2015 Summit

Generation Katniss: Unique, uber-connected and terribly anxious

Is dropping your iPhone into the toilet on par with some deeper personal trauma? Maybe it is if you’re a young girl of the Generation Katniss, or “Generation K” era.

Named for the bow-wielding Hunger Games protagonist Katniss Everdeen who lives in a dystopian nightmare, Gen K is a classification of girls aged 13 to 20, according to leading British economist Noreena Hertz, who appear very different from generations before them. During their lifetime, they’ve experienced 9/11, school shootings, the recession, terrorism. Their world is digital: Snapchat and cyber-bullying are everyday (or every-minute) occurrences.

What are their desires? Goals? And how are they different? Hertz, who’s the co-founder and CEO of Generation K, illuminated their issues throughout a lively conversation with Gillian Tett, U.S. Managing Editor of the Financial Times, during the third morning of the Women in the World Summit.

Anyone who’s received an emoticon-heavy text knows that the younger generation loves its visuals. “They communicate increasingly through shapes and symbols, rather than words,” said Hertz, who conducted a survey of 1,000 young women to understand who they are and, well, why they were on their phones all the damn time.

Take, for instance, the girl who dropped her phone in the toilet bowl. “She explained it really eloquently to me by saying the iPhone is how I am connected to my friends, to my family,” said Hertz at Friday’s panel. “For Jen, it was as if, ‘I connect, therefore I am.’

But Generation K isn’t shaped only by technology — they are also growing up alongside the recession and the distressed economic environment, acting as witnesses to parents losing their jobs and the consequences of subprime mortgages and overconsumption. “They’ve also seen the world of existential danger and threat that’s been piped into their smartphones,” said Hertz. “They see the beheadings on their Facebook. The see the Boko Haram tragedy on their feeds. This generation is profoundly anxious.”

“For this generation, the world is less oyster, more nightmare,” said Hertz. Statistics from her study on the teenagers bore that out: Eighty-five percent are really worried about terrorism, 84 percent are concerned with getting a job, 77 percent are terrified getting into debt. Interestingly, 35 percent are unsure if they want to have children or have decided they definitely do not, a number that’s considerably higher than previous generations.

Luckily, good news lies buried in the stats: “Out of all the things they’re worried about, the thing they’re worried about most is inequality: economic, social, gender inequality. These girls are horrified at the persistence of gender pay gaps,” said Hertz. That proximity to technology pays off in some ways, however, with Hertz noting, “You can talk to a teenage girl about the gender pay gap and they’ve got facts at their finger tips.”

These young women also describe themselves in a curious way. In talking with her 1,000-woman-strong group, Hertz said again and again the descriptor they used for themselves was “unique.”

“This is a generation that celebrates difference and celebrates diversity and their own independence. They have their own voice, they celebrate their own voice, and they want their own voice to be part of the conversation,” said Hertz. “They want to co-create and lead, and they desperately want to be heard.” Hertz notes that when she was growing up, the message was not one of celebrating difference or uniqueness, it was about ‘fitting in or bending in.’” Now all that’s changed.

So please don’t call them the “selfie, selfish generation,” says Hertz. They make take selfies, but they’re not selfish. “In this dystopian world, they’re willing to step up to the plate themselves, like their heroine Katniss” — and with hopefully, Tett added, “a much happier ending.”

EDITOR'S NOTE: This article is independent of and separate from any views of The New York Times.