Generation K: Who are they, and what do we know about them?

Please click here to view the article for the New York Times online.


“For a thousand dollars?” “No.” “A boyfriend or girlfriend?” “No.” “How about if, in exchange, you’d become a celebrity?” “No, no and no.”
What was this thing that Jen, 19, valued so highly that she wouldn’t trade it for any of the above? Her first car? Her best friend? Were we talking about her signed Harry Styles photo?

In fact, this was Jen’s response when I asked what would compel her to give up her smartphone … for a month. The device is, to Jen, not only “how I am connected,” to “news, to my friends, to my family.” It is fundamental to her existence and identity.

Which is why the anxiety she felt when her smartphone fell into the toilet last month still lingers: “It was the worst thing ever. Awful. Horrible. Terrible.” For Jen: I connect therefore I am.

I had expected that technology would be core to the identity of the cohort I call Generation K—young people aged 13 to 20 years old, born between 1995 and 2002. “K” is for Katniss Everdeen, the feisty and fair heroine of the global franchise The Hunger Games. Although I hadn’t quite envisaged “Toiletgate,” this is, after all, the generation that has come of age alongside the iPhone and Facebook. They can’t conceive of a world without the Internet and have almost no historical sense of the revolution technology has brought to daily life.
But technology, while fundamental to who they are, is not the only factor that has shaped them.

I believe this generation’s formative years have also been influenced by two other distinct factors: the worst recession the West has faced in decades, and the greatest geo-political dangers it has confronted in years. This generation has grown up alongside the rise of Islamic extremism, austerity and Edward Snowden’s revelations simultaneously.

This spring I partnered with Survey Monkey to conduct a poll of more than a thousand American and British teenage girls. (I found that there were surprisingly few differences between the two groups.) I also carried out 25 one-on-one interviews, so as to hear from this generation in more depth. What did they care about? Worry about? Want? And what did this all mean for our political, social and economic futures? For parents, marketers and politicians?

I discovered that unlike those currently aged between 20 and 30, the “Yes we can” generation, who grew up believing the world was their oyster, for Generation K the world is less oyster, more Hobbesian nightmare. This is the generation who’ve had Al Qaeda piped into their living rooms and smartphones and seen their parents and other loved ones lose their jobs. A generation for whom there are disturbing echoes of the dystopian landscape Katniss encounters in The Hunger Games’ District 12. Unequal, violent, hard.

Like their male counterparts, this generation of young women is concerned about existential threats. Sadly, their fears stretch way beyond the typical teenage anxieties of boyfriends, girlfriends, peer groups and homework. Seventy-five percent of teenage girls are worried about terrorism. Sixty-six percent about climate change. Fifty percent about Iran. They also are inordinately stressed about how their own futures will pan out. Eighty-six percent of teenage girls are worried about getting a job and 77 percent about getting into debt.

These striking concerns will not only have an impact on future savings and consumption patterns—they are having an effect right now. Generation K is more sober than previous generations: teenagers drink less alcohol and take less drugs than their recent predecessors. It is also harder working–45% percent say they intend to work as hard as it takes to succeed over the next 10 years even if they have to labor day and night.

Such pragmatism is not the only way this generation is responding to its anxieties. In 2013, as many as 22 percent of female high school students in the U.S. seriously considered committing suicide. Twenty-two percent! In the U.K. there has been a threefold increase in the number of teenagers who self-harm over the past ten years. A world of Instadanger, Facebook Envy and austerity has proven to be a particularly toxic cocktail for young women.

Wanting to understand whom they felt they could turn to in such a harsh environment, I asked my subjects whom they trusted. Their answers were unambiguous.

Only four percent of Generation K girls trust big corporations to do the right thing (as opposed to 60 percent of adults). Only one in ten of them trust the government to do the right thing—half the percentage of older millennials. These numbers have profound implications for the future of business and politics.

Gen K’s distrust of traditional institutions bleeds into a more generalized distrust of traditional social mores and norms. As many as 30 percent of teenage girls either don’t want to get married or are unsure if they want to get married. Even more strikingly, 35 percent are either unsure if they want to have children or definitely don’t. This is a seismic difference compared to older millennials.

Emily, 15, who “definitely doesn’t” explained to me that, for her, this decision stemmed from a realization that women can’t have it all, and that she’d have to choose either career or children. We clearly still have a long way to go for girls to see child rearing as a gender- neutral responsibility. And this generation of girls is definitely career-minded—90 percent consider it important to be successful in a high-paying career or profession.

Careerist, to be sure. But like their heroine Katniss Everdeen, Generation K’s capitalist bent sits firmly alongside a strong sense of what is right and fair.

Time and time again the young women told me how disturbed they were by gender pay gaps, sexist comments, and the attitudes, still prevalent, that “women cannot be engineers.” They shared their frustration that “men are able to do anything but women still can’t,” along with their concerns about economic inequities and racial and social inequality. Like the generation who grew up during the Great Depression whose experience of poverty led them to endorse greater economic equality, this generation’s amplified experiences of injustice are leading them to have a much more pronounced sense of community.

But equality for this generation is not about conformity. Eighty percent of them support equal rights for transgender people. Indeed, I was fascinated to discover the extent to which Generation K celebrates difference. When I asked the young women I surveyed to describe themselves in one word, “Unique” was the word they most commonly chose. Unique and proud to be so. Sarah, 16, explained what this meant to her: “To me it’s about being your own person, not having to think the same as others, or dress the same as them. It’s about not caring if I’m the same as everyone else.”

In a world of “Toiletgate” and “terrorism-trauma,” I find this revelation not only inspiring but also very hopeful.