An illustration by Shonagh Rae depicting a Generation K teen

I could hear the anxiety in her voice as she recalled “the incident”. Her words became staccato, her breathing more perceptible. “It was the worst thing ever. Awful. Horrible. Terrible.” What trauma was this poor young woman recounting? Had she witnessed a mugging? Experienced the loss of someone close? Been shunned by her peers? Not quite. This is how Jen, 19, recalled feeling after dropping her smartphone in the toilet. For Jen, I connect, therefore I am.

When I first started researching “Generation K” — my term for 13- to 20-year-old girls, named after their icon Katniss Everdeen, heroine of The Hunger Games — I’d expected that technology would be core to their identity (even if I hadn’t quite envisaged Toiletgate). This is, after all, the generation which has come of age alongside the iPhone and Facebook. They can’t conceive of a world without the internet and have almost no sense of the revolution technology has brought to our lives.

But technology is not the only thing that has shaped them. This generation’s formative years have been moulded by two other distinct factors — the worst recession the west has faced in decades and the greatest geopolitical dangers it has confronted in years. They have grown up alongside Islamic extremism, austerity and Edward Snowden.

This spring I partnered with Survey Monkey to conduct a poll of more than 1,000 American and British teenage girls (interestingly, I found few significant differences between the two). I also carried out a series of one-to-one interviews. I wanted to hear directly from this generation. What do they care about? Worry about? Want? And what does it mean for our political, social and economic futures?

Many of those in their twenties and thirties — the “Yes we can” generation — grew up believing the world was their oyster. But for Generation K the world is less oyster and more Hobbesian nightmare. Al-Qaeda and Isis have been piped into their smartphones and they have witnessed their parents lose their jobs. They are a group for whom there are disturbing echoes of the dystopian landscape Katniss encounters in The Hunger Games’s District 12. Unequal, violent, hard.

They are concerned about existential threats. Sadly, their anxieties stretch way beyond the typical teenage anxieties. Seventy-five per cent of teenage girls I surveyed are worried about terrorism; 66 per cent worry about climate change; 50 per cent worry about Iran. They also worry inordinately about their own futures. Eighty-six per cent are worried about getting a job; 77 per cent about getting into debt.

Such concerns will not only have an impact on future savings and consumption patterns — they are having an effect right now. Generation K is more sober: teenagers drink less alcohol and take fewer drugs than their recent predecessors. It is also more physically scarred. In 2013, as many as 22 per cent of female high-school students in the US seriously considered committing suicide, according to the US Department of Health. In the UK, a World Health Organisation survey discovered a threefold increase in the number of teenagers who self-harm over the past 10 years. A world of Instadanger, Facebook Envy and austerity has proved a particularly toxic cocktail for boys as well as girls.

Wanting to understand who they turn to in such a harsh environment, I pushed them on who they trusted. Their answers were unambiguous. Only 4 per cent of Generation K girls trust big corporations to do the right thing (as opposed to 60 per cent of adults). Only one in 10 trusts the government to do the right thing — half the percentage of older millennials. These numbers have big implications for the future of business and politics.

Their distrust of traditional institutions bleeds into a more generalised distrust of traditional social mores. As many as 30 per cent of teenage girls are either unsure about marriage or don’t want to get married. Even more strikingly, 35 per cent are unsure if they want to have children or definitely don’t. This is a seismic difference compared with older millennials.

Emily, 15, who “definitely doesn’t”, explained that this decision stemmed from a realisation that women can’t have it all, that she’d have to choose between career or children. We clearly still have a way to go for girls to see child rearing as a gender-neutral responsibility. And this generation is definitely career-minded — 90 per cent consider it important to be successful in a high-paying profession.

Careerist definitely. But, like Katniss Everdeen, Generation K also has a strong sense of what is right and fair. Time and time again the girls told me how disturbed they were by gender pay gaps, sexist comments, the attitude that “women cannot be engineers”. They shared their frustration that “men are able to do anything but women still can’t”, along with concerns about economic, racial and social inequality.

Equality for this generation is not about conformity. Eighty per cent of them support equal rights for transgender people. Indeed, I was fascinated by the extent to which Generation K celebrates difference. When I asked the girls to describe themselves in one word, “unique” was the one they most commonly chose. Unique — and proud to be so. Sarah, 16, explained what this meant to her: “To me, it’s about being your own person, not having to think the same as others or dress the same as them. It’s about not caring if I’m the same as everyone else.”

In a world of Toiletgate and terrorism trauma, I find this revelation not only inspiring but also very hopeful.

Noreena Hertz is co-founder and CEO of Generation K and honorary professor at University College London. She will be launching her research on Generation K girls at The Women in the World Summit in New York on April 24. Twitter @noreenahertz

Illustration by Shonagh Rae

Letter in response to this article:

Supposing Generation K cannot compromise / From Robin Cooke-Hurle

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