The Big Generational Divide?
Do we actually make any effort to understand each other? Or do we just constantly assume things about other generations and carry on?
We can’t make big sweeping statements about large cohorts of people in society. You can’t be a voice of a generation, and you won’t automatically be the same as other people who are the same age as you.
“Gen X are party animals!”
“Millennials are impatient!”
“Baby boomers are selfish!”
The fact that the Internet —in the grand scheme of things— is still so so new means that right now, in this point in history, we have bigger divides than ever. It means that the generations that came before us were more similar to each other on the whole because: no Internet.
On a panel I did yesterday at the London School of Economics, the brilliant author of Sex, Likes and Social Media Deana Puccio said something that resonated with me: “my parents and I weren’t all that different; but because of social media, my upbringing feels world’s apart from my kids now.”
We are more far removed from each other than before. Hence why millennials get such a bad rap; we grew up online and therefore we do, by nature, have a different set of traits because we grew up in a specific environment. We grew up literally alongside the Internet. (Yes yes, shut up Emma we know you wrote a whole book on it). But it’s true, we could access things more quickly during our teen years; we could be bullied on three different websites at once (not apps yet, at this point) and apparently this has made us impatient, lazy, entitled, unable to do anything without Googling it and obsessed with video-ing ourselves in our bedrooms. I can’t speak on behalf of other Millennials, but growing up alongside the infancy of the web made me adventurous, self-taught and it gave me confidence. Like learning how to code my own colourful static web page in HTML, I felt excited, knowing how to do something my parents or teachers didn’t.
Back in my parents and grandparents teen years, it was normal for kids to go out and play in public spaces for hours and hours unaccompanied. My parents would tell me stories of them going off to camping on their own, or walking a long way to school on their own — it was normal to be left to your own devices. Now that we have technology, kids being left to their own devices is something different. It also means they are surveyed more closely. We can know where people are at all times. It also means that kids do different things when they’re bored. You can have an opinion on that being “sad” and “the death of creativity” but opinions don’t affect what’s happening. Zoella and other YouTubers are examples of teens who just made random stuff and put it online when left alone, and then by a crazy twist of fate, ended up with millions of eyeballs on their videos. The traditional media is party to blame, it didn’t captivate us enough. Terrestrial TV felt so slow and out of date that kids turned to watching clips on YouTube. But this shift in media consumption started happening years ago.
We can see this divide and this judgement played out in columns written by Gen X writers, for example the most recent one written by Zoe Williams about Zoella, which was riddled with generalisations and assumptions about a world clearly far away from her own. It felt like an attack on a whole generation, because yes, this is what a lot of us do. We create and watch stuff on the Internet. Zoella is just one of them. She is not a poster girl for everyone. She is just one person.
It felt out of touch from the beginning with Zoe Williams starting with quite a patronising remark (suggesting that Guardian readers live under a rock): “if the words “digital ambassador” mean nothing to you, “vlogger” will mean even less.”
This isn’t that new! We’ve had digital ambassadors and vlogging for nearly ten years now. This is why the divide seems so big, because when the older generation decide to cotton on to something, they seemingly have to mock it. Then we feel more disconnected from each other than ever.
If we actually took the time to talk, we would understand each other better, and learn from each other. (I was recently filmed alongside Tiffanie Darke for The Pool about Gen X vs Millennials, watch here.) I found it to be therapeutic and inspiring. Candid discussions always win over sly digs.
So, no, us Millennials didn’t do it your way. We didn’t knock on the door of a magazine and ask them to let us in. We didn’t go to a pay phone and beg for a job (these are genuine stories I’ve heard from older generations). We didn’t necessarily get a job and then work our way up a specific ladder. We didn’t send paper CVs in the post. We didn’t have a grand plan laid out in front of us. We graduated during a recession, we realised the housing market was fucked, so we went into the workplace thinking: “if there’s no ‘end goal’ then why don’t we just get on with it and in the mean-time experiment a bit online?”
This experimenting online meant that a fair few “Millennials” have made money and businesses and successes online. We have our own platforms. Sometimes accidentally, sometimes strategically.
