The next generation

Captain’s vlog, stardate 2017: The young people on this planet... They’re not like us. Youthscape’s Chris Curtis looks at some recent research from google to best understand these strange creatures.

Putting my young daughter to bed the other evening, it struck me that the world is facing an existential crisis the like of which we haven’t had to deal with before. In just a few short years she’ll be a teenager but thanks to the short-sightedness of Douglas Copeland and his fellow culture-watchers, we’ll have run out of letters to acknowledge this new generation. For some reason, which now seems nothing less than foolhardy, they coined the term Generation X to signify the collective cultural DNA of those born in the 1960s. As one would expect Generations Y and the current Generation Z followed, leaving us with something of an alphabetical conundrum when it comes to my daughter’s upcoming cohort and some tough questions to be answered by Mr Copeland and his friends about why they didn’t start further back, given they had a spare 23 letters to do so. Perhaps the solution is to mimic car registrations and move to Generation 51X.

Google have a different approach. As one of the world’s richest companies, they can afford to have a large team researching consumer trends and exploring cultural change. The result is the announcement that there’s a new era upon us - Generation C.

Generation C isn’t an age group, it’s an attitude. The C is intentional. It stands for four traits found in people who are likely, but not necessarily, in their teens and 20s. I’m interested because the Church is having some difficulty connecting with exactly these ages at present. The C stands for creation, curation, connection and community. These are the elements that define how this group engages with the world online and, to some extent, offline. We’re way beyond digital natives here, that’s a given.

Generation C doesn’t just follow or like, they create - and, according to Google (who it should be said, own YouTube), one place above all others is their playground: YouTube. YouTube is just twelve years old by the way, it’s not even a teenager itself! When Jared Karim published the first little 19-second video on the site, of himself at a zoo, he had no idea what he was starting. In fact, he pressed the biggest ‘on’ button in video history. Almost five billion videos are watched on YouTube every single day. More importantly for Generation C, 300 hours of new content are uploaded every 60 seconds!

Creators, not consumers

You might assume YouTube is where you go to watch videos, but that’s not even the half of it. This is where you go to create - and Generation C are doing it in their zillions: in their bedrooms, in the playground and on the streets. No need for expensive lighting, sound or even a script! Scratch your head in amazement at the sheer glorious creativity of it all. Those of us brought up on Auntie Beeb can’t make head or tail of the banality of some of the most popular YouTubers, but we’re missing the point. This is where you go to create not just consume.

Christian youth work hasn’t ignored YouTube. There are plenty of Christian videos and the content is as reassuringly dodgy as anything else out there. But, as we so often do, we’ve missed the point. We’re trying to persuade young people to consume what we’ve created! No thank you, says Generation C. We’d rather make it ourselves.

Talking with a group of teenagers the other evening, I realised just how quickly we’ve arrived at this point. All of them watch YouTube of course, much more than traditional television channels. But most of them also make and post videos. One about skateboarding, another trying to mimic the narrations of Minecraft that are so popular. I’m impressed. All that creativity is exciting. Surely it’s what humans have been made for. So embrace it. Young people can teach us something.

What does church youth work look like if we really take that on board? Looking at my daughter, I wonder what she’ll make of what we so often deliver. All those ready-to-use meeting plans with group discussion passing for creative interaction and a video or film clip to illustrate a point? It’s not going to wash. For years we’ve been using the same approach, just swapping the cultural references when they become outdated. But this feels much deeper and more challenging. If I spend my time making my own videos, why would I want to come and sit in a meeting where you’re in control and you’ve created all the content?

Inside the lab

Perhaps there’s a useful metaphor in the way science is taught in school. It’s different to French or geography. The classroom is different for a start - it’s a lab. There’s equipment, strange chemicals and fire! In science (I know I’m simplifying this a bit) you learn by experiments. You’re still being taught but the approach is different - you’re being asked to test propositions for yourself. It’s creative; isn’t that better than French lessons?

The youth room at church is still more like a classroom than we’d like to admit - so perhaps it’s time to think about what it would look like as a lab. A place where young people come to experiment, explore and create. At Youthscape, where I work, we have a research and development team exploring new approaches to youth ministry. We’re developing ‘spiritual experiments’ that young people can use to explore Christian faith for themselves and new ways to hand creativity and content over to teenagers. Of course, that’s not easy when you want to explore the profound and beautiful journey of following Jesus, not just your views on the latest make up range from Boots. It’s not a straightforward comparison. But even if where we’re going isn’t yet clear, it seems pretty obvious that youth ministry can’t stay as it is.

