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Beyond Z: The Real Truth About British Youth – Speech by Alex Mahon, Chief Executive, Channel 4

Today we are bringing together Gen Z young people and our media industry so that we hear directly from 13 to 24-year-olds about what it really feels like to be young in Britain right now.

I have been kind of obsessively thinking about this over the past couple of years and I feel it’s something vital for us to understand. So, I asked my colleagues to commission detailed research the length and breadth of the UK into young Britons. And having studied the results, I’m asking myself: is this the most misjudged group of people in our recent history?

The question is particularly vital to us at Channel 4 – and it is one we are determined to unpick because, frankly, it is what we are for. Our existence as a public-service broadcaster depends on our relationship with younger people and always has. And, just like those different generations that have grown up with us over four decades, we need to adapt and change constantly.

Like many of you, my own perception of Gen Z is that their lives are complex, multifaceted, uncertain and perplexing, all exacerbated by the connected world they live in, particularly by social media and immersive technology.

One thing I’m certain of is that the speed of change today’s young people are coping with is faster than at any time in history. Maybe not the scale of change: we aren’t being invaded by Vikings or dying on First World War battlefields; but the sheer, relentless novelty of things the digital world offers us smashes and rebuilds the order of culture and society at an ever-accelerating pace.

Older generations – those that grew up as Channel 4 grew up in the 80s and 90s – were the last of 500 years of people whose world view was shaped by Gutenberg and the printed word. Gen Z live in a Google world – video-first search; the algorithmic selection of their information and entertainment diet; an agenda of influence that derives from unimaginably large numbers of invisible connections across an unseeable network. Our social norms are in flux: it is too early to say what normal behaviours or boundaries will settle to.

Channel 4 itself is 40 tomorrow and we believe life doesn’t just begin at 40; it begins again. And that means above all renewing our lifelong relationship with youth audiences, renewing our ability to reach, help and involve young British people. In the year of our 40th Anniversary, today we’re giving young people a platform to speak directly to the industry about their views and how their lives are changing. We not only wanted to share what is relevant for them with a multitude of brands and agencies, but also involve their perspectives in our business decisions. Our business is, after all, a marketplace and how can we know what to supply if we don’t know what our customers demand?

I think – and I stress “think” rather than “know” – that things are very difficult for these young people. The intricacy of maturing alongside rapidly changing technology has been compounded by the addition of a global pandemic. In order for anyone like me to improve things for them, or even simply to understand and communicate with this both fortunate and unfortunate generation, to work with them and for them, we need to look at things from their perspective with empathy and with genuine curiosity. Too often, I think “we” slip into judging what we think of their lives based on our own very different experiences, our own imperfect views and perhaps our own misplaced nostalgia.

So, to try to understand the experience of being young in Britain in 2022 – not to guess from our own perspectives – we commissioned a new and highly detailed survey called Beyond Z. Many of the young people in this audience took part in it – thank you for doing that.

Our research included more than 1500 people in cohorts of both 13 to 24 year olds and over 25s and went to places that research rarely bothers with, like Troon, Newport, Wakefield and Ballyclare. Not just geographically, but holistically we tried to get beyond the glib, broad-brush portrayal of young people that is all too often accepted at first glance.

Four principal themes emerged:

1. Don’t Mind The Generation Gap

There is far less conflict between generations than is often claimed. To a degree, the intergenerational conflict that we read so much about is a myth. Three out of five 13-24s see their parents as role models, a quarter point to a grandparent and about the same proportion identify a teacher. Big societal issues like Gender Equality, Climate Change and Human Rights are seen as shared values – in other words, the collective responsibility of society, not the failings of older generations.

Of course, this is such a diverse and morphing, heterogenous group that it’s hard, perhaps impossible to talk about them as a whole. However, where Gen Z are certainly more progressive than older generations is on ‘emergent’ social issues, particularly support for the Black Lives Matter movement and transgender rights. These are truly generation-dividing issues, although it is arguable that they are no more divisive than anti-racism or gay rights were 40 years ago, just spread more widely by ubiquitous digital discourse.

2. The Rise of the YIPs – Young Illiberal Progressives

The social and cultural attitudes of Gen Z are in reality more similar to older generations than stereotyped judgments suggest. These are progressive people in that they support the freedoms won by earlier generations who changed social attitudes towards issues such as sexuality and equality. Indeed, they are significantly more progressive than their parents and even than millennials on some issues. So for example, only 48% of Gen Z believe there are just two genders, compared to 68% of over-25s; they are more supportive of multiculturalism than older cohorts.

But, and it is a big but, young people could be said to be less liberal because they are less tolerant of the views of others than their parents and grandparents – surely a novelty. A quarter of Gen Z say they “have very little tolerance for people with beliefs that they disagree with”. They don’t believe in unrestrained free speech, with nearly half agreeing that “some people deserve to be cancelled”. There is an obvious paradox between this intolerance and their genuinely stated desires for everyone to have their rights and freedoms defended. This is probably a completely rational response to the confusing online world we have, but is it either what they want for themselves or what we want for them?

3. The new stress, just like the old stress</b.

On the one hand a generational divide does exist in attitudes to social media. Born into a world of constant connectivity, Gen Z believes its elders do not understand their ability to control interaction on social media. Yes, they report significantly greater struggles with mental health, but – and this is important – their concerns are not so much about social media, which their elders often blame.

