Whenever Gen Z culture is discussed, it tends to be through the lens of technology – TikTok crazes, YouTube drama or Clubhouse debates. But this insinuates that young people are merely two-dimensional beings whose only real relationship is with a screen. Which, of course, it is not.
During the creation of a podcast series about teenagers, called You Don’t Know Me, I became fascinated with the question of what Gen Z do, when they’re not locked down and online, and actually out in the world? It was a bit of a bleak picture – they inhabit something of a cultural wasteland, where the appeal of pubs and clubs has dwindled, money is tight and where social spaces designed for teenagers have all but vanished.
But there was one destination that came up so frequently and in such colourful detail, particularly for teenagers from poorer backgrounds, that it began to seem like an undiscovered subculture. It’s what I came to christen “Airport Culture”.
Going to the airport for fun or to while-away time has become a noticeably popular activity. Interrogate it a little further, and it becomes obvious why. An airport is a free, diverse and safe space that offers the roaming possibilities of streets and parks, with the added benefit of lots of security, meaning nothing bad is likely to happen to you there.
Isabel, 17, who lives on the edge of a housing estate in north London, will go up to Heathrow Airport weekly on the 140 bus with a group of friends, usually in the evening; a modern equivalent of a Friday night out on the town.
She explains: “Most of my friends can’t afford pubs, clubs or festivals, and you just get hassled so badly in the park or walking around the street. Most house parties are shit, but at the airport everyone is really friendly and often chatty because they’re either waiting for someone or to go somewhere. If anything bad happens, there are security there. But no one comes to an airport to cause trouble, you know? Except maybe terrorists. But you don’t get that thing of being aggressively pursued in airports by boys, like you do around town.”
Isabel’s best friend, Hannah – who met her boyfriend, Nils, a German student, at Heathrow – agrees. “I love Heathrow,” she says. “Provided you aren’t stupid or too loud, no one even notices you. We take edibles, usually chocolate truffles with hash, but sometimes gummy sweets with CBD oil, and just have a good time soaking up the atmosphere. There’s something exciting and anonymous about an airport. The only time we got asked to leave is when we were having trolley races in the bit outside.”
Yassir, 17 who emigrated to the UK from Somalia when he was a small child, and is studying physics, has a close social group who are big stoners and occasionally take magic mushrooms. They often go to airports to hang out – mainly Heathrow, because it’s easily accessible from where they all live in Southall, but also Luton and Stansted if their one friend who drives comes along.
“It’s really cheap to get to Heathrow. It’s one long bus-ride, which is funny if you’re high. I can’t hang around as freely as the girls or my white friends, being dark-skinned and Muslim; security get weird,” he says. “But you get a milkshake and watch the planes and chat about shit, and it’s a nice feeling. You could be anywhere in the world, in any airport.”
The fact that Gen Z often have little money – due to fewer available jobs for their age group and financially stretched parents – has meant two other previously popular teenage pursuits now don’t happen so often, namely travelling and driving. And this was the case pre-pandemic too.
I wondered if this was another appeal of airports, that sense of freedom and going somewhere without actually having to do any travelling? Melissa, a 19-year-old American student who moved to the UK when she was 13, agrees: “After our prom, we didn’t have anywhere to go. I guess richer kids could get hotel rooms, go on trips or had house parties. None of us had that option and none of us have a car, so we all went to Gatwick, which is close to where we live, and had the best night. We got drunk and smoked on the way, and hung out in the airport, and then watched the planes until late because it was hot that night.”
Such was the frequency of airports being mentioned, I wondered if there was any desire to add an online organisational element to it, but most I spoke to rejected that idea, liking the randomness and anonymity of the pastime.
As Melissa explains: “You do see people you recognise all the time from where I live hanging out, but I like diversity. We talk to all kinds of people from all over the world. We met this Canadian guy who was reuniting with his girlfriend after a year, and we got so involved with the experience. They invited us back to theirs and we had a great night. You wouldn’t do that with someone you met at the pub. But people at airports are there for good reasons.”
The real-world social lives of Gen Z have become a compendium of new and old: house parties with a modern social media twist, journeys to nowhere on trains and buses, getting high and wandering for hours around huge shopping malls, meeting in parks or on beaches, but more for Instagram or TikTok stories than to get blitzed on cheap cider.
Generation Z’s hyperconnectivity has conversely also isolated them, providing the artifice of being with people all the time, when they are in fact often alone both physically and psychologically.
The appeal of the airport seems to be rooted in something very human: being connected to people in a world where significant events are happening all around: leaving to start a new life, returning to connect with an old one, going on an adventure, saying hello or goodbye to a loved one.
There is no other place more than an airport where you are simultaneously both connected and dislocated, which is pretty much the perpetual state of Gen Z’s existence. Plus, it’s warm and dry, and you can buy a Frappucino.