Millennials and the media: youth, communication, and consumption in the early twenty-first century

Youth culture and the new world of digital media

Swedish gaming vlogger Felix Kjellberg - better known as ‘PewDiePie’ - was an Internet sensation. His beginnings were relatively humble, Kjellberg registering a channel on the video-sharing platform YouTube in 2010 to present his ‘Let’s Play’ commentaries on video games. But his goofy, energetic delivery won a budding following, and his endeavours diversified into music videos, comedy clips and vlogs (a video blog, or diary-style clip). Relentlessly hyped by his catchphrase — ‘Subscribe to PewDiePie’ — his output proved a hit, attracting over 2 million subscribers within two years and rising to be YouTube’s most viewed channel by 2014. Named by Time magazine as one of the world’s most influential 100 people in 2016, PewDiePie’s success continued, and by 2019 his channel had chalked-up a staggering 102 million global subscribers (Spangler, 2019). The figures were impressive, and testified to the huge changes that characterised youth-oriented communication and entertainment in the early twenty-first century.

Above all, PewDiePie’s triumphs pointed to the impact of digital technology on modem youth culture. Generally, the Internet and digitally-based technologies transformed everyday life, but it often seemed young people were in the forefront of the changes. Indeed, this seemed borne out by PewDiePie’s following, 44 per cent of whom were aged between 18 and 24 (Genova, 2018). Moreover, PewDiePie’s success highlighted the vast economic potential of online media geared to youth. With reported earnings of $12 million in 2015, PewDiePie headed Forbes magazine’s first list of the world’s richest YouTube stars, and by 2019 it was estimated he generated monthly revenues of nearly $8 million (Czarnecki, 2019). The precise way PewDiePie raked in such sums was also significant. His biggest venue streams came from merchandising and advertising (played before or during his videos), but brand endorsements were also important.1 This illustrated the way ‘branding’ - cultivating a brand’s distinctive identity — had become a central pillar in the world of marketing; developments which had, in turn, spawned a burgeoning industry of online influencers and social media marketing.

This chapter examines the impact of such developments on contemporary youth culture. It begins by considering the way that — despite the global financial crisis of 2007-8 - young people continued to represent a key commercial market, with the term ‘millennials’ coined to denote what some observers saw as a new generation of young, relatively affluent consumers. These developments took place alongside the upsurge of digital technology and the huge growth of video games, online media, and social networks. The chapter surveys these changes, and critically reviews theories which cast the shifts in terms of a generational transformation — that is to say, as a shift marked by the rise of a new cohort of youngsters who are uniquely immersed in new media technologies. Similar views were expounded in the world of marketing, where the epithets ‘Generation X’, ‘Generation Y’ and ‘Generation Z’ were coined for successive markets of youngsters who were conceived as exceptionally discriminating, technically adept and ‘media-savvy’. Again, the chapter reviews and critically evaluates such ideas. Consideration is also given to developments in advertising and marketing geared to youth. Specific attention is paid to the rise of branding and social influencers - promotional strategies regarded as particularly suited to a world where mass markets have steadily given way to a multitude of ‘niche’ market segments. The chapter concludes by considering how far these changes have taken place alongside the emergence of a new, distinctive period in the life course - ‘emerging adulthood’ — that separates adolescence and full adulthood. Throughout the chapter, it is argued that readings of social and economic change framed in terms of ‘generational’ shifts tend to be over-generalised. Such claims fail to recognise both significant national variations and the huge diversity of young people’s experience. They obscure, especially, the way young people’s lives remain profoundly affected by inequalities in terms of class, ethnicity, and gender.

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