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Youth Research 2021

Mary McIlrath

The year 2021 has been one of adjustment and recalibration for youth and adults alike. Schools are mostly back in-person, but Covid variants aren’t going away anytime soon. The ensuing inflation and supply chain issues have had everyone wondering what the “new normal” can, and does, look like, and that picture changes regularly. Youth culture, however, marches forward—and here are YouthBeat’s top highlights from the last 12 months:

  1. Word of the Year: Vax
    The Oxford English Dictionary anointed “vax” (short for “vaccine”) as the word of the year for 2021. As of press time, kids as young as five years old are eligible to receive doses in the United States. We saw an interesting evolution across the year as initial doses were preserved for the most elderly and sick, then became widely available but controversial for some to get. As the first kids, tweens, and teens get their shots and parents feel more comfortable traveling to see family over the holidays, stay tuned for efficacy reports of vaccines on new virus variants. The word “vax” will remain a major player in the lexicon into 2022.
  2. Asian American Representation Comes to Sesame Street
    For years, we’ve been writing about the importance of Asian influences in youth culture, from Siracha to anime and boy band BTS and everything in between. Now, the Asian diaspora has come all the way to Sesame Street, with the introduction of Ji-Young, a Muppet of Korean American descent. As with many multicultural and inclusive properties in youth entertainment, feeling represented on screen builds self-esteem and positive personal identity. Meanwhile, watching a character who is different from the viewer helps a child understand that lots of people are different, and that’s not just OK, it’s pretty darn cool to learn about them and make friends.
  3. Maturing Role Models
    Some of our youngest in Generation Alpha weren’t yet born when Malala Yousafzai won the Nobel Prize in 2014 for having the courage to demand education for girls in her native Pakistan. But older ones, and members of Generation Z, will recall the empowerment of the teen (at the time) to stand up and demand basic human rights. In YouthBeat’s opinion, it was the award that launched a thousand protests by teens worldwide and even foreshadowed Greta Thunberg’s influence around climate change. In 2021, Malala got married in a small, private ceremony to Asser Malik. In other news, youth favorite, Jojo Siwa, of influencer and big-hair-bow fame, came out as a member of the LGBTQ+ community. Young culture-makers are growing up!
  4. Brick + Mortar No-Go Normalized
    The Covid pandemic forced a massive retail acceleration in 2020 towards click + collect and delivery services of all varieties (for example, Uber Eats will bring fast food, Amazon sends groceries, and Walmart has drones for quick drop-offs of diapers and wipes). Meanwhile, old-school department stores are closing—the last Sears shut down in November 2021 in Illinois. No more Toughskins, sigh all of us Gen Xers. Macy’s is planning to shutter many locations too in 2022. Supply chain hiccups mean that the in-person store may not have what youth want anyway. In our Holiday Wish List survey, half of kids (48%) and a majority of tweens and teens (64% and 71% respectively*), would prefer gift cards to tangible presents anyway. Now that “Venmo” is a verb, the shopping landscape has forever changed for the Gen Z and Gen Alpha consumers of tomorrow.
  5. Tik Tok is Everything
    Do you remember way back in 2014 when was released? It was a cute, innocent lip-sync app that teens could use to share silly, abbreviated videos with each other. We used to call YouTube “Google for kids,” and now Tik Tok is “Google for everyone.” *Vinyl record scratch*
    Here’s what you can find:

    1. Shopping tips for the holidays? #TikTokMadeMeBuyIt 
    2. New dance moves, some of which are adorably re-created by families stuck together at home? They got you.
    3. Silly recipes for pancake cereal? Influencers have your back.
    4. Fake videos of teens doing terrible things like licking ice cream in the grocery store and replacing it? Yeah, that’s there too.

What the YouthBeat team loves about youth culture is that it is continually renewing itself—and is comfortable with change. Adults can learn a lot by watching the resilience of young people when we’re all frustrated by fluctuating rules and news reports. Our collective resolution for 2022 is to embrace this need for tolerance to frequent change and never give up our love of what remains stable. We wish your brand success in the new year and great personal peace and happiness! Need to know more about young consumers to aid those goals? Just reach out—we’d love to assist!

*YouthBeat Holiday Wish List survey, November 2021

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