On the whole (forgive me these few generalisations), but from research the younger generation are allergic to shit adverts, inauthentic writing and anything that appears snotty towards to this new free world of being able to have a voice online. We are proud of having a voice. We are proud of starting a writing blog and getting picked up by a publishing house. We are proud of connecting with each other in a new way.
What Zoe (Sugg) has done is she has created something extraordinary. She has created her own space. She did not grow up especially rich, she had no “connections” to the media world, and yet she is now a person that reminds over 11 million people that anything is possible. Regardless of whether you actually like the content is totally irrelevant. The fact is, the media has changed, everything from the way we consume it, advertise on it, access it, trust it and join it.
The Guardian article mocks the fact that Zoella hasn’t moved on: “she started as a teenager in 2009, filming herself giving make-up tips in her bedroom, and went on to – well, to continue doing exactly that”. Yeah she’s stayed exactly the same. Only now she has entered multiple mainstream industries, be it books, (speculative) films, winning multiple Teen Choice awards, products sold in mainstream stores, the face of WH Smith and a charity ambassador.
Quite simply, all of this has rivalled “the old way of doing it” and this apparently continues to freak anyone out over the age of 30.
The other talking point of Zoe Williams’ article is the finger-pointing of Zoella being “self-obsessed” because she films and talks about herself in her bedroom. But I could argue that having your own column or Twitter account with your face on is just the same – we are all doing it. Even old school journalists. You are still putting yourself into the world, wanting people to read, follow, engage with you. There’s nothing wrong with having something to say. This should be celebrated. But there is an strange irony in journalists mocking YouTubers when they are desperate for an online following themselves.
The other part of this argument (where the generations seem to be pretty divided) is in advertising and making money. Us Millennials do understand a thing or two about advertising. We know how to use AdBlock first of all. We are the first generation who have directly worked with brands through our own social media channels. Zoe Williams comments on the ability for YouTubers to make money: “It is impossible for corporations to see traffic of this magnitude and not want to monetise it.” Yes, of course people want to monetize popular things that people watch. Just like Ant and Dec’s Saturday Night Takeaway (which isn’t exactly intellectually riveting) has heaps of sponsorships from yogurts to fabric cleaners to whatever else.
The fact that Zoe Williams didn’t even get a quote from Gleam or any official companies affiliated with YouTuber monetisation says it all. I know that Zoella and other YouTubers turn down so much brand work. Unlike a lot of media outlets they care about what they promote, because having a young audience means they will get called out if they mess up. People watch them closely, even their biggest fans, and would tell them to their face if they thought a brand deal seemed off. The most offensive part of the whole piece to me was this: “I secretly suspect her of being in an endorsement contract with the pug breed.”
It’s a bad joke but it’s also assuming that YouTubers don’t know what they’re doing. Everyone knows you have to disclose sponsorship, everyone knows it’s against the law to have something paid for and not mark it as such. If she actually took the time to watch any other videos then she’d know that. “YouTubers” aren’t really just that anymore either — they are TV presenters, authors, entrepreneurs, designers, editors, camera operators, art directors, bosses. So grouping them together under the “vlogger” umbrella is a bit short-sighted too. We’ve moved on from that.
My point is that I think there needs to be more open conversation between the generations. Yes, creating a career solely online hadn’t been done before now. Yes we are all learning. There is no one that has had Zoella’s path before. There is no reference point, for her or us. In the last two decades we have had lots of “firsts” because the Internet is still new and we are all still evolving alongside it.
So to the older generations: we were never going to have the same path as you.
Instead of fearing the unknown, embrace it. Because these articles mocking the rise of YouTube and other digital platforms are coming from a place of lack of understanding.
It’s not like it was. It’s not the way people used to get jobs. It’s not the way teenagers USED to spend their time.
But this is the world now, you can either be excited about it, or you can fall behind.
“In love with Emma Gannon’s Ctrl Alt Delete. So funny & smart, and reminding me of some of my own cringe teen Internet exploits!”– Anna James, former literary editor of ELLE
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“Emma Gannon is a bright spark of light in the world. I seriously dig everything she makes”– Elizabeth Gilbert, bestselling author of Big Magic