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How social media is opening a new generation gap

After months of daily video calls, I’m sorry to report that many of us are looking into our cameras at a deeply unfashionable angle.

I thought propping my laptop up was standard but it turns out to be a distinct marker of age. To teenagers, the distorting, downward-pointing camera angle that millennials consider flattering is the Zoom equivalent of slipping on a pair of bootcut jeans and sending out a hundred Facebook friend requests, ie, completely tragic.

This summer was marked by an outpouring of online teenage teasing directed at millennials. It’s not just camera angles. Generational divisions may be artificial but it turns out that there are all sorts of signifiers that lump age groups together in ways they may not notice themselves.

For millennials, these markers include side-hair partings, making a fuss of basic “adulting” tasks, earnestness and all emojis — particularly the crying-laughing face. Gen Z is skewering them all.

More seriously, teens are critical about the willingness of older generations, particularly millennials, to hand over photos, locations and other personal information to social media companies in exchange for likes.

A year ago, I interviewed Eliza Filby, a consultant who specialises in the history of generations, about all the ways in which Gen Z, born in the late 1990s and onwards, differs from millennials, born in the 1980s and early 1990s.

A room full of British business leaders sat agog as she described the intense interest in privacy that marked out younger generations — and all the ways in which companies failed to realise they were putting off those potential customers.

Emails are in trouble, she argued, regarded by under-twenties as stiffly formal. People joining the workforce now may never have had their own email address before. Messaging apps make them redundant. Data security and online honesty are essential.

This week I spoke to Filby again to see what impact she thought the pandemic might have on these trends. With everyone locked away and forced to interact online more than ever, she thinks the pandemic has given us all a better insight into others’ digital lives — hence the mockery from teenagers.

Yet companies fail to distinguish between generations. At the start of the year, a survey by agency MBLM tried to find out which brands Americans were most “emotionally connected” to. Boomers in their fifties and sixties picked packaged brands such as Kellogg’s. Those aged 18-34, who have varied tastes, were grouped together and picked entertainment brands.

Facebook knows that it is losing favour fast. The Oxford Internet Institute has already predicted that dead people will outnumber the living on Facebook within 50 years. Even on Instagram, the photo-sharing company owned by Facebook that is more popular with younger users, fatigue is rising. To anyone who has grown up in a world of ubiquitous retouching apps such as Facetune, the idea of curating an Insta-perfect digital archive of altered photos can come off as phoney and embarrassing.

Claims that Gen Z is unusually interested in social justice are weakened by the fact that every generation has been described in the same way. But this generation is undeniably adept at online activism. See the success of K-Pop stans, avid fans of Korean pop music, who claim to have pranked Donald Trump’s campaign rallies.

They are also aware that their online privacy is likely to have been compromised from the start by parents and grandparents. Warned of the dangers of image-sharing, they know that from childhood a digital footprint has been created on their behalf, without their approval, that has enriched big tech companies. Last year, actress Gwyneth Paltrow was told off by her 14-year-old daughter Apple for posting her photo on Instagram. “Mom we have discussed this,” Apple wrote under the post. “You may not post anything without my consent.”

Generation lines are messy. Definitions are fluid and can look old quickly. A few years ago, there was some suggestion that millennials should be called the “iPod generation”. The reference now looks badly out of date.

What is clear is that it is no longer useful to clump millennials and Gen Z together as shorthand for youth. They may not have noticed it, but the upper cohort of millennials are fast approaching middle age. The second they try looking at themselves in a Gen-Z-approved upward camera angle, they’ll find that out for themselves.

Elaine Moore is the FT’s deputy Lex editor

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