How Alpha-Gen Z interplay is shaping culture

The implications of Gen Z's new era

In the 1940s, the advertising industry invented ‘teenagers’…

Since then, our understanding of youth as a separate, inscrutable space has only been amplified — it’s why the early 2020s were flanked with the (now fossilised) term, ‘OK Boomer’. This past year on the internet, a new wave of youth has been rumbling towards centre stage, in the form of the iPad-cyborgs known as Gen Alpha.

Alpha itself has been asserting its own version of social, most notably the split-screen sensorial pot-luck known as ‘sludge content’; the deeply unnerving Skibidi Toilet YouTube miniseries, and slang terms that literally no respectable adult needs to adopt, from ‘Fanum Tax’ to ‘gyat’. But louder, even, than Alpha’s presence itself, is the response from other generations.

From Gen Z, there’s been some defending their throne as the ultimate main characters — but mostly, a sense of semi-ironic unease at being ‘the next cringe generation on the chopping block‘… still in their teens, but youthful relevance already waning. And while Gen Z are rinsed by 10-year-olds for misusing slang, one generation up, millennials, feel the schadenfreude of watching their own former tormentors suffer the sting of age.


Like wtf is a skibbidi toilet i dont understand 😭😭😭😭

♬ What Was I Made For? [From The Motion Picture “Barbie”] – Billie Eilish

Most headlines tout Alpha’s impending effect on culture — but their impact won’t play out for some time; they’ll still be tumbling out of the womb until 2025. In the immediate term, the more notable shift is the domino effect of Alpha’s budding presence on Gen Z’s behaviour. 

Gen Z has famously grown up having front row seats to existential risk, minus the systemic power to make the changes they need. Content and creators have found resonance by catering to this — with earnest values paired with nihilistic humourmotivation tinged with despairhypersociality amidst alienation. Now, as Gen Z loses youth and gains power, it’s going to change how they see themselves — and by extension, will reshuffle the fundamentals of what resonates with them.

Three implications of Gen Z’s new era

1. Nihilism reappraised 

    Alpha’s soft launch as ‘the new youth’ is important, because so much of what we think of as internet culture today is a product of Gen Z’s self-conception as ‘the youth’ — or, to be more precise, their self-awareness of how youth limits their agency. This sense of having no agency — over anything from presidents to property ladders — has shaped the dominant tone of internet culture. On Gen Z’s watch, absurdist tones, surreal content, and lightheartedly nihilistic creators have gone mainstream. 

    But now, as Gen Z finds itself squarely in young adulthood (able to vote, shape industry, and funnel their economic and professional capital into meaningful change), nihilism makes less tonal sense. For brands that want to evolve alongside Z, this might mean cultivating comms that bloom out of nihilism and into a gentle, encouraging sense of earnestness –— something we’ve already seen take root from softly optimistic #hopecore content to ‘wholesome kings’ like No Fizzy Drinks man and Metro Guy. 

    2. Value fracture

    As a cohort, Gen Z has always paid close attention to how power is transferred between generations. And if this led to nihilism in tone, nihilism in actions followed. Until now, Gen Z has powerfully articulated their ethics, but haven’t always felt empowered to act on them –— it’s why a generation that cares about sustainability is also keeping fast-fashion brands afloat. 

    As many Gen Zers acquire power and capital, there’s going to be more of a cohort-wide onus to put that power into effect — claiming values without actioning them will become less tenable.

    There will be a split: those who put their newly acquired money where their newly mature mouths are, and those who admit they never cared. Brands that want to truly position themselves as humanity-first can help Gen Z see this shifting moment as an opportunity, not a test. 

    3.  Aged aspirations

    As Gen Z imagines ageing out of youth and relevance, it’s dovetailed with a growing admiration for those long disqualified from youth. 

    This respect for elders has already been well on its way — accounts like @chinatownpretty have long occupied this niche, and on Pinterest, ‘Grandpa core’ and ‘Grandad style’ were up 65% and 60% last year. But beyond just fetishising an elderly aesthetic, there’s reason to believe that entering the sprawling murk of not-youth will allow Z to parse other generational values more openly, and look for what appeals.

    Brands that help Gen Z explore and adopt not just the stylings of other generations, but their values, learnings, and lifestyles — they’ll be the ones Z takes along for the journey. 

    Featured image: Good Faces / Unsplash

    Mira Kopolovic, Global Director of Cultural Insights, We Are Social

    Mira Kopolovic is Global Director of Cultural Insights at We Are Social. Her work in insight has spanned seven years and four continents, informing how Tinder understands cultural notions of intimacy, how Google understands attitudes towards censorship and surveillance, and much more.

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