education

Dr Sarah Ogilvie: ‘Generation Z are savvy – but I don’t get all their memes’


Dr Sarah Ogilvie is a linguist, lexicographer and computer scientist at Harris Manchester College, Oxford, who works at the intersection of technology and the humanities. With Roberta Katz, Jane Shaw and Linda Woodhead, she is the author of Gen Z, Explained: The Art of Living in a Digital Age, which paints an optimistic portrait of a much misunderstood generation that has never known a world without the internet.

Define Gen Zers.
They are people born from the mid-1990s to around 2010. They’re followed by Generation Alpha, who are aged 10 and under, though there’s a bit of an overlap.

What unites them?
They’ve grown up in a fundamentally different environment than anyone before them – a digital world, which we’re all trying to negotiate for the first time. The rest of us have known what the world was like before the internet, whereas this generation doesn’t, which I think makes them special. And it means that the rest of us can learn from them. With the Covid lockdowns [which have forced us all to go more digital], it’s shown that the rest of us have only just begun to catch up with them.

What did you and your co-authors hope to achieve?
We wanted to listen to Gen Zers – to let them speak in their own words, to find out more about their view of the world, their mindset, their attitudes, their values – and then try to describe what we found. It wasn’t a cross-generational study, it was more of a snapshot of a moment in in time. Then we were then able to put that in a historical frame.

People might raise their eyebrows at the thought of four older academics pronouncing about young people. How did you get around that?
First of all, we didn’t want to rely on one data source, so not just interviews. And when we did the interviews, we didn’t actually conduct them, we trained their peers to do them. That was a really important way of avoiding the older lens. We then complemented the in-person interviews with large national surveys. And I constructed a 17m-word iGen Corpus – a big collection of language from this age group.

What are the biggest misconceptions older people have about Gen Zers?
They might judge them as narcissistic individualists. Which of course is false because they actually love to collaborate, and they really care about other people.

It’s often claimed that Gen Zers are too relaxed about sharing intimate personal information online, and that they have shorter attention spans and reduced capacity for deep thinking owing to their immersion in the digital world. What do you make of that?
It’s a lot more complex. We found that the Gen Zers were far more savvy about their privacy and their security online than their elders are. They are so much better at multitasking – they’ve always got just so many screens open, and they’re engaging across them all, simultaneously. They’re far better at merging their online and offline life.

There’s a story in the book about students skipping in-person lectures and watching the recorded lectures at home on triple speed. What was the thinking behind that?
When I was first told that story, I thought that it was a time-saving device, because the students explained how they timed how long it took them to cycle from their dorm to the lecture, to attend the lecture and then to cycle back – and so they calculated that it was far easier to just watch the video of the lecture instead. But they were watching it in triple speed because that forces them to concentrate, because it’s so hard to understand what the lecturer is saying, and they’re not tempted to go and look at their social media. That’s an example of just how savvy they are about the economy of the internet.

Why are many Gen Zers averse to sending emails?
Because emails are too formal, and not as instant as other forms of communication. So it takes too much time to compose the messages, and then it’s difficult to get the formal tone correct, which causes anxiety.

But in other, quicker forms of messaging, tone is still a highly sensitive factor.
Gen Zers devise social codes for expressing tone when they are texting. Full stops are seen as expressing hostility and caps can be shouty. Just communicating “OK” can be a minefield. There are at least five different ways of writing it – “okay”, “ok”, “K”, “kk” and “k” – and each signals a different tone of voice. “K” is neutral, because you’ve accepted that default capitalisation of the letter. But if you text “k.”, that means “you’re in trouble”, for two reasons: the first letter is lower case, indicating that you took the time to undo that default capitalisation, and then there’s a full stop. If you took that extra time to personalise the response in such a way, it conveys that you’re not happy. Whereas “kk” is a very positive, cheerful way of saying OK – it’s a low-effort way of softening the curtness of a single letter.

With the iGen Corpus, you created a huge data bank of Gen Z language, drawing from various sources including social media exchanges. What did it help you understand?
It enabled us to compare the salience of Gen Z language against general language: by finding out what’s known as a keyness measure, we could calculate how salient certain words and concepts are for this generation compared with the general population. A very obvious example would be “lol”: you would expect “lol” to occur far more frequently within this age group than outside it, and that was the case. But there were other examples: “collab”, “collaboration” and “collaborate” are far more frequent. “Relatable”, “friend”, and words to do with authenticity such as “real” and “true” and “honest”, and therefore “fake” as well, are far more salient. Also, the first person pronoun “I” was three times more frequent in iGen when compared with the general corpora.

The prevalence of “I” could suggest that Gen Zers are more individualistic and self-obsessed.
It could also be that they’re better at expressing their own opinions.

You found that Gen Zers place particular value on collaboration. Why is that, and how does it manifest?
I think that tech has really facilitated collaboration among them since they were young. It has helped them find people who are like them, it has facilitated community for them, it’s provided platforms for joint activities. It’s how they socialise and find hook-ups, it’s how they do activism, it is how they learn. We certainly find in the teaching environment that students prefer group projects to working solo.

Why are matters of identity so charged for Gen Z?
I think it’s probably because gender and sexuality is in flux currently and Gen Zers really recognise that. It’s just very interesting to them.

With your linguistics class at Stanford, you compiled a dictionary of words relating to sex and gender that they considered unique or characteristic of Gen Z. Could you pick out a few that you’d never encountered before?
I thought that a “unicorn” was a successful tech startup, not a bisexual woman who non-committally joins a straight couple for sex. I also wasn’t familiar with much to do with fan fiction, so expressions like “slash shipping”, and “femslash shipping”, which is when you advocate for romance between either two male or two female fictional characters or celebrities.

What about “sapiosexual”?
I loved that. That’s someone who’s attracted to intelligence.

Do you find that Gen Zers are more inclusive and tolerant of difference than older generations? Or is that just a facet of youth?
I think they definitely are more accepting. They are very sensitive and mindful of other people, and they care about them, and that can manifest itself in ways that older generations might find surprising. In 2019 the Oxford student union decided that, rather than clapping after someone speaks, they would do jazz hands, because that was more considerate to people who are neurodiverse, for whom the noise and the vibration of clapping might be disturbing. And I can remember being part of a conversation where an older person was saying that she found that ridiculous, but then a younger student said: “It’s no biggie for me to do jazz hands rather than clap. If it helps someone else, why not do it?”

Gen Z are facing a confusing present and a terrifying future. Did you find a lot of resentment towards older generations?
We didn’t encounter direct negativity, but they certainly see themselves as having inherited a lot of problems from previous generations, especially the environmental challenges, and what plays out is scepticism about institutions.

What generation do you belong to, and do you find it’s a useful label?
Interesting question. I’m a Gen X. And I’d probably find that label more helpful if someone had written a book like ours to explain it. But having said that, I think that there’s something very particular about Gen Z, purely for the fact that they are the first generation to never know a world without the internet, and that does make them special.

Is there anything about Gen Z that you still find hard to understand?
I guess if I still don’t get something, it’s memes – I don’t get the humour around some of the Gen Z memes.

Gen Z, Explained: The Art of Living in a Digital Age is published by the University of Chicago Press (£18). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply



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