Generation Alpha & The Death Of The Teenager

Is the teen cultural experience in demise? If so, what does it mean for self-identity? And what's the relevance for brands?

Teen culture, the model created in the 1950s and evolved thereafter, looks set for a paradigm change in the decades ahead. Young people are connecting with culture – also hitting puberty – at an earlier age. And once teen-specific behaviours and need-states now linger resiliently across older generations.

This could have a major impact on how self-identity is arrived at, and in turn what people want from brands. Given that the marketing communications industry has long been fixated on youth, leveraging teenage tropes and typologies to commercial advantage, the relevance for creative and strategy could be significant.

In this Crowd DNA cultural forecasting report, we explore what’s driving the changes and fundamentally shifting teen culture as we know it today and have done for the last 70+ years.

We hope you find this work both useful and thought-provoking. We’d be happy to discuss it further…

There’s Gens X, Y and Z – but who’s next?*

(*Yes, we know that defining by generational cohort annoys some but stick with us…)

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.

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 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 – wherein 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 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.)

Generation Alpha is likely to experience a lot; more than our 20th Century minds can imagine. But one thing that we question is whether they will have 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.

Before we go forwards, let’s go back…

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 codes and behaviours.

So what was established as a way to encourage formal learning also instigated all of 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.

Across the last decade there’s been myriad micro tribes – from sea punks to ghetto goths, townies to blingers, VSCO to E-Girls – you make your choice, or blend a few together if you prefer.

There’s been 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 these refer 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.

But Generation Alpha – how will it work for them?

2023 is the year that the first of this generation will become teenagers.

Will they notice? Of course they will notice being 13, but will they notice the teen experience? 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.

Children are exposed to marketing concepts earlier than ever before. 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 them sooner still.

The changes are physical, too. Youth are becoming teens earlier – evidence states puberty in 1920 started at 14.6 years – today it’s 10.5 years.

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.

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 grow more self-aware of our strengths and weaknesses. And does it 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 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.

There 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 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. But while those experiences have served us well for close to 100 years, it may well be time to move on.

It’s apt then, after the Xs, the Ys and the Zs, to think of Generation Alpha as a true re-set of youth.

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.

Death Of The Teenager: Brand Implications

+ If your brand leverages the embedded codes of teen culture, and the teen experience, this will likely need a re-boot

+ If your brand sees teen years as the gateway stage to product /category adoption, this thinking may need updating

+ If your brand has different strategies for teen and 20-something consumers, this could benefit from a re-think

+ If your brand looks to target families, perhaps the role of pre-teens in the decision making requires a refresh

+ If your brand creates content for audiences aged pre-teens-to-21, it might not be fit-for-purpose in times ahead

To learn more about Crowd DNA’s experience and learnings from working with younger audiences, get in touch at hello@crowdDNA.com