Youth can be better described as a set of characteristics than simply as a specific age range. Regardless of the generation, young people have always had a contentious and questioning nature: youth is the true agent of change.
Regardless of the era, the young behave transversally to all other generations. Every young person is:
There are currently six generations coexisting in Western society: traditionalists, baby boomers, generation X, generation Y (millennials), generation Z, and what is now being called generation alpha. In this brief socio-historical analysis, we will focus on the most current generations, from the baby boomers to generation z.
Every generation is influenced by its circumstances — social, political, economic, environmental, and technological — which have a direct impact on how people express themselves. Each generation is guided in almost every area of life by a symbol for their time, as if it were the lens through which the young view the world and themselves.
One historical milestone, however, has changed how everyone behaves and even how our cognitive system is developed: the internet. This technological advance and how we use it is one of the main differing elements from one generation to the next. Here, we will divide the generations into digital conservatives (those who were born before the internet and lived most of their lives without it), digital migrants (those who began using the internet in their teenage years), and digital natives (those who have had access to the internet since the day they were born).
Baby boomers: born 1946-1960
The baby boomers were born soon after World War II and the Great Depression. In the United States, they also lived through the Vietnam war. The economic prosperity of the era gave them a purchasing power that their parents never had, and they became famous for spending everything they earned. These were times of optimism and conquest, with new horizons offered by the space race.
Capitalist imperialism was on the rise, and a consumerist mentality did not stop young people from taking on other fights: they were a questioning, idealistic generation that even challenged their own rights. Their many achievements include Woodstock, feminism, the Civil Rights movement, the sexual revolution, and new family choices thanks to the contraceptive pill.
In Brazil, there was a cosmopolitan culture and the dictatorship — which gave rise to a subsequent counterculture. Public jobs were considered ideal at the time, due to the various benefits they offered and the fact that many industries were not yet established in Brazil, leaving people with the option of setting up their own business or working for the state.
Generation X: born 1961-1980
Symbol: no set ideology
Brazil was going through a period known as the Years of Lead, and many young people from generation X fought for the end of the military dictatorship. Capitalism established itself, bringing with it neoliberal privatization and the beginning of globalization. Society began to revolve around consumer goods and wealth, which were earned through hard work.
When multinational corporations began opening branches in the country, many Brazilians chose to build careers at large companies in order to gain access to the various services and products that were now available to those who could afford them. Fueled by ambition and individualism, generation X was characterized primarily by its lack of ideology and focus on material goods — to the point that they now face more heart-related problems than any other generation.
Even art was privatized. People believed that the purpose of culture was not to enrich minds, but to enrich private businesses. At the same time, a group of notorious “tribes,” emerged; subcultures heavily linked to musical movements (hip hop, new wave, pop, disco).
Generation Y: born 1980-1995
Generation Y grew up in times of abundance provided by previous generations: economic prosperity and easy access to goods and services enabled intellectual pursuits and a level of self-knowledge that previous generations did not have. In many Brazilian families, millennials were the first to go to college.
Technological advances and full globalization led to a communications boom and the information revolution: immeasurable quantities of information were now available via websites, forums, email, and social networks.
This generation had early contact with technology, but they are digital migrants: they have easily adapted to the way technology has integrated into everyday life, but they see their digital self and real life as two different worlds. They deal with issues of online overexposure and feelings of disconnect.
The individual pursuit of happiness finally entered the picture, making the millennials a generation of great problem-solvers. People wanted their jobs to have a greater purpose, they want to “change the world”. Not accepting what was on offer from established companies, many decided to start their own businesses, resulting in the startup boom — and consequently, high levels of bankruptcy.
While all this time and money is invested in such dream, financial and romantic relationships were being questioned: people no longer felt the need to get married or buy a house so young. Millennials like to experiment and try to avoid being stuck with something or someone early in their adult life. They suffer identity crises due to the frustrations of such lofty ambitions, and many suffer from depression.
While they established new working paradigms, such as home offices, freelancing, informality, the sharing economy, coworking, and horizontality, they did not always achieve the financial return they expected, making them financially dependent on their parents for much longer than past generations. They dream big, but a lack of pragmatism prevents them from putting their plans into practice.
In addition to material wealth and access to information, generation Y grew up enjoying the fruits of the social fights won by previous generations. This allowed them to assume an individual perspective rather than a collective outlook. They resumed the idealistic essence of the baby boomers, but having lived through a prosperous period, developed a more abstract social consciousness and championed new causes, such as sustainability and environmental justice.
Generation Z: born 1996-2010
Symbol: human equality
Generation Z was born amid the economic crisis left by previous generations. This made them pragmatic from an early age. They have their feet firmly on the ground: they save their money and believe in working hard to ensure financial stability, like the traditional generation X.
Contrary to this mentality, however, they possess a progressive ethos and value system. Most teenagers today are familiar with issues related to race, gender, and sexual orientation. Generation Z is more multi-ethnic than any previous generation; this sense of diversity has been ever-present in their lives. The guiding symbol of this generation is therefore human equality.
They engage in activism much earlier than previous generations, and are experiencing a revival of social movements reminiscent of the idealistic baby boomers. The difference is the way they approach things: thanks to technology, they can get involved with a range of causes at any place or time. They are activists by nature and act consciously within their communities, whether through vlogs, photography, zines, or debates. Certain concepts are already taken for granted — issues such as fluid sexuality, transparency, and aversion to prejudice of any kind.
Generation Z is determined to deal with the ticking bomb that the Millennials left behind. They are the most anxious teenagers in history (even more so than adults) and they are concerned about success and the future. They feel the weight on their shoulders of the unequal world they inhabit, which motivates them to fight for change.
Generation Z are the first true digital natives, living in a constant state of dystopia: their lives are composed of overlapping physical and digital layers that are not easily separable.
In Brazil, they have been online since birth thanks to the smartphone. They have very short attention spans and are highly skilled at curating information, since its flow is so strong and time is so precious. The concept of privacy has a new meaning: they enjoy the internet more strategically and astutely — hence the success of applications that leave no digital footprint.
Although being young has had similar meanings over the years, behavioral motivations change according to the circumstances and technological advances of each era. While generation Y were the first to fully comprehend a world comprising digital and physical environments, generation Z are the first to have been born and raised in this context — the division between physical and digital no longer makes sense, as they view the world in overlapping layers of a single and indivisible reality.
The pursuit of human equality is enhanced by modern technologies and is thereby gaining greater prominence. The difference between the status quo of this generation and those that came before can be found in the power of the social communication technologies used to promote change.