‘What really shocked me was the lottery of life experienced by young people’
Telling the stories of a group you don’t belong to is a funny yet serious business.
Male writers should feel a real sense of responsibility when writing about issues that affect women. Writers of one colour should conduct serious research when writing about things that affect people of other colours. And an adult writing about teenagers should take similar care. Because teenage lives – all teenage lives, really, really matter.
I was well aware of this already when I started writing Generation Z: Their Voices, Their Lives. I had taught teenagers for about seven years and had been writing about them for five years. I was also aware that it was going to be a real challenge to represent teenagers accurately and fairly – a lot of the literature written by adults about teenagers doesn’t.
Adult writers often approach the subject of teenagers as an “expert” – perhaps a psychologist, doctor or therapist. But I am not convinced anyone can ever be an expert on any group of people. People in all their myriad weirdness and complexity are almost impossible to ever really label. Where teenagers in particular are concerned, no one understands that better than teachers. In a single form group alone, the diversity of personalities and characters can often be overwhelming.
So I decided not to bother to pretend to be an expert or even go out of my way to understand teenagers. I decided to just to listen. And to record. And then to transcribe – all interviews in Generation Z are in their own words, and language and voices.
The next big challenge was finding these voices.
The United Kingdom is a place of huge diversity, where almost every person imaginable is represented. And I had to find these representations in our teenagers and allow them to find a voice through Generation Z.
If you want to write a book like this, you have to learn to switch off the triggers of shock and judgment.
You also quickly realise there are very few examples of ‘good’ people or ‘bad’ people or ‘good’ lives or ‘bad’ lives.
All people are just living multi-faceted and usually complicated lives.
But what did shock me, I guess, is what a weird lottery life is, that determines so much (but not all) about the outcome. I’m not just talking about money, although being born with or without money absolutely does affect the quality of a young person’s life.
You meet the teenagers who were dealt a kind hand of fate – loving families, a decent postcode, good health, reasonable intelligence, the ability to make friends – and for the most part this shines in every part of them. You see it in the way they speak, their mannerisms, they way they conduct themselves and the fact they have ambitions and dreams.
And then you meet the teenagers who – through no fault of their own – were born to something far less kind: unloving or chaotic family lives, poverty stricken postcodes, bad schools, poor health, social problems.
And you know (except in exceptional cases) that this is far more pre-determining than it should be. And that without serious support and intervention, these kids are at the mercy of something they didn’t choose. Something that was decided, perhaps even before they were born.
Researching and writing Generation Z made me really angry and sad. And also absolutely certain something has to fundamentally change in this country.
On a more positive note, Generation Z also made me laugh and love and celebrate our nation’s teenagers – most of whom are remarkable people, trying to do remarkable things: the teenagers with painfully difficult home lives making it to school everyday, the teenagers helping those less fortunate, the teenagers joining political parties, or writing books, or starting bands, or wanting to be doctors, or teachers or social workers or just helping to make the world a better place.
And I finished the book even more certain than when I started, that every teenage life really does matter – even the ones we see and hear so little of and who don’t have people to represent them.
And I am immensely proud to have captured so many in this book, because when you read it, you don’t just understand teenagers better in the present – you can begin to see the future.
We have evolved enough in society to realise that stereotyping any group is lazy and sometimes dangerous. And yet teenagers continue to be labeled and misrepresented. Generation Z is the beginning, not the end, of a conversation about how we as a society must see teenagers: difficult, complex and rather brilliant.