Think millennials have it tough? For ‘Generation K’, life is even harsher

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“When I came to recently from surgery,” says Sarah, “the first words I’ve been told I uttered were not ‘mum’, or ‘nurse”, but ‘iPhone, iPhone’.”

Eighteen-year-old Sarah is part of the Smartphone generation, aged 14-21, who roughly follow the millennial generation the Guardian has been focusing on during its two-week series on the issues faced by young adults aged 20-35 around the western world.

While technology is important to millennials, it is essential to those such as Sarah who come after, and are permanently switched on, multi-screening and multi-tasking. The most common name this group is given is Gen Z; I call them Generation K, after Katniss Everdeen, the determined heroine of the Hunger Games. Like Katniss, they feel the world they inhabit is one of perpetual struggle – dystopian, unequal and harsh.

“Life for us is hard. A struggle,” says Jake, 16, “I think we’ve got it much tougher than our parents’ generation. But we can’t give up.” If Jake’s view sounds melodramatic to you, consider the World Health Organisaiton report, published this week, which suggests that British teenagers are among the most troubled in the world: of the 42 nationalities surveyed, only Macedonian and Polish teens are less happy with their lot. Our teenagers say they feel pressured by schoolwork and worried about the way they look. Researchers say they were particularly struck by how the life satisfaction of those aged 11-15 had gone down everywhere.

And little wonder: Generation K is coming of age in the shadow of economic decline, job insecurity, increasing inequality and a lack of financial optimism. When asked whether they think their lives are likely to be more of a struggle than those of their parents’, their answer is an unambiguous yes: 79% worry about getting a job while 72% worry about debt – and not only student loans. Asked to draw what debt means for them, the images they proffer include chains, shackles and prison bars. “For me, debt is a cage in which we are trapped. An inevitable heavy weight that everyone in my generation is going to share,” says Jake.

Generation K is also growing up during a time of increased existential threat – perceived, if not actual. Seventy per cent say they are worried about terrorism, but this is a generation that knows no different – most are not old enough to remember life before 9/11. Although the vast majority will not have experienced terrorist attacks, gun crimes or extreme brutality first-hand, they have all done so virtually. Beheadings, bombings and violent murders are being piped into their smartphones 24/7.

This generation is profoundly anxious. In the US, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention reported that 17% of high school students had seriously considered killing themselves. In England, there has been a threefold increase during the past 10 years in the number of teenagers who self-harm.

But it probably won’t be governments or businesses that are able to reach such an anxious generation. Generation K is deeply distrustful of establishment institutions and, if anything, sees them as another source of anxiety. Only 6% of them trust big corporations to do the right thing, as opposed to 60% of adults. When asked what comes to mind when they think of global corporations, they typically volunteer words such as exploitative, selfish, arrogant, greedy, cheating and untrustworthy.

Their feelings about government are similarly negative. Only one in 10 of this generation say they trust the government to do the right thing. This is half the percentage of millennials who feel this way. Generation K doesn’t feel that politicians care about ordinary people, and believes that the rules of the game are rigged.

But when they sense that a politician is different, there are big prizes at stake. Bernie Sanders has proven to be inordinately popular among younger voters, including the older half of Generation K who are eligible to vote. Even among the UK teenagers interviewed, his popularity was clear. His was the only name they proffered when asked to name a politician they trusted.

Part of Sanders’ appeal to Generation K is his promise to take on the special interests of big business, as well as his commitment to social justice, which matters greatly to this generation. The selfie generation isn’t, it turns out, that selfish after all: 92% believe that helping others in need is important, 70% cite inequality as one of the issues that worry them greatly, as many as those who are worried about terrorism.

This generation does not believe that life is a meritocracy. In fact, not one teenager surveyed agrees with the statement that “society is fair and everyone has an equal chance”. Instead, they believe that it’s the colour of their skin, their sex, their parents’ economic status and their social standing that will determine their future. Depressingly, the data bears this out.

Sanders’ appeal to the young speaks to something else too: how important they consider authenticity. Among the US teenagers interviewed, their favourite celebrity was neither Kim Kardashian nor Harry Styles, but Felix Kjellberg, the 26-year old Swedish YouTube superstar, better known by his YouTube handle, PewDiePie. In a recent Variety survey of US teenagers, he was ranked second in terms of celebrity popularity, beaten by another YouTube star, KSI.

Kjellberg doesn’t sing or act, but films himself playing video games. Key to his appeal is that Kjellberg, in a beanie in his bedroom, comes across as 100% real. In his videos he laughs, swears and goofs around. For a generation that is all too attuned to spin, Photoshopping and sponsored content, authenticity is particularly prized.

Kjellberg’s allure reveals something else about this generation: just how desperately they crave connection. “Many people see me as a friend they can chill with for 15 minutes a day,” says Kjellberg. “The loneliness in front of the computer screens brings us together.”

He’s on to something here: Generation K is far lonelier than we might realise and yearns for connection, virtual or physical. Surprisingly, despite (or perhaps because of) all the time they spend texting, gaming and on Snapchat or Tumblr, when asked which activities they most enjoyed, teenagers list those with an element of physical togetherness, such as gigs or trips to amusement parks. In a world in which virtual communication is now the standard, face-to-face interactions come at a premium. Eighty per cent of those I have surveyed prefer spending time with their friends in person rather than on the phone or online.

But authenticity and connection are not the only the only concepts at a premium. Members of Generation K increasingly value things they can actively co-create. It is a generation of makers, creators and inventors. From Sarah, who builds her own computers, to Jake, who loves making horror films with his pals on his iPhone, today’s teenagers don’t only want to buy stuff, they want to imprint their voice on products, services and media, and become part of the design and creation process. Producing something themselves has value for this generation. It resonates with their desire to be self-sufficient, and to have physical experiences in a digital world – as well as their desire to have agency and impact.

Starbucks has figured this out. Did you know that you can go into a Starbucks and order a mojito refresher? Without alcohol, of course. No? But it turns out British and American teenagers do. They’ve been going crazy for Starbucks’ “secret menu”, which allows them to create any concoction they can come up with in any branch of Starbucks. The cotton candy frappuccino is one of their favourite tipples. By tapping into the zeitgeist of co-creation, and helping teens amplify their inventions on social media, Starbucks has made a genius move – its fastest-growing market now comprises teenagers who don’t even drink coffee.

Selfie-taking yet unselfish, connected yet lonely, anxious yet pragmatic, risk-averse yet entrepreneurial, Generation K is a distinct cadre, a generation very different from those that preceded them. They know this already, and they’ve got the cotton candy frappuccinos to prove it.