What It's Really Like To Be Young & Woke

photographed by Lauren Maccabee.
I am a twentysomething ‘millennial’, as christened by those who understand us as a market or a difficult demographic. I am also ‘woke’, which in the internet age pretty much just means I don’t live under a rock. I am both internally and externally self-aware, conscious of what’s happening around me, unlearning the mistakes of my past and evolving in emotional intelligence.
I want to shed some light on what the complex intersection between being young and being socially aware actually feels like. As a generation, we are addressing our hyper awareness, and the triumphs and anxieties that come with it.
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The term ‘millennial’ litters the media, in articles about how our future is doomed and how lazy, shallow and entitled we are. This regurgitated narrative has become very boring, not to mention inaccurate: we are a generation at the helm of societal revolution. That's not to say there aren’t young people who fit the description – of course there are – but these traits surely exist in every generation. People love to play tennis with the term ‘entitled’ but often all it means is that we want more out of life, and refuse to accept everything that is handed to us. It is this attitude that has reshaped and transformed many creative industries.
Denieka Lafayette, a 20-year-old journalism student in London, points out how restrictive it can be to categorise an entire generation: “In everything that influences me, from music to fashion, there are so many crossovers and hybrids now. We have to be multifaceted, we have to be able to understand things that we’ve never directly experienced. My world is a mixture of several worlds. Things seemed more black and white when our parents were growing up. There was almost a path already set out for you, but now we have the power to carve out our own paths.”

Anxiety can be crippling when trying to shape a future where happiness isn’t a luxury and complacency isn’t an option.

This is exactly what older generations fail to understand. I’ve lost count of the number of times someone has tried to whittle me down into something that makes sense to them, with patronising comments like, "Aww you’re still young, just wait until life hits you". How can you tell someone they’re off course if you don’t understand where they’re trying to get to? Polymathy is no longer reserved for the Da Vincis of the world; it’s accessible to us all. We have qualified doctors who are also renowned photographers, and marketing executives who DJ, blog and curate events.
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A recent Forbes article highlighted how "millennials are the first generation to become jaded about the fact that most marketing is wholly self-interested." Nowadays, we expect sincerity, transparency and social responsibility from our brands. What's more, traditional marketing methods such as billboards and television adverts aren't as gripping as they once were. I speak to Taro Shimada, the 25-year-old cofounder of On Road research agency, who tells me about their innovative methods of working with young people when collaborating with brands like Nike. “The one thing that is revolutionary about what we do, and it shouldn’t be, is maintaining genuine relationships with the people we work with. I believe that when you have any form of power, you should always be giving back and passing on knowledge, resource or access. I see myself as young, but I know those younger than me are the ones creating the culture. You are all current and relevant. We understand that as a business if we want to be a part of that, then we need to nurture it in the most organic way.”
Young people like Taro are entering the world of work much sooner than previous generations, either alongside higher education, or by dropping out altogether. The Huffington Post recently reported that “many employers are predicting that more teens, between the ages of 16 and 18 will go straight into the workforce, opting out of higher education and instead finishing school online, if at all.”
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Twenty-two-year-old Olivia Ema dropped out of her business degree to pursue a career in photography. Having just wrapped up an internship with a prestigious advertising agency, Olivia says she lost herself in feeling the pressure to be perfect. “I wasn’t able to feel free because I was so hyper aware. In my next workplace I want to make a change, to have fun and not feel like I have to carry the burden of rebelling against stereotypes. That’s the complex thing about being socially aware, it’s supposed to be freeing. I guess it is depending on where you are in life, but for me in this period of time it hasn’t been. It’s like I’m afraid to make the wrong move. When you’re not mentally strong enough to handle all this information, it becomes a burden.”

Why is the bar for maturity and significant contribution from young people so low?

One of the biggest lessons we learn as young people at work is to value our time and ideas. We’re too often exploited, and expected to be grateful for being used. You learn to identify manipulative colleagues early on, to carry yourself with confidence and to become comfortable with saying no.
My life’s learning curve has been steep and as a result, I’m often told I’m "mature for my age". While at the age of 16 or 17 that was a compliment, at 20, such observations lead me to wonder why the bar for maturity and significant contribution from young people is still so low, and whether the person making the observation associates with any of us at all.
Though we are redefining what it means to be successful, the pressure to do so earlier in life is rife among the young. We’re surrounded by images of our peers living their best lives and naturally, we compare ourselves. We are also very aware of our potential and of the breadth of possibilities available to us, which causes a conflict between motivation and anxiety. “I’ve felt the pressure since I was 17, I’ve always been anxious about my future and unsure about exactly what I wanted to do. I have a lot of older friends, and I see them making something of themselves. It motivates you in one way, and I eventually got onto my own path, but it took me a lot of thinking and a lot of anxiety to get there,” says Saffa Khalil, a 19-year-old studying fashion marketing.
The anxiety can be crippling when trying to shape a future where happiness isn’t a luxury and complacency isn’t an option. “The more you figure out and the more knowledge you gain, you realise that you don’t know much at all. It keeps my thirst for knowledge alive, but it can also make you feel uneasy,” says Kemar Reid, 25, head of design at NTS radio. “Sometimes I feel like I live in my own bubble, and I miss things, but I’m no longer in competition to be the first. I believe that when it’s your time, it’s your time.”
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