Richard Dawkins

Helen Lewis: Want to feel hopeful about Gen Z? Just take a look at TikTok

Often portrayed as pious and shallow, young people today have responded to the pandemic with levels of accomplishment even Elizabeth Bennet would find impressive says the author of Difficult Women.

Helen Lewis

There’s a scene in Pride and Prejudice which I think about every time I go on TikTok. After a dinner with family and friends, the pleasant, kind Mr Bingley rhapsodises about how the “young ladies” of his acquaintances are so talented. “It is amazing to me,” he says, “how young ladies can have patience to be so very accomplished as they all are... They all paint tables, cover screens, and net purses.”

His guests are unimpressed. Mr Darcy, inevitably, thinks the word “accomplished” is overused, and Bingley’s sister Caroline jumps in to agree. “A woman must have a thorough knowledge of music, singing, drawing, dancing, and the modern languages, to deserve the word,” she adds. “She must possess a certain something in her air and manner of walking, the tone of her voice, her address and expressions, or the word will be but half-deserved."

Darcy, subconsciously prompted by the sight of Elizabeth Bennet holding a book, continues: “All this she must possess... and to all this she must yet add something more substantial, in the improvement of her mind by extensive reading."

'Every time I scroll through the app, I end up rhapsodising about the young people of today'

This is one of Jane Austen’s classic scenes, its humour coming at the expense of Miss Bingley, who tries to impress Darcy and instead draws attention to her rival’s bookish appeal. (As it happens, Elizabeth is sceptical about all this alleged talent, replying: “I am no longer surprised at your knowing only six accomplished women. I rather wonder now at your knowing any.”)

But why does it remind me of TikTok? Because every time I scroll through the app, I think about how accomplished Generation Z is. Like Mr Bingley, I end up rhapsodising about the young people of today: they cook, do make-up tutorials, learn complicated dance routines, do comedy sketches where they play all the parts! They know how to edit videos! 

When you’re young, the usual pattern is to have limited resources and responsibilities, but plenty of time. These are perfect conditions for encouraging creativity. You also have no fear of mucking around with new technology, because it represents opportunity rather than potential embarrassment. (The rules of life, according to Douglas Adams: “1. Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works. 2. Anything that's invented between when you’re fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it. 3. Anything invented after you're thirty-five is against the natural order of things.”)

'These kids are going to remake the world, because every new generation does'

And so TikTok contains an incredible reservoir of accomplishment. Depictions of Gen Z in the media tend towards the apocalyptic – oh, who will save us from the pious snowflakes and the shallow influencers? – while TikTok reminds you that being young is also about fun and experimentation and silliness. 

These kids are going to remake the world, because every new generation does. To echo David Cameron on Tony Blair, I was the future once: I entered journalism when publishers were beginning to take the internet seriously, and understanding the online world opened doors which would otherwise have been closed. But now I’m past 35, my default setting is that new technology is “against the natural order of things,” so I love to see the work of a new generation for whom video-editing is as natural as breathing.

When you stop seeing life as an arc – an arc which only bends towards death – and instead see it as a series of cycles, everything becomes easier. I’m writing this in spring, looking forward to peony season, feeling the days inching longer. It was a hard winter, but nature offers us the reminder that nothing lasts for ever. Then I flick to my phone, and see that today’s 16-year-olds can do things I can’t, and that’s wonderful too. I just watched a guy moonwalk on tiptoe. I just watched a deepfake of Chris Whitty lip-syncing to Billie Eilish. I can't get enough of people making the squeal from Britney Spears’ Toxic by rubbing their face on the shower door. Every dance routine, every well-constructed prank, every sharply spliced video with its narration delivered at the breakneck speed of now… it’s so accomplished. TikTok gives me hope.

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Reasons for Hope is a series of essays to mark the one year anniversary of the Covid-19 crisis. The author's fee for this article is being donated to the National Literacy Trust. Read more of the essays here.

Image: Alicia Fernandes / Penguin

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