10 Min. Read
The New Alphalescience
Gen Alphas are remaking traditional adolescent milestones. Coming of age amid unprecedented levels of existential stress, they’re navigating how to both cope with confidence and also lean on others for far longer than did previous gens.
THE UP-AGED GENERATION
Gen Alphas face stressors that are far more existential than that of previous generations: Climate crisis, war, inflation, growing inequity, plus a global pandemic — and all amid a 24/7 news cycle. It’s all contributing to the phenomenon of “up-aging,” where Alphas grow up faster at a younger age than previous gens. As one parent to an Alpha told us, “They’re learning about death and sickness when they’re incredibly young.” Indeed, of the issues that Alphas told us they’re most aware of today, several are fairly morbid: 75% said the pandemic, while 56% said “death,” and nearly half (49%) said gun violence.
But Alphas’ relationship with heavy issues is more complex than simple awareness. As the most diverse generation yet, Alphas are more likely than previous children to learn about issues, such as racism and climate catastrophe, through their own lived experiences or through that of their families. In our own research, parents of BIPOC Zs were more likely than their white counterparts to say that their children learned about world events directly from them (66% vs. 56%). Meanwhile, white parents were more likely than BIPOC parents to say their kids learned about world events from social media (50% vs. 41%).
Given Alphas’ firsthand and secondhand proximity to existential issues, it’s little surprise that recent studies show that this generation is even more concerned about these issues than were Millennials or Boomers at the same age. Sure, Millennials also faced scary real-world issues at a young age. But they were often couched within age-appropriate means of coping: Millennials planted trees, wore Earth Day T‑shirts, and bought ice cream that “saved the rainforest.” For Gen Zs, there’s been a larger push to explain and confront issues that would have previously been considered too mature — since they will likely learn about them online anyway. 18% of Alphas said they already consume the news, according to our research. And, these days, the average age when children are first exposed to porn is 11 — and it’s likely more hardcore than what previous generations would have stumbled upon in magazines.
This early maturation is playing out not only in Alphas’ psyches, but in their physical bodies as well. Puberty now starts up to two years earlier than it used to, according to some researchers, who report that they’ve observed some girls starting to develop breasts as early as age 6 or 7. While doctors don’t know exactly why this is, researchers are studying the role of chemicals and stress. While Alphas are still kids — consumed with kid stuff, like playground politics and birthday parties — the harsher realities of the world they’re growing up in is reflected in both their brains and bodies.
TRIAL BY FIRE & A SUNNY OUTLOOK
While this heaviness at any early age seems like it could be a recipe for a pessimistic generation, there’s little evidence that young people are feeling downbeat. According to a recent global study by UNICEF, which surveyed 21,000 people, teens around the world were much more likely to agree that “the world is becoming a better place.” In our own research, Alphas and their parents expressed hopefulness and positivity about their future outlook. Many parents expressed confidence that the hardships their kids experienced amid the pandemic — and everything else — will likely benefit them in the long run. Parents called their Alpha kids “confident,” “calm in adversity,” and “adaptable.”
After several years of trial by fire, Alphas themselves seem to generally agree that they’re emerging stronger for it. Ivy, 11, believes the frightening events of her early adolescence will make it easier for her to handle stress in the future: “It’s kind of like the modern plague right now, but it also kind of prepares you for what’s going to happen next,” she said. “If some other virus [emerges] when you’re older, like 50, you know what to do because you’ve experienced something like this.” Penelope, 10, feels similarly: “Since I’ve already been through one, I feel like I have more experience on disasters.”
With eyes on catastrophes to come, Alphas are exhibiting interest in the kinds of skills that will be valuable, such as disaster preparedness and community organizing. And while tech‑y jobs like YouTuber dominated our research, “doctor” is actually the profession Alphas most want to be when they grow up, according to our survey. Brands should consider how to create opportunities for Alphas to build on the coping skills they’re already establishing.
“Doctor” is the profession Alphas want to be most when they grow up.
While Alphas are feeling positive about their abilities to cope in an increasingly challenging world, they’re not quite as eager to tick off the typical adolescent milestones that lead to more independence. Like generations of 8- to 12-year-olds before them, they’re carving out their own identities — picking out their own outfits, creating their own streaming accounts (as part of family plans, of course), and clarifying their pronouns to parents and classmates.
Gen Alphas, however, have lost some of the early aspirations to explore the world all on their own, as previous generations of tweens aspired to. Many Alphas actually say they still prefer to depend on their parents. Take it from Rosanna, 39, who said she’s noticed more “selective incompetence” in her 9‑year-old daughter, referring to how kids will sometimes ask their parents for help with things they’re perfectly capable of doing themselves. For now, her daughter has no interest in walking to friends’ houses alone, despite her mom’s encouragement. “She still wants to be supervised or watched,” said Rosanna. In fact, research by Australian firm McCrindle suggests that out of both choice and financial circumstance, Gen Alpha may actually continue to live at home well into their late twenties, limiting opportunities for increased independence well into adulthood.
Helicopter parenting may be out, but Alphas’ relationship with their parents is revealing itself to be somewhat marsupial in nature, with little ones curling up close to familiar settings — even when they’re not so little anymore. In fact, more than half of parents to Alphas (54%) in our survey agreed that the last two years have changed how they parent, evidence of the evolving needs of their children.
While much has been written about the new milestones of adulthood — and how Millennials reinvented the traditional path of marriage, kids, and homeownership — Millennial-led families are also now leading the way with new milestones for childhood and early adolescence. Not only are Alpha kids putting off independent activities like sleepovers, but at school they’re also navigating new milestones as they face steep academic losses due to the pandemic.
Now, Alphas and their parents are together letting go of standardized expectations of where kids should be developmentally and when. While many parents want their kids to stand on their own two metaphorical feet, they’re accepting that their kids will need more support — and likely for many years to come. Brands that encourage independence and confidence, but that also support kids who lean into dependence, will resonate with Gen Alpha’s family units.
WHAT THIS MEANS FOR BRANDS
Be frank with Alphas. This generation’s exposure to raw, real, and disturbing issues has made them grow up fast. They’re not too naïve to process big, complicated issues.
Provide Alphas and their families with dynamic, evolving support as they process and adapt to the post-pandemic world.
Acknowledge and reflect on how the typical milestones of childhood and adolescence are evolving. Respect the tensions that exist in the ways Alphas are both more and less mature than previous generations were at their age.