation Z and wonders what they’ll become.

Generation Z are well and truly digital natives. Photo / Thinkstock
Generation Z are well and truly digital natives. Photo / Thinkstock

I've seen the future. And of course it's already on the web.

In a short, badly shot YouTube clip, a child of just 1 is filmed as he or she fiddles with an iPad, flicking the device's glass surface and moving from screen to screen. Just as your amazement is growing, there's a jump-cut. Now we see the same child with glossy fashion magazines which - and this is the comical, kids-do-the-darndest-thing bit - the toddler treats exactly like the iPad, trying but of course failing to flick from screen to screen, to open links by tapping a finger and to use the thumb and index finger "pinch" gesture as he or she tries to enlarge an image.

If we were looking for a sign the new generation of kids might be relating to the world in a completely different way than previous generations, then this clip seems useful evidence. This is the child our time: raised in a world increasingly saturated by interactive screens, wireless technology and digitised everything. Dubbed by alphabetical necessity "Generation Z", they have been raised in a world of instant information and instant gratification - at the touch or pinch of their pudgy little fingers.

It is true that not all of them will grow up in homes with wall-to-wall wi-fi, iPads, smartphones, giant internet-connected televisions and all the other gadgets now available (and yet to arrive). Something called the "digital divide" - the gap between the digital rich and the digital poor - means that while the future is already here, it's not evenly distributed.

But for most of the roughly million kids born here between 1995 and 2009 - the decade and a half period the Gen Z cohort were being born - technology isn't just cool stuff to play with, it's something many will never have been without; it's a thing woven into the fabric of their lives.

A small survey of Kiwi kids aged 15 to 18, conducted by market research company TNS New Zealand for this story, shows that the cellphone is central: the average age they were given their first one was 12, and nearly 80 per cent now have a smartphone. More than 90 per cent use the internet at home and 75 per cent at school.

"Generation Z are well and truly digital natives, having been born into a world with the technology already so advanced and ingrained in daily life," says Dr Philippa Smith, executive director of the World Internet Project New Zealand (WIPNZ), the Kiwi end of a biannual global survey done here through AUT's Institute of Culture, Discourse and Communication. "They are unlikely to have experienced a life without some form of new media technology around them. If they don't have it at home, they are certainly surrounded by it everywhere else. It's difficult to escape - and perhaps to live without."

And not just any old technology. Since the birth of the smartphone in 2007 and the arrival of the first multi-touch computer tablet in 2010, the technology that is part of Gen Z's lives is less and less keyboard and mouse-dependant. Increasingly, they're "humanised" devices that - just like that 1-year-old on YouTube - are used in a tactile way.

"Technology is increasingly accessible and integrated into life, so they are the generation that are growing up without really needing keyboards," says Claire Madden, a Gen Z expert at Australian research company McCrindle.

"They're the instant generation."


Every generation is stereotyped. Those who stopped the Germans and the Japanese are called the "Greatest Generation". Their kids, the Baby Boomers born between 1945 and the mid-60s, are the "Me Generation", while their kids, Generation X, the oldest of whom are now pushing 50, were labelled "slackers".

Generation Y - or the Millennials, as those now aged from around 20 to mid-30s are often described - have been called all sorts of things: lazy, entitled and selfish, the "Me Now Generation". However, Y kids, who must (so far) be the most-scrutinised generation in history, are also said by researchers to be entrepreneurial, democratic and more accepting of difference than those of previous generations. The arrival of the web, social networking and increasingly sophisticated digital devices during their childhood and teenage years means they are the first to be christened "digital natives". A problematic term and a disputed concept, a digital native is said to be like an indigenous language speaker, while its opposite the "digital immigrant" is someone who has, say, English as a second language.

There is, however, a tension between what academic and marketing researchers think about all this generation stuff. The former are typically distrustful of the stereotyping, while the latter (with an eye to selling their research to businesses desperate to know how to market products to a new generation) tend to embrace it.

However, even those who believe generational trends are a crock do acknowledge Gen Z may have a new kind of relationship with the new technology.

Dr Erika Pearson, from the University of Otago's department of film, media and communication, is sceptical of the idea that personality can be given or assumed for an entire age cohort.

While much will not have changed for Gen Z-ers, she suspects a key change may be how they relate to information, particularly in terms of speed and access. "The parts of the cohort on the right side of the digital divide have always experienced high-speed, always-on connectivity, and they structure their lives and social activities around that expectation."

So they may well become the Instant Generation. But what stereotype will finally be used to describe them is a matter of speculation, because who Generation Z will be is still a matter of speculation.

AUT's Smith says that the biannual WIPNZ began picking up the oldest of the cohort only in its 2013 survey of internet use in New Zealand (it surveys those 16 and over), so for the moment they're lumped in with Gen Y.

