Into a room of professional women in their 20-50s, all members of the American Chamber of Commerce, enter three 14-year old girls, fresh from a hike up Hong Kong’s ‘twins’, still in their tracksuits.
Meet Divina, Maddy and Ritika: friends in year 10 at Kellet School. While they pop into the bathroom to freshen up, we flash onto the wall seven words you might need to keep up with the evening’s conversation – complete with the girls’ own definitions:
Streaks. Meme. Fandom. Shipping. OTP. Aesthetic. Savage.
Coming back in, they examine the wall and add one more:
This is an experimental soiree at the innovator’s club, Metta. Divya Samtani, Metta’s Content and Partnerships Director, is a (younger) member of AmCham’s reverse mentoring scheme. Often, she gets asked questions about what’s next in social media that she feels her 14-year-old younger sister, Divina, would be better placed to answer! So Divya and I joined forces to see what it would look like to bring even younger mentors into the room. What might today’s professionals learn from them?
Too often we hear ‘about’ the next generation. It’s time we heard directly from them. What’s the world according to Gen Z?
Then we started with those puzzling words on the wall. Quickly it becomes clear that the evening isn’t just an exercise in getting teenagers and adults talking: it’s an exercise in getting them talking the same language. There’s a gulf of lexicon between Gen X and Gen Z, and it’s the gateway to a new world of social dynamics, etiquette, aspirations and entertainment.
The girls start with explaining Streaks: the gamified point system on the social media app Snapchat that draws users to keep conversations alive by responding daily. (None of them use Facebook: that’s where their parents hang out.) The death of a Streak, we learn, can be the death of a friendship. It may only take a few moments to ‘streak’ your social circle, but the fear of missing the window will weigh on you if you’re away from your phone (for some unlikely reason) all day. Ritika shares that she recently abandoned the app, and has felt more peaceful and mindful of her true friendships – beyond this performance of interaction – since. She weathered rebukes from her classmates to win that peace of mind, and she overcame her generation’s massive FOMO (fear of missing out).
We invite the older women to call out the words they most want explained.
“You ship together two people you think would make a cute couple”, Divina explains. “Like Draco Malfoy and Harry Potter: Drary.”
"It doesn’t matter if one’s real and one’s fictional?
“Not at all. The relationship’s imaginary.”
Imaginary, yet true. ‘OTP’ stands for ‘One True Pairing’: the couple you ship together in your mind. I remember that when I was 14 I felt some characters in books were more real to me than people I knew. (I was very bookish and very shy.) Now it makes me reflect on the different plains of reality that we dwell between, particularly with the rise of digital, robotics and AR. If you ever came across a swarm of Pokemon searchers without being glued to your own screen, you’ll know what I mean. Is the next generation growing up with the special power of seamlessly crossing from one plain to another, as if they were stepping through walls?
Then we talk about fandoms: the communities that form online about specific topics of interest, like a book series. Maddy shares how these communities help introverts find like-minded friends and develop greater confidence in their tastes and opinions.
‘Do you worry about echo chambers of interests?’, asks one of the older women. Maddy doesn’t seem to: she and her two peers feel connected to teenagers from all across the world with very different experiences.
Another AmCham member asks how they check the sources of the news they come across. She would always refer to CNN or Fox News for ‘a primary source’: where do they go for reliable information? The question is left hanging among talk of hyperlinks. I wonder whether the faith older generations have placed in media institutions seems absurd to a generation growing up with fake news.
Finally, we come to the enterprising nature of Gen Z. Many of their peers have micro-businesses, whether it’s selling hoodies to their friends or building their own apps. ‘How is it regulated?’, asks one of the lawyers round the table. The girls are quick to answer that one: there’s no regulation that they know of – the businesses are too small, and the payments travel in cash or through apps, no banking required. How much value might off-the-radar Gen Z enterprises represent?
With this enterprising nature, comes a focus more on personal branding than on beauty: a good thing? Teenagers are more likely to pour over their social media posts – tweaking their captions and photos, creating the funniest ‘memes’ (you can look that one up) – than spend hours on their hair or nails. The keyword here is ‘aesthetic’: how you make your life look pleasing to the digital eye. “If you’re wearing ‘aesthetic’ clothes, you might also be described as Tumbleresque”, Divina explains.
To wrap up, we ask what want for their working lives. Not an office job. Something they care about. Passion and happiness over money and incentives.
How many of today’s employers will work with Gen Z to reinvent themselves – their working style, their purpose, their whole business model and approach – in a fashion that will attract tomorrow’s leaders? Or will this enterprising next generation simply build and find their way in new economies, on new social plains?
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