Understanding Gen Z

A collage of Winnie Njenga and protesters during the Tuesday demos against the Finance Bill.

Unlike yesteryears when protests would be instigated by politicians and other civil bodies, the Tuesday protests against the Finance Bill were led by young people, Gen Z.

They did not hurl stones at police, neither did they destroy property. They walked around with placards, raising pertinent issues about the Finance Bill and its repercussions.

All this began on their phones and they lobbied one another to march to the streets.

If you scroll through your smartphone and get into those social media apps, you will most likely come across a photo of your friend updating on their latest exploits.

It could be a pose taken as he or she enjoys a five-course meal at a high-rated joint, a splash in the ocean during a vacation, or simply a designer dress's expensive look. It is about how his or her life looks perfectly put together, working out without a hitch.

Who is this friend posting all those filtered, perfectly lit photos for?

Are they boosting their confidence or justifying their ego as self-centred and entitled individuals?

In a room of six people aged between 22 and 24, a raging debate ensues. It is about Gen Zs (born between 1995 and the early 2000s) and their perceived sense of entitlement thanks to the now popular tag in town 'I do me - do you'.

As the discussion heats up, the opinions are divided and no one seems to soften their hard-line stance. With many Gen Zs and millennials now practising individualism or self-seclusion, the big question is whether the new lifestyle means that they are a lonely lot or they simply have no time for others.

"The pursuit of individual happiness is indeed the most important mission of humanity. As long as I am happy..." says Marc Munene, a student at Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology.

"It is a journey of self-discovery, though," chips in Grace Chege, a student at Multimedia University.

According to Lily, the whole point of life is finding out what makes you "you" without external influence.

According to Wothaya, a Liberal Arts major, the way Gen Z is treating the individuality movement leaves a lot to be desired.

"They are weaponising it," she says. "They are using their individuality to excuse parts of themselves and behaviour that they should change or seek help for. There is something awesome about finding the cosmic connection to the universe. However, using one's sign to excuse the worst of behaviour is unforgivable, but unfortunately, incredibly common," she says.

Gen Z is more educated than any other generation that came before them. According to research, they are least religious and they lean towards finding happiness for themselves over productivity.

And since they came during the advent of social media, they grew up with a lot of understanding of technology and communication innovations thus making their engagement with others different.

Individualism is defined as the moral stance and social outlook that emphasises the intrinsic worth of the individual. Individualists promote valuing independence and self-reliance. It advocates that the interests of the individual should come first over either the state or a social group while opposing external interference by the State or society.

"This emphasis on learning your wants and needs without any external influence is the only way one can know who they are and what works for them. By knowing who you are, you know what you want and how far you are willing to go to get it. It informs your motivation, attitude, and overall mental health," says Brian, 22.

This sentiment is shared by Gilda, 23. "It is a breath of fresh air, especially for women who have had their whole lives decided for them for so long. The idea that one is the master of their destiny is revolutionary and the girls growing up hearing that end up making waves in the world. The ripple effect of this cascades to the next generation and so on, breaking the chains of patriarchy little by little until we are completely free."

Individualism also means that Gen Zs are also suspicious of views they do not support. They like to be treated as individuals as opposed to being a group. They are also more realistic in their approach to everything in life and they are also perceived to be financially cautious in the way they spend.

Critics argue that these 20-something youth are narcissistic, self-centred, self-absorbed, and selfie-snapping. Others still argue that this lot is not exactly self-entitled but rather got a lot of time to themselves. They are confident and assertive.

Common stereotypes have painted Gen Z as being immature, lazy, and selfish. Gen Z, especially on social media, is more accepting of people's interpretations of self and gender, but even this has its limits. On TikTok, there is an account of a girl who is convinced she should have been born a cat.

Yes, you read that right. She goes as far as eating a diet of nothing but cat food. This revelation shocks almost everyone during this group discussion on traits found within Gen Zs as much as everyone agrees that she is free to 'do her'.

"The truth is that people are comfortable with letting one express themselves but as soon as that expression gets in the way of other people's safety and comfort, the story becomes different," she says.