She agrees with the view that Gen Z (who make up roughly a quarter of our population) will be tech-savvy, however, she says it's too early to know more from the WIPNZ survey.

Internationally - and Gen Z are expected to be as much world citizens as New Zealanders - social researchers are already measuring and weighing the key influences on the two billion kids who make up the cohort globally and trying to divine how these will shape them.

First is the sheer amount of time Gen Z appears to be spending in front of a screen - actually screens, because it is often more than one. It's a quite astonishing amount of time. In the United States, 8-18-year-olds are spending 7 hours and 38 minutes using "entertainment media" across a typical day, according to 2010 research done by the Kaiser Family Foundation, a US-based non-profit organisation that funds a wide range of health policy research. However, this study found that when "media multi-tasking" was added in - using phones or laptops (and now tablets) while watching TV for example - the total screen time was even more jaw-dropping 10 hours 45 minutes a day.

It's not just in America. McCrindle's research in Australia suggests Gen Z kids there are using technology for 10 hours and 20 minutes a day. In New Zealand the TNS New Zealand-Canvas survey found the 150 kids sampled used tech devices or services for an average of 7.4 hours a day.


And here's the danger: Gen Z may become Generation Blubber. The immediate downside of all the screen time is that Gen Z is already having trouble with its weight and will continue to do so. Figures from 2012 show 10 per cent of Kiwi kids aged from 2 to 14 are obese. McCrindle's Madden says their research suggests by 2027 the percentage of adult Generation Z-ers who are obese or overweight is forecast to be 78 per cent of men and 62 per cent of women.

"We've found that that longevity is increasing ... people are living longer than previous generations, but it doesn't mean that quality of life is improving."

Dr Andrew Gibbons, an associate professor at AUT's school of education and author of The Matrix Ate My Baby, wonders what "wellbeing" will mean for Gen Z.

"There is that excellent episode of South Park where the computer game World of Warcraft leads all the boys to become obese because all they do is eat Twinkies and drink soda and try to beat this person that they've never seen in this online game. Finally you see at the end that the person they're trying to beat is this super-obese person who has no life - and this is the guy they're trying to emulate!

"So we have our concerns about what is going to happen if we don't control [what Gen Z does with technology], if we don't create limits or boundaries into how children engage in their digital world."

Access to information instantly is having a significant effect too. While it has made the world "flatter" in terms of the democracy of information - Gen Z is empowered by having access to every piece of information within a few clicks of a button - instant access has led to speculation they'll have shorter attention spans. Does this mean they will be an intellectually lazy lot who can't be bothered learning or remembering something if they can Google any fact, anytime, any place?

"Their attention spans are shorter because of the constant, I guess, entertainment and the speed at which they are glancing over information," Madden says. "They are less likely to dig deep and find out all the reasons behind [something], they're also less likely to memorise it because it's not about memorisation, it's about accessing quickly rather than learning it."

Older generations may think this change detrimental. Actually it's evidence of adaptation to environment.

"They are constantly reading, but it's rarely going to be a book from cover to cover," Madden says. "They are constantly learning and engaging all the time with information but in a very different way than previous generations. They are living in an era of information overload and their skill really is being able to filter what's good information and what to ignore."


Generation Z is growing up very fast. This is because they're having to learn fast. They will probably have more formal education - it is forecast that half will be tertiary-educated - than previous generations. But it's their social networking that's making Gen Z mature quicker. The TNS New Zealand-Canvas survey found 75 per cent of them visited a social network site daily (with 88 per cent using Facebook) and spent an average of 4.6 hours a day on social networks.

So they've had to master early the concept of projecting an image and learning to cultivate and maintain their social media profile has made them somewhat more sophisticated.

"There is a lot of pressure on them from a young age," Madden says. "There is definitely a greater complexity than ever before in being a young person. That's one way social media platforms have changed them. It has also connected them with their peers in a different way. Some would say that their face-to-face communication has suffered as a result because they are far more comfortable having a screen they can hide behind in order to communicate how they are really feeling. So it is effecting the way relationships are done."

Online socialising has also collapsed geography, with Gen Z able to have more friends anywhere in the world.

However, we shouldn't assume they're any happier.

"They are definitely more connected because of social media," Madden says, "but it doesn't mean the connections are deeper. It doesn't mean that they are less lonely than previous generations even though they have an [appearance] of being connected."

Which is bound to be worrying for Gen Z's parents. But then they seem to be worriers anyway. They're predominantly Generation X-ers who, in reaction to the looser parenting they were arguably subject to, have become "helicopter parents", constantly hovering over their offspring. Which is lovely. But the risk is, by bubble-wrapping their kids, they make them risk-averse.