Indeed, this is the biggest intergenerational issue the study uncovered. Over-25s believe social media is the top cause of stress in the lives of Gen Z – 50% of them say so. But ask the young Britons themselves – only 35% identify it as a cause. For them, it isn’t even in the top five stated drivers of stress. Those are: the cost of living, a lack of affordable housing, uncertainty about the future, pressure to be successful and feelings around appearance. If you look hard at those, the first is food, the second is shelter and the last three are about your relationships with others and what mark you leave on the world. Food, shelter, legacy: the same worries and priorities of people who have lived on these islands not just for generations or centuries, but millennia.

Social media bugs Gen Z, of course; young people understand it can have both a positive and negative impact on their personal image or their happiness. But they don’t see it as a major cause of poor mental health because they believe they have the power to turn it off and on. Ultimately, their view is that being employed in a fairly-paid job and owning a house is more likely to drive their happiness than what they’re seeing on TikTok.

4. Big picture pessimists; little picture optimists

While they have understandable concerns about the future of the world – with climate-emergency, economic mayhem and international violence impacting the planet – this cohort of young Britons see themselves as part of the solution, with 60% being positive about their own future. The big question again, is how we – who are not part of their generation – judge the quality of their lives.

From outside, it looks scary and rather profound – a world where young people today edit, curate and broadcast their own experience. Undoubtedly, there are real and worrying trends in the mental health of young people – it is a true generational effect and the negativity of a 24-hour news agenda can add to a sense of permacrisis.

Covid made everything worse. We know there are problems with body image affecting boys and girls, though in different proportions and different ways, but there is another picture, different from what we might glean from media headlines: we found that 44% of Gen Z said they had been helped to accept their body as it is by information or images they found online, almost exactly the same proportion as said the opposite.

The same number say they are fully aware that images online are manipulated to give false impressions. But we found that there are worrying numbers of negative effects that Gen Z has felt: eating disorders, over-exercising, taking diet pills or steroids that may involve as many as four in 10 of this generation.

But they do – or at least some of them do – have self-control: one in five say they have paused their social media use to protect their mental health and one in nine have given it up permanently.

Perhaps the biggest finding in this area is that young people believe that their elders project their own dislike of the online world onto the activities of their children. Almost 60% think older generations worry unnecessarily about it and underestimate the resilience of Gen Z and for them this is cited as the biggest source on intergenerational conflict.

To summarise then, we are lucky enough to have a population of 8 million people in the UK who are aged between 13 and 24 – human beings on the cusp of their fullest potential who feel they have the power to influence their future far more readily than their parents feel it. They have positive and negative feelings about social media, but believe that earning enough money to buy a house and feeding and presenting themselves well is what matters.

Many think there should be restrictions on what people say and they are more censorious than their elders about the removal of offensive material, but they do that in support of people they see as vulnerable.

The majority also feel they have the self-awareness to know when it is time to unplug from the internet. This, I grant, may be an area where a lot of young people are kidding themselves. What harms one person online may not harm many others who see it, but is that a reason to ignore it? Surely it is our collective responsibility to ensure that social media and its impacts are constantly evaluated and that we protect those that may have particular vulnerabilities made worse online to ensure our real life value systems apply online.

But the fact remains that this generation feels they are stronger than their elders think they are. Recognising that has to be a path towards better interaction between generations.

So why is this research so important to us here today? Well, many of us here are preoccupied with engaging young audiences across platforms and devices and creating brands and content which compete for their attention – and ultimately their money – be it through advertising, subscription or something else.

Reaching and pleasing younger audiences depends on tapping into their interests, holding their attention by covering what matters most to them, but it also involves having empathy for them and not making judgments without evidence.

Many forms of entertainment are challenging TV’s historical dominance and knowing and understanding our audience is vital. It is well worth noting that this research backs up Ofcom’s recent findings that the same proportion of British people use PSB on-demand services as use US streamers so they are voting with their time that there is a vital role for British, culturally relevant content.

Research like this also helps us with choices about where we invest tomorrow; to better inform and entertain a generation. Only by knowing more about how they think can we approach the minds of younger audiences – a group who our research shows crave learning as much as they crave thrills.

With this in mind, we have just launched our new youth-focused YouTube channel, Channel 4.0 – an offering purely focused on engaging and building a young audience with content and creators like Chunkz, Nella Rose, Alhan Gençay and Mist in addition to many more next generation stars.

As you know though, we’re not just in the business of entertainment. We take very seriously our information and education remit and the delivery of balanced and impartial news from trusted sources.

Our industry needs to ensure we’re doing everything we can to allow young people easy access to content that matters – matters to them and to the society they are part of – and that we reduce the number of steps it currently takes them to find PSB content. They need to know they have a voice in national debates if they are going to contribute to solving national problems. That’s exactly why we recently launched Untold, Channel 4’s brand new, youth-orientated current affairs strand with the same remit-defining, noisy and bold journalism of its older sister Dispatches but focused on younger viewers and subjects they are interested in. But there does remain an urgency for improved personalisation and discoverability so audiences of all ages find trusted media sources. It is why prominence is so important in a digital-first world.

I sincerely hope this research will be conversation-starter and that a multitude of brands and agencies will make good use of the findings. And most importantly, that young people themselves recognise the validity and accuracy of them.

Let’s make sure that this group of 8 million teenagers and young adults, whatever else they become, do not become the most misjudged generation in our history.

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