Generation Alpha

There’s Gens X, Y and Z - but who’s next? That will be Generation Alpha - those who’ll live into the 22nd Century and who, very likely, will form their identities in very different ways to what we’re used to, explains Crowd DNA’s Andy Crysell...

I recently got to do a talk at TEDx Vilnius on the subject of Generation Alpha – which, while hardly set in stone, is gaining some traction as the term to use for the generation after Z. Here’s a few notes on the subject…

These are those born – shudder – from 2010 onwards. The word of the year that year was ‘app’. It was the year the iPad came out; the year of WikiLeaks. This, it’s fair to say, is the first truly 21st Century generation. More head spinning still, this is a generation that will survive, in significant numbers, deep into the 22nd Century. 

And what a time of change no doubt lies in store for them. Futurist Ray Kurzweil talks about human history’s Law Of Accelerating Returns. In a nutshell, this means that change – social change, cultural change, technological change, all kinds of change – and the rate at which it happens can only do one thing, and that thing is to get faster and faster and faster. And based on this principle, he believes, staggeringly, that the 21st century will witness 1,000 times the progress of the 20th century. This means that if we were to travel forwards through time, say, 40 years, we’d be about equally as astonished as someone from the 1700s would be visiting our world today. Now that is pace.

Generation Alpha is likely to experience a lot then; more than our 20th Century minds can imagine. But one thing that we question whether they will experience is the teen experience of the kind embarked on by previous generations  – something distinct, with a sense of difference over what comes before and what comes afterwards in life, and that plays a major role in identity formation. The teenage experience, the one embedded in our society for almost a hundred years, is most likely coming to an end. 

It’s hotly debated but there’s reasonable support for the notion that the teenage experience, teen culture as opposed to just being aged between 13 and 19, first materialised in the early 20th Century, when a period of education became compulsory and/or was lengthened in many countries. This meant teens were spending a greater time almost exclusively in the company of other teens and therefore creating their own set of codes and behaviours. So what was established as a way to encourage formal learning also encouraged all those pesky sub cultural things about youth that the establishment ultimately came to treat with apprehension and fear.

The teenage experience really got on a roll by the time of the boomer generation. Thereafter followed an ever increasing fragmentation of the experience – new tribes, new codes. Now there’s myriad tribes – from sea punks to ghetto goths, townies to blingers – you make your choice, or blend a few together if you prefer. There’s pick and mix adventuring through near endless tribal options.

From the 1990s onwards the teen experience, youth culture, has been firmly in the sights of brands – it’s become something to leverage and make money from. Brands both took ideas from youth culture and sold the dream of youth culture. The teen experience had gravitated from something to be treated with suspicion to something to be sold and sold hard.

For Gen Z, our youngest cohort this side of generation Alpha, there is now FOMO and FOBO – the fear of missing out and its close friend the fear of being offline. Both of them referring to the absolute essential nature of always being in the loop, culturally and socially super-connected

It’s been a pretty eventful journey for the teen, then. But Generation Alpha – how will it work for them?

2023 is the year that the first of that generation will become teenagers. Will they notice this, though? Of course they will notice being 13, but will they notice the teen experience too? Will it be distinct from what went before and what comes afterwards. Quite likely not and here’s a few reasons why…

Unless a dramatic change in societal norms take place this is a generation that will gain more access to more culture at a younger age than ever before. Exposure to digital means young people are starting to carve individual tastes and create different identities at ever younger ages, way before their teens. And when the devices are wearable or the access to information is embedded in new, currently undreamt of ways, culture, sub-culture, will connect with us sooner still.

The changes are physical, too. Youth will be becoming teens earlier – evidence states puberty in 1920 started at 14.6 years – today it’s 10.5 years. Children are exposed to marketing concepts earlier than ever before. And just as compulsory education was one of the instigators of the teenage experience in the first place, it’s likely education will play a role in the demise of the distinct experience, too. Increases in online learning and mixed age learning models will mean less time spent specifically with those of the same age as you – less time creating those codes. 

Each of these considerations will weaken the sense of the teen experience as a distinct, identity forming experience just that little bit more. But if first becoming a teen is less of a specific event – then becoming an adult, at the other end of one’s teen years, is even less of an event too. Adults, as you may well have noticed, are already finding it hard to leave behind the cultural factors, the trappings of the teen experience – witness so called middle youth; witness everyone clinging on to a little bit or possibly quite a lot, of youth culture.

Traditional indicators of adulthood – moving out, marriage, buying the first home, they’re all becoming more distorted, less uniform. And so the lines become more blurred still. Where the teenage experience starts and where it ends will most likely be near impossible to pinpoint. But what does it mean if the teen experience is no longer seen, as presently defined by psychologists, as a critical period of identity formation, in which we overcome uncertainty, and becoming more self-aware of our strengths and weaknesses.

Does it actually matter? It does matter, because what is indisputable is that our identities will still have to come from somewhere. We will need identity!

By the time of Generation Alpha the mode will, quite likely, be one of perpetual beta. Rather than thinking in terms of the finished adult, emerging good-to-go, ready for the next stage of life at the end of our teenage years, perpetual beta will see a greater understanding that identity cannot be formed overnight – nor even in seven teenage years

Now it would be convenient to be able to proclaim this change irrefutably as a good news or bad news story. But we cannot – the best we can probably do is say it will be exciting, challenging and, most of all, very different. This will no doubt be considerable pressures to contend with – not least the necessity to protect childhood. something it seems we are yet to form a collective view on. But, more positively, there may also be less of a perceived rush to form ourselves.

Less stock held in the idea of anything akin to the finished adult product ever emerging – which, seeing as that’s an idea which has proven itself pretty dismally flawed thus far can be no bad thing. If, as seems likely, we will all be living that little bit longer, then it makes sense for Generation Alpha to lock down the details just that little bit less quickly.

It’s apt then, after the Xs, the Ys and the Zs, to think of Generation Alpha as a true re-set of youth. So though it would be easy to revel in nostalgia for a golden vision of the teen experience, the one played out for decades in films and music, while those experiences has served us well for close to 100 years, it may well be time to move on. 

When there’s 1,000 times the change on the horizon, the cultural codes are certain to change, too. For Generation Alpha, a whole lot of code making and code breaking doubtless lies ahead.