Just Kids? How Today’s Teenagers Became Our Role Models

The children have always been our future. But 2018 was the year they finally got some credit for it

Emma Gonzalez raising her fist

Photo illustration: Ka Lee and Joel Louzado

At FLARE, we take what young women like seriously—but more importantly, we take those young women and non-binary people seriously, too. This year, it feels like teens have become increasingly politically aware, increasingly angry… and increasingly willing to use their voices to enact social change. That’s why, as “the youth” head back to school, we’re taking some time to think about the space they occupy in society today. Here, Katie Underwood breaks down why the kids really are all right. Elsewhere on, Canadian teens share their stories about how they really use their phones, learning about gender identity on the internet, what it’s like to grow up in Canada’s North and being a young man who proudly wears makeup

During what can only be described as a literal rebel yell delivered at a rally in the rubble of February’s Parkland shooting, Emma Gonzales cut a stunning figure. Perhaps it was her eloquent words, shouted in pissed-off, cut-glass tones, over the course of 11 minutes, chastising politicians for their greed and castration in the face of America’s all-powerful gun lobby, negligent vices that no doubt contributed to the untimely deaths of 17 of her classmates. Perhaps it was her literal image: Shaved head, multi-racial, queer, angry and unashamed. That day, Gonzales looked less like an outsider or victim or chronological minor than an oracle, a harbinger of true revolution. That day, she was just 16.

It’s becoming increasingly difficult for “grownups” to reconcile the slapdash stereotypes they associate with modern youth with the seeds of meaningful societal change we’ve seen them sow in recent times. If millennials, now full-blown adults, have historically caught flak for favouring avocado toast above home ownership, poor Gen Z (the teenaged, “post-millennials”) are slagged as so profoundly self-absorbed that they’d happily, mindlessly Snapchat themselves into traffic.

But while the title of a recent New York Times trend piece (“Are Today’s Teenagers Smarter and Better Than We Think?”) stank with no small whiff of condescension, it also pointed to an active sea change in our culture’s perception of the previously not-alright kids: “The stereotype of a disengaged, entitled and social-media-addicted generation doesn’t match the poised, media-savvy and inclusive young people leading the protests and gracing magazine covers.” After Stoneman, thousands of high school students across American staged mass walkouts to protest gun violence across America. In the spring, they headed towards Washington for the same reason. More recently—and closer to home—when Ontario’s new conservative government scrapped the new sex-ed curriculum, teens immediately took action. The result, July’s March for Our Education, was organized by three Toronto high school students: Frank Hong, Rayne Fisher-Quann and Le Nguyen.

Young people have always contributed to social justice movements

Of course, “the youth” have always been canaries in our collective coal mine; let’s not forget that the Freedom Rides of 1960 were partially led by a coalition of students. Or that the Stonewall Riots and demonstrations against the Vietnam War were well-attended by young people. While today’s teens may have missed out on the “greatest generation” label, they are certainly the most politically aware and engaged generation we’ve ever seen.

History 101 shows that, despite the chaotic appearance of our current political climate, “wokeness” necessarily tends to grow with the cultural progress of each successive generation, and with time. But where older adults always seem to get confused is that enlightenment, in fact, doesn’t. One need look no further than 72-year-old unmitigated human and planetary disaster Donald Trump—or our current climate change situation—for a counterpoint to the age-old “age equals wisdom” adage. The adults were in charge and they shit the bed. Spectacularly.

They’re using the power of the internet, and social media in particular, for good

What kids today know, or at least embody, is that wisdom comes from, yes, experience, but also from empathy and connection. Empathy makes room for “the others”—the gay kids, the trans kids, the poor, the people of colour, the women. And indeed, social media, the very medium of connection we slag them for puppy-filtering their faces on, is their most potent organizing tool.

In the same New York Times piece, Don Tapscott, author of Grown Up Digital, says succinctly: “They didn’t grow up being the passive recipients of somebody else’s broadcast.” Teens have always had the potent fortune of remaining untrammelled by cynicism and the gear-grinding reality of full-time jobs and families. But now they also have Soundcloud and Instagram and Twitter. Don’t appreciate your president’s pat offer of “thoughts and prayers”? Make like Stoneman student Sarah Chadwick and @ him on Twitter for being a “piece of shit,” then march for your lives to his house.

But this expertly channeled existential angst isn’t restricted to the realm of politics proper. 2018’s pop culture space has similarly been a teenage hotbed. Just look at, well, Teen Vogue, a formerly boy- and celebrity- and lip gloss–obsessed monthly that pivoted to substantive political op-eds and gender-spectrum inclusive content seemingly overnight.

Our idea of “teenage wunderkinds” is evolving—and diversifying

Tavi Gevinson, the pint-sized fashionista fetishized for her youthful spunk and the admitted genius that is Rookie, used to corner the teenage wunderkind market. Now we have Zendaya. We have Alessia Cara. And we have Amandla Stenberg, a 19-year-old Black, openly bisexual actress-slash-activist whose credits include roles in The Hunger Games and Lemonade, who has plans to become a director with the express purpose of creating roles for women of colour, and whose Vogue profile opened with this banger quote: “I don’t think gender even exists.”

Coincidentally, Stenberg’s partner, Mikaela Straus, who goes by the stage name King Princess, is blasting through pop’s straight AF paradigm with hit songs like “1950” and other gender-bending odes to queer love. It’s not just that we’re listening to young women—it’s the kinds of young women that now get to hold the mic: ones of colour, of varying classes and orientations. That’s the real shift.

Because the media likely won’t ever stop with the grandiose superlatives, Stenberg has, of course, been christened a “voice of the future.”(R.I.P. Lena Dunham’s “voice of a generation.”) But if we can take away any conclusion from recent times, it’s that hers is but one in a growing chorus of progressive, youthful voices worth listening to. Why? Because they—the Gonzaleses, the Hongs, Fisher-Quanns and Nguyens, and the writers who have shared their stories with FLARE—may be “just kids,” but they have something important to say. We should listen.

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