"The truth is that Gen Zs perceive the old institutions as not working and hence unable to give them solutions or results as they would wish. On the other hand, the older generation wants Gen Zs to do things their way and thus end up condemning them hence pushing them further to this individualism approach," says Joan Mwangi, a social studies and communication expert.

She adds, "This social isolation is slowly leading to the disconnection of these young people from the rest. Their best and trusted friend is social media. That is why they are always on their smartphones and have fewer face-to-face in-person interactions with others. They do not take social capitalism seriously. It is sort of a lonely space."

A lady walks away from a teargas canister during the Finance Bill protests in Nairobi.

During a round discussion with a group of Gen Zs, it emerged that they spend most of their free time on their phones as compared to the time they spare to be with others. It also emerged that as much as they have reference to supreme power, most of them do not like attending religious functions like going to church.

Their communities and social networks are on Instagram, TikTok, and Twitter. According to an Advisory Board survey, six of Gen Z's top 10 priorities involve convenience.

This desire for easy access permeates their lives: 73 per cent use online streaming services to watch TV, and they make 60 per cent of purchases online.

"Most Gen Zs have likely never posted a letter, read a newspaper, used a library file referencing system - much less an encyclopedia, searched for content alphabetically, or navigated using a map.

They have never looked up a number in a phone book, rented a movie, endured a broadcaster's choice of viewing schedule, bought or used a CD/DVD, or even used a mobile device with a numeric keypad," a Liquid Telecom, Gen Z Report, said.

Society's influence on a person's life cannot be ignored, something that Henry Githaiga, 36, knows all too well.

"This whole being yourself school of thought is a good thing, a very good thing. However, one has to ask, when you buy clothes a new phone, or a new house, why did you choose that particular brand and not another? Influencers, adverts, and other marketing tricks brought it into your mind and subconsciously informed that decision".

The influence of community on every facet of daily life is obvious. According to Sammy, individualism works only in context. Giving an example of the largely controversial LGBT community, he says that they can be 'themselves' in their circle of friends but they have to be careful in the wider community. This is because they know that not being fully accepted has dire real-life consequences.

On the flip side, it has been proven over and over that people need other people to survive. "I have seen my mum thrive through her social networks like chamas. My sister has also thrived in such spaces. She says she would not have survived the birth of her two children without the constant support of friends and family. There is something pure about people coming together to create a space for someone who needs it," says Winnie, 22.

The way society treats a particular group is bound to affect their psychological well-being. "I think many people have the wrong perception of Gen Z simply because of the stereotypes created around them. There has been a lot of negativity towards them and these perceptions can be harmful to the point of causing mental health issues on the side of Gen Z," says George Kitua, a physiologist.

By marketing individualism as empowerment, especially on social media, corporations are making a killing. This is most obvious when one looks at the beauty industry.

In recent years, the marketing around fashion has changed from forcing people to fit a certain standard; (the relaxers that burnt our scalps as children, the old vogue magazines that were a given in salons) to conforming to the fact that everyone is different (Fenty campaigns, FashionNova).

Think about all the self-help books, the millions upon millions of songs, and the cosy, romantic Christmas movies. They all have one message, playing on repeat like a broken record, follow your heart.

None of them cares to tell us what happens when you do take that leap, trusting that your faith will carry you through. What happens to the clients that the hotshot lawyer from the city leaves to marry the baker she met over Christmas, you ask?

Hollywood does not know either, it is following its heart to the bank. This world without consequence is a carefully crafted illusion, built to sell an unrealistic dream.

One of my favourite Instagram accounts, a 17-year-old Sociology student, puts it very succinctly: "What has changed? Why does every Instagram baddie look the same? Why are girls conditioned to hate their bare faces, to barely stand themselves without makeup? Why do we go through makeup trends like the 2020 soap brows or the 2016 cut crease?"

In trying to look "different and true to ourselves,'' we end up looking like carbon copies of each other. No choice is made in a vacuum," she says. This is good news for corporations because if a product is trending, guess who benefits the most? I will give you three tries.


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