We're trying to persuade young people to consume what we've created. They'd rather make it themselves

Perhaps it’s time to get out of the classroom altogether? Social action - whether a mission trip abroad or something in the local community - is still an occasional activity for youth groups. But the chance to create a project and get out there and do it may be more important to this generation than ever before. What if the norm was being out there serving others and your youth group only retired to the church meeting room on odd occasions?

No more corn flakes

Curation is a second side to that creativity in Google’s analysis. It’s an odd word to use, so let me try and make sense of it. Generation C doesn’t just share stuff that they like, they’re on the lookout for what’s shareworthy with their friends - what will provoke a reaction or make a point. When I was a teenager there were just three channels; those of you reading this are used to there being hundreds, but really there are millions - every Generation C is a content provider sifting and sharing what they find online.

There’s another side to curation and apparently this one has got the big companies rather worried. Generation C are significantly less loyal to brands than previous generations (ie you and me). You know what we’re like: it’s McVitie’s biscuits or Kellogg’s Corn Flakes or whatever brand we have decided to trust. And we stick with them, often despite price hikes or diminishing portions. We’re a loyal bunch. But Generation C are concerned with what works. One whiff of something better and they’re off. That’s what keeps the team at Snapchat awake at nights. As soon as something better comes along, I don’t imagine all those teenagers will be saying to themselves: “Well, I’m sticking with these guys - they started this thing after all and they’re great people.” No, they’ll be off to the next app. It’s what works that matters.

For young people, and those in their 20s, perhaps that means they are less loyal to a particular church - quick to move on if it doesn’t suit them - and perhaps less loyal to the Church itself. We know that there are increasing numbers of people who identify as practising Christians but who don’t go to church. In the past we reasoned this was a result of a consumer culture - young people flitting from youth group to youth group or church to church. We were frustrated but at least the problem was their attitude. They were just looking for entertainment and being rather shallow. But Google’s analysis of Generation C paints a more disturbing and challenging picture. Maybe they’re leaving because Church isn’t working for them - it’s not helping them apply faith to their lives. That’s much harder to deal with because the problem comes back to us. Church - and church youth work - has to change because it isn’t effective at making disciples anymore. Past generations might have sat dutifully in church for years even though it didn’t really meet their spiritual needs. We were loyal, but not any longer.

A connected community

The final two of Google’s four traits of Generation C are: connected and community. Neither of these are a surprise. They’re talking about a generation who live in the present tense, always online, across multiple screens. They’d leave home without a coat, money or even an idea of where they were going before they left without their phone. In the words of the team at Google: “Generation C feels an urgent need to engage with the world, satisfying that hunger via community - both the real community of select friends and family and the virtual community of far-flung followers, fans and acquaintances. They engage in several distinct groups simultaneously, mixing influences from their friends, their passions and the world around them to create a single pool of friendships and associations.”

This feels like good news. Young people are more widely connected than ever, with circles of friends and networks that might be all over the globe. As a teenager my world was much smaller not just by technological necessity, but by mind set. Not all change is to be feared.

A cultural storm

I’m not taking all of this research as gospel. I have to bear in mind that Google sees culture primarily through the lens of technology. Generation C is a piece of research aimed at advertisers to help them figure out how to make people buy stuff. It’s worth listening to, but it’s not the whole picture. Other forces are at work shaping young people’s world. Nationalism, the mass movement of refugees, economic realities and terrorism are going to play their part. The Holy Spirit is at work, John reminds us, directing people to God and reminding them of their need for him. Young people are still shaped by their families, teachers and - remember - by you as youth and children’s workers.

Nor is Generation C an exact group of people who can be neatly identified. We like to imagine you could neatly split everyone up in to their Generations… X, Y, Z, C and so on. It’s never that neat. Google is really just identifying a trend, the first signs of changing behaviour and attitudes. Think of it more as a flash of lightning coming from the horizon. Next comes the sound of thunder before finally the rain. The lightning is what tells you there’s a storm coming if you’re willing to take notice. And that’s what we’re seeing. The signs of a new cultural storm. And just like our topsy-turvy environment, those storms are coming faster and more often than ever before.

The youth room at church is still more like a classroom than we'd like to admit - what would it look like as a lab?

We have to call time on thinking adapting to culture is just a matter of updating popular references and talking about Stormzy instead of S Club 7. The change being asked of us now is much deeper. Generation C need to be allowed to create and connect in much deeper ways, and mission and discipleship have to adapt accordingly or fall on deaf ears. I want my daughter to grow up with a vibrant faith that can apply itself to the world as she finds it - now it’s our job to create the space where that can happen.

Three questions to ponder

  • What kind of creative stuff are the young people I work with already doing, on YouTube or elsewhere?
  • What does my church youth group look like if it is more like a lab than a classroom?
  • When and where are young people most alive and energised? How could I make that the space where my youth work happens? 

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