Gen Z believes in no mainstream pop culture

Is Gen Z really bringing an end to mainstream pop culture?

Gen Z surveys and new studies on emerging behaviors almost always ignite one of two questions for me within the first paragraphs: (1) Are these behaviors or preferences really different from Millennials and Boomers at similar ages? (2) What’s in here that’s really unique for this generation and not just an insight about teens and 20-somethings that would have been true 20, 30, or 100 years ago in a different historical backdrop? That was definitely true last week when I opened up a new Gen Z-focused report from the investment firm Battery, titled “Understanding the Next Generation of Consumers.”

I kept coming back to one slide in particular: the one on Gen Z’s entertainment preferences. How much more fractured is Gen Z’s universe of pop culture than that of any other group of young adults over the past century? After all, rock and roll, beatnik, hippie, punk, and internet cultures all emerged to some extent from young groups who felt outside the mainstream. Don’t most generations pick out things they find meaningful and build new movements to call their own?

Personally, I don’t even self-identify with the dominant generational classifications; I was born in that tricky space during the 1980s that’s been carved out for Xennials, those of us who are old enough to remember functioning without internet but DIY’d through its early days into careers where we became empathizers with both Gen Xers and Millennials, even if we weren’t clean fits into either category ourselves. Internet culture of the ’90s and early ’00s enabled subcultures to form through message boards and forums in more efficient ways than zines and telephone party lines did. So is Gen Z just experiencing the next iteration of those developments in an era characterized by smartphones and short-form/video-enabled social apps?

Here’s what Battery’s report said:

In line with their core identity and value systems, and as online content becomes more diverse and accessible, Gen Zers seek out community, connectivity and authenticity online.


That statement comes accompanied by two key stats: one from a 2022 Horizon Media report that found “91% of 18–25-year-olds say there’s no such thing as ‘mainstream’ pop culture,” and the other from The Leap stating that 55% percent of Gen Z watches “content that none of their friends watch.”

Below that are some rehashes of trends we saw coming a mile away — at least as far back as a Gen Z report I worked on in 2017 — asserting that Gen Zers like video platforms (especially YouTube) and really like short-form social video (especially TikTok).

The real challenge arises from the proliferation of sub-groups outside of “main feeds.” Here lies the foundation for answering the central question about Gen Z’s uniqueness. Subcultures and private spaces for cultivating them aren’t new. What’s different now is the availability of technology to enable subcultures to become more numerous and larger at scale, even if one doesn’t become a dominant majority.

These opportunities for forming communities are great for a generation of individuals who are able to find others with common interests, on Discord channels, Facebook Groups, or elsewhere. However, the nature of their behaviors can make it more difficult to target them from the perspective of a marketer, news publisher, or entertainment company. This an area where AI and automation come into play as potential tools for customizing marketing across segments.

In entertainment specifically, it’s easy to imagine what new experiences might look like. Season 6 of the Netflix season “Black Mirror” included an episode called “Joan is Awful,” which mainly addressed the problems arising from the main character having her likeness and day-to-day life harvested in real time for AI to render a TV series for the streaming platform. Implicitly, a show being generated that quickly every day could also have variations produced in parallel, even personalized if desired. That world is still science fiction for the moment, but the technology to make it a reality is getting more potent by the day.

So will this mean that a decade or two from now mainstream pop culture is effectively gone as a concept?

I don’t think so.

Take this viral video of a 7-year-old performing Bowser’s “Peaches” song from “The Super Mario Bros.” movie.

That is a room of kids who are clearly attached to a common song, character, and story from pop culture. Mainstream pop culture success stories still happen and have resonance.

Yes, the 7-year-olds in that video are going to grow older, probably gravitate to accounts or groups on whatever the TikTok app of their generation turns out to be, and perhaps flip my last paragraph on its head. But even as Gen Zers look for bands, books, and movies that their friends don’t know about — just as Gen X and Millennials before they did — they’re still going to discover moments of surprise connection with others, and public performances and conventions will remain opportunities to bring those groups together.

One annual event to watch in this respect will be San Diego Comic-Con, a show that has faced significant hurdles in recent years, with COVID-19, this year’s SAG-AFTRA strike, and U.S. comics’ biggest publishers Marvel and DC using the the event less as they cultivate their own offerings. Nevertheless, SDCC is a show that attracts people who love sharing and experiencing their pop culture loves — mainstream or fringe — with one another through panels, cosplay, and convention meetups.

VidCon is another place to pay attention. It may not be as big as SDCC yet, but if Gen Z’s media preferences stay glued to YouTube and TikTok, it could get there one day.

This is all to say that I’m skeptical Gen Z isn’t participating in pop culture. I just think they understand it in different ways. Moreover, they’re coming out of the COVID years that minimized group gatherings and drove them to ante up on isolated screen experiences. Those years will undoubtedly echo, but some behaviors will revert to their means — and as they do, Gen Zers will still exhibit traits that their hipster predecessors did, enjoying things that they seek out themselves and try to call their own. After all, just because they won’t banter about their own personal top 5 lists in a record store doesn’t mean they don’t covet them like John Cusack or Jack Black in “High Fidelity.”

Featured image for this post generated using Midjourney