"Here's my example of [helicopter parenting]," says Gibbons. "When you go to the zoo, the parents are so anxious to create a language-rich environment that they talk so incessantly to the children about what they are seeing that you can't hear an animal! To me it's about an anxiety that your child is not going to be successful ... it's driven by an anxiety for their performance."

Research seems to indicate, too, that many parents of Gen Z-ers are concerned with what they perceive as their kids' over-reliance on technology. Half of US and British parents of Gen Z-ers feel their kids spend too much time online and that technology makes them lazy and entitled - the same accusation made of Gen Y.

However, Gibbons, for one, says such worries say more about our anxieties than about our kids.

"It seems to be a common experience for all generations: we seem to worry about the new generation in terms of its safety - [which is why] cyber safety is an industry of its own."


So who will Generation Z be? Of course it's too early to know. But if you want to know what they look like right now, look no further than Ella Marija Lani Yelich-O'Connor. At 17 and having finished high school last year, Lorde is not only among the eldest (and one of the most famous) of our Gen Z-ers, she should also make us excited about their coming of age.

Obviously creative and at ease with technology, Lorde, in the year since Royals hit number one here, has proven herself to be what the experts have said Gen Z will be: mature beyond her years, adept at managing her social media and very media-savvy.

However it's her self-declared feminism - her image is the polar opposite of the hyper-sexualised ones favoured by Gen Y music stars like Miley Cyrus and Lady Gaga - that is most interesting in one so young.

She is, of course, exceptional, even beyond her years. However, in almost no time at all she has become a role model for her generation, so the choices she makes about how she presents herself to the world will have an importance beyond mere pop music.

Lorde's feminism suggests she's political by nature, but whether Gen Z will turn out to be a political generation is uncertain. Research in Britain suggests far from being the yobs the media typically presents them as, British teenagers are taking fewer drugs, drinking less and are more concerned by social issues than previous cohorts of kids - they're Generation C, where C stands for citizen.

"[Gen Z] are very globally aware as citizens," Maddens says. "The way that they have a 'voice' is different but they have been empowered from a very young age through social media platforms and being able to contribute [to discussions]. So I think we will continue to see that they will want to advocate and they will want to see political change but it might look different to what it has traditionally."

Political or not, Gen Z could well be restless. Madden says they may be the most mobile generation ever, with an estimated 15 homes during their lifetime and some 17 jobs, including jobs in different industries.

However, the big thing researchers reckon they'll know is how to make money. There's worldwide speculation this generation raised during the worst global recession in 70 years will be even more business-savvy than Gen Y. They may be Generation Entrepreneur. Or maybe not. Either way we should be prepared to be surprised, thinks Gibbons.

"I'd say," he says with a smile, "I'm optimistic about Generation Z doing a bloody good job of confounding what we expect."

Generation Z

Generation Z could be called Generation Technology because their whole lives will be one of high-speed, always-on connectivity. Most have a smartphone according to a survey of 150 Kiwi 15-to-18-year-olds carried out for Canvas by research company TNS New Zealand. Three out of four use social networks every day. And most spend many hours a day (an average of 7.4 hours) using tech. That's a lot of tech and a lot of time - no wonder 75 per cent them think they are good or great with technology.

"Technology is ubiquitous in their lives," says TNS NZ managing director Jason Shoebridge. "This is probably not surprising, although the sheer amount of time spent each day did surprise us."

The TNS survey threw up others. Despite 33 per cent of the boys surveyed claiming to be technology "geeks" (compared to 13 per cent of girls), girls spend on average 1.2 hours per day longer using tech. Another intriguing fact, according to Shoebridge, is the girls seem to lead the way as the early adopters of technology, with a much wider use of different tech and higher usage.

Laptops are still the most common devices to own or use at home (80 per cent) but smartphones are almost as ubiquitous (79 per cent of those surveyed had one) and the newish computer technology, the tablet, was in 39 per cent of their homes.

Interestingly, the now antiquated text message is still the favoured way to ask a friend a question (47 per cent) but as respondents get older they are more likely to use a different method, with 63 per cent of 15-year-olds favouring a text compared to 35 per cent of 18-year-olds (21 per cent of whom use the quaint old-fashioned method of making a phone call).

However, it is social networking that is all-important to them and more than 70 per cent claim either Facebook or YouTube as their favourite social networking site. The good news for worried parents is that kids mostly still prefer to socialise the old-fashioned way.

"The big driver of the high level of usage of technological device and services is the use of social networks," says Shoebridge. "But these social networks don't seem to take the place of offline socialising, with 63 per cent still preferring to socialise in person with their friends, but rather the online and offline seem to mould together seamlessly."

Source: tnsglobal.com

- NZ Herald

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