"Max is only three months old, and as such hasn’t got much of a personality yet beyond 'very smiley' or 'very, very upset'," says 35-year old Dan, a freelancer living in Walthamstow. Fair enough. Dan, who lands on the older end of the millennial age bracket, is currently getting to grips with raising his newborn son. "It's interesting to see how much screens capture his attention already."
Generation Z have, until recently, been obsessed over by media, brands and advertisers alike. Who are they, how will they act, these small people to follow the much-maligned millennial? Where millennials were entitled, anxious and narcissistic, it was determined – by those with a stake in identifying specific markets and speaking (selling) to them – that millennials' Gen Z successors were growing up to be social justice warriors, digital natives and teens with a more fluid understanding and experience of sexuality and gender. Knowing we only really added the term 'Gen Z' to the wider public lexicon a couple of years ago, you may have also wondered what could come after a digital native. I imagined unborn tiny AI nightmares. After a quick Google, it turned out experts in the fields of advertising and marketing are on it already.
They're labelling post-Gen Z kids as Generation Alpha, a term often attributed to Australian social researcher Mark McCrindle. And those babies are being born this very minute, to the likes of millennial parents like Dan. Speaking to the Guardian at the start of this year, intergenerational expert Henry Rose Lee described the Alpha infants and babies as “millennials on steroids”. While Gen Z were born after 2000, so-called Gen Alpha were born from about 2011 onwards. From their future buying habits to social skills or lack thereof, brands aren't the only groups keen to understand who they are. Their parents, whose own generational traits are influencing Alphas' upbringing, are clearly invested in wondering what sorts of broad characteristics their children might grow up to hold.
These babies – from current newborns to seven-year-olds – are already consuming, which is a terrifying thought. “You can tell a lot by how a generation consumes anything whether it’s school, food, or technology. These are habits, they’re traits and they develop them at a young age,” Emma Hazan at Hotwire, a communications agency tells me. “Very scary.”
As such (and rather unsurprisingly), we know they’ll be the Streaming Generation, a term used to describe them when I speak to Jeff Fromm, partner at ad agency Barkley and author of Marketing to Gen Z. “As a kid, I complained for sugary cereal; they’re going to complain for streaming technology,” he says. Fromm predicts that their worlds will so smoothly integrate the physical and the digital that Gen Alpha will be prone to impatience when things don’t satisfy their needs quickly. In his view, already-plummeting attention spans have reached a new low with Alphas. “If I was rebranding Sesame Street for them, the core product is fine but I’m going to start creating five-minute segments,” he adds, hypothetically.
Hazan, also a parent of two Alpha children, goes as far as to say, iPads “are like crack to them”. As absurdly apocalyptic as that sounds, you don't have to perceive their demand for new technologies as completely negative. Since they pick up tech intuitively and constantly consume information and entertainment, they're also learning soft skills at an unprecedented rate: problem-solving, multi-tasking and quick thinking.
Akua, a 28-year-old mum to five-year-old Azaiah, says he's obsessed with learning, always memorising educational songs online or repeating complex facts he’s learnt from her iPad. “He loves school and just wants to be a teacher when he’s older,” she tells me. Joe Nellis, Professor of Global Economy at Cranfield School of Management believes that Alphas will be the most educated generation yet. “Studying to masters level will become the norm for many. I believe we are already seeing this trend emerge in most countries, and likely to spread worldwide,” he says over email. At this stage, you can almost hear the 'living on screens will make these kids even more asocial than Gen Z!' takes. The same concern has gone through Dan's mind, as a parent. “If they grew up with parents who make their living through social media – or are just on Instagram all the time – maybe they won’t put as much value on real skills and real interactions as how they are represented online. To be honest, it feels like it could go either way: Gen Alpha could become a bunch of pouty influencers, only interacting via likes, or they could push back and rebel against the internet's influence in every aspect of our lives and look back at how much time we spend online now with real confusion.”
It seems unlikely to be the latter. Still, the experts I speak to suggest that the way parents allow their kids to use technology holds a lot of weight. Millennials only got onto social media in their teens, and many see social media and tech as bound up in issues of mental health and relentless productivity. For every mum who'll let their six-year-old get into Momo on the iPad they bought them for their christening, there’ll be a dad that gets chills, not thinking about their daughter’s first boyfriend, but her asking for her first Instagram-equivalent.
Since millennials live in a society with a birth rate indicating people tend to have fewer children and later in life, if at all, Alphas may turn out more likely to be only children. Both Akua and Dan think the millennial-specific parenting approach will have a huge impact on Alphas. Akua remembers her boomer parents' ‘you do what you’re told’ approach, without their reasoning communicated to her. “My generation are more liberal, relaxed and willing to be open to and have a discussion about things. My son doesn’t like being told what to do but if you explain things to him in a way that he feels like he’s getting something out of it, or learning something then he’s usually more able to do it. He’s more likely to listen to you.”
Dan believes that millennials have – to generalise – a greater understanding and empathy for the wider world, and are thus giving Alphas the space to be who they want to be. More so, for example, than boomer parents who don't understand their millennial or Gen Z kids glued to phones. “So far, having hung out with other parents with kids of a similar age, I can already see that there’s a much more considered approach to gender and gendered language,” Dan tells me. “People are very careful not to say things like 'boys will be boys' or to talk about things being gender specific. I think this is something that’s going to be fairly unique to Gen Z or millennial parents because even when I was a kid we got told that there were certain jobs that were 'boys' jobs' or girls got told they were pretty and boys got told they were strong or brave.”
Nellis was keen to stress that everyone writing about Gen Alpha at this stage is only speculating. Forecasting the future is not an exact science, and neither is attributing characteristics to generations or to the 'purchasing' habits of five-year-olds. Poor little Alphas haven't yet had a chance to prove themselves as screen addicts with tempers shorter than their attention spans. And even then, discussing generations – whether millennials, Gen Z or Alpha – automatically entails making sweeping generalisations. It’s fun to guess, though.
When I ask Akua how she imagines Azaiah may grow up she says: “Always inquisitive, always questioning everything. Maybe that’ll be what brings around the revolution – Generation Alpha will always be moving around saying ‘why is this like this’ or ‘why can’t it be different?’”