Baby boomers came of age in a post-War environment, marked by space races. Gen X in India did so in a newly-liberalised and globalised economy. Millennials were raised in the atmosphere of a post 9/11 world, witness to the Great Recession of 2008 as well as unprecedented technological progress.
Now Gen Z is coming of age in the middle of a pandemic, having experienced two once-in-a-generation economic collapses, along with a broader backdrop of an urgent and impending climate crisis.
One can only be as hopeful and optimistic about their future as the times permit, and Gen Z is no different. As lawmakers and leaders continue to peddle identity politics, widen income inequalities, favour corporations and their pockets, perpetuate hatred and bigotry, and live in denial of the climate crisis, teenagers and young adults do not find it incredibly easy to enjoy the ‘best time of their lives’.
Climate change, racism, bigotry and problems of such sort have existed for years, but instead of being eliminated, they are more than alive and kicking in 2020. There is a sense of distrust and pessimism for those in charge that blankets almost all of Gen Z, as more often than not it is the youth which has to take to the streets and do all that is possible to get leaders to care – as history has shown time and again.
Now, the very generations that neglected and created a world almost unfit to live in are the ones who complain and call the youth ‘snowflakes’ and ‘lazy’ for voicing their concerns.
Another factor that is common among Gen Z across the world is the fact that most of them have been raised and shaped by the internet; digital spaces are like a second home. Facebook was popularised by millennials, Instagram by millennials and early Gen Z, and TikTok by Gen Z. As time progresses, the younger generations shift to newer platforms while the older ones get dominated by parents – a case in point is the influx of memes featuring minions from Despicable Me on Facebook.
Being brought up in times of such political, social and environmental significance is reason enough for school and college-going kids to want their voices to be heard. But they are instead met with the older generations’ dismissal of their opinions – for the youth is far too ‘naïve’, ‘inexperienced’ and ‘idealistic’.
Digital spaces, especially the ones untouched by boomers and Gen X, serve as a safe spaces for these teens and young adults to indulge in online activism, educate themselves, and express their demands from the demagogues leading half the world’s population – all without the fear of being judged and looked down upon by their parents and grandparents.
Also read: Is India’s Gen-Z Asking the Right Questions?
Couple this sense of dismay and defeat with technological progress and access like never before and we get two products – mobilisation and online activism, and a very absurd meme culture. Twitter, Instagram and TikTok alone have proven to be extremely instrumental in mobilising support for youth-led protests and movements all across the world – be it the Black Lives Matter protests, the anti CAA-NRC protests in India, or the Fridays for Future walkouts.
These platforms have served as an efficient tool to create awareness, educate the youth and garner support for causes that, if ignored, would have grave and almost irreversible consequences. Such spaces also provide the opportunity for one to highlight the injustices they have been through, caused by the very hierarchies of the society that we live in – right from calling out sexual abusers (for the law has often failed victims) to calling out police brutality on minorities and the marginalised.
And, on a few occasions, we get to see videos from K-pop concerts drown out bigoted and racist content posted online under hashtags like #AllLivesMatter, #MAGA and #BuildTheWall. Closer home, Gen Z took over the comment section of one of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Instagram posts, and flooded it with what are known as ‘fairy comments’, as not only a response to the six years served by him in office, but also to the ban on TikTok.
An ironic and sometimes dark meme culture, on the other hand, is a product of using humour as a coping mechanism. In a world plagued by innumerable problems and a host of leaders who could not care less about it, a rising number of depressed and anxious teens and young adults take to the internet to collectively grieve and laugh about their impending doom.
No other generation has been raised with a deadline by when they can still try and stop their home from being inhabitable, and hence no other generation has ever had the glorious opportunity to spend their formative years saying ‘deceased’ and ‘wheezing’ as a response to tweets that read the “world’s not ending guys we’re not that lucky”. Users come together to bond over everything under the sun – from social and political crises to leaving ironic stan (i.e. obsessive fans, for the uninitiated) comments on a suspected serial killer’s Instagram account, forming a wide space of absurd humour on the internet.
Having been raised in times of an amalgamation of almost every imaginable crisis does not leave much room for what the youth cannot joke about and bond over. Everything is meme-able; nothing is ever quite out of reach.
Gen Z knows very well that the issues they feel very strongly about can truly only be resolved once they get into lawmaking offices, or have an older political leader who sincerely represents their interests. Until then, they educate, mobilise, laugh, cry, and then laugh again over their sense of hopelessness.
Sure Billy Joel and his generation did not start the fire, but it (and those who came after them) did not do nearly enough to put it out. Instead the fire is now burning with strength like never before, and the internet is where the youth finds refuge from its flames.
Kavya Sharma is a 21-year-old who is constantly screaming into the void about the trivial obstacles posed by the coronavirus in her life.
Featured image credit: Pariplab Chakraborty