At our Individuality event in London earlier this month, we presented a short immersion session on how individuality in the US has been shaped by the country’s cultural history and how this manifests in American society today.
We asked our attendees to think of questions they’d love to ask one of our American Gen Z Illume Guides about individuality and what it means for this generation. We had a brilliant response with questions focused on how this generation see the future, how brands can stay relevant to their needs and how they can communicate in an authentic way.
To help us answer these burning questions, we interviewed our Illume Guide, Hannah, about what individuality means in the US right now.
Hi Hannah. Tell us about yourself.
Hi, I’m Hannah! I’m 22 and I was raised in LA, but I currently live in Berkley where I’ve just graduated from college. I’ve always found it really important to help others so I studied Psychology and I’d love to help reform clinical psychology in the US as this is something I feel passionate about.
I’m also active when it comes to animal welfare. I used to work at a horse sanctuary where I rehabilitated horses going to auction, and also bought some horses for myself that would have been auction-bound.
Outside of this, I love art and experimental film – I’ve just finished my first installation and I’m hoping to showcase some of my sculptures this summer!
How do you define individuality personally?
I think individuality for me and my age group is about finding things you’re passionate about and actively chasing them.
I grew up in LA, so this meant I was always exposed to different influences and I like to surround myself with books, art and objects that interest me and allow me to open myself up to new experiences and new thinking. For example, I’m really into Phenomenology right now!
I have Instagram and I post pictures of things that draw my attention and that I can return to when I want to be inspired. It is more of a platform for me to drive forward my personal passions and interests.
What do you think individuality means to people of your generation?
I do think there is a difference between the younger and older Generation Z.
When I was at college, I actively protested against student tuition hikes and marched in Black Lives Matter rallies here at Berkeley, which is something I feel strongly about contributing to knowing that there is such inequality in this country.
You could say that the younger Gen Z are much more individualistic and perhaps have less of a long term interest in affecting change, maybe because social media has separated people more, and they grew up with that.
How is individuality being supported or challenged in the US right now?
America is founded on diversity and is something I feel more people should try and value. I look very white but I am Hispanic on my mom’s side – in LA, these communities are very large and prevalent, but we forget that barriers still exist for some people.
I think that things that reach people the most are fashion and music across the country and one way individuality is being supported in the US right now is through music. Artists like Childish Gambino and Vince Staples are creating really marketable, catchy music, but the lyrics are so politically compelling in the way they express the struggles of a country that does not want to support its people.
Even though fashion is a vehicle for individuality and self-expression, there is a startling lack of diversity in the fashion industry and it is so representative of the state of this country, in my opinion. There’s an Instagram account called More Models of Color and it is absolutely wonderful because it calls out the industry and the need for diversification.
What role do brands have to play in the individuality space?
It is not easy for brands because young people are stepping away from mass produced goods and are looking to find a hidden gem that nobody else has, for example there has been this whole movement to go back to vintage clothing.
People want to find something niche that will allow them to stand out, but we also need to consider that in a lot of parts of the country, standing out isn’t necessarily a good thing.
There’s a fine balance but brands can play a role by giving these individuals something to buy into, and essentially a voice to what they represent without having to be too ‘loud’ in expressing their individuality physically.
How far can brands go to be political?
I think that brands should take a stand. It is so important for young people to feel they have a voice through the brands they buy.
In the context of #MeToo and other calling out happening in society right now, why can’t brands talk about Black Lives Matter? Why not donate some of your money or a percentage of your profit to a cause that matters?
I’d be more inclined to support a brand or company, even if it was more expensive if they were giving back. I think this is one of the easiest ways a company can gain some traction.
For those individuals who are holding back from standing out because it is less accepted where they live, supporting a brand that is doing some good allows them to participate in a quieter way while still having the power to direct change.
For those kids interested in their individual status and less about driving real change, supporting a brand with a positive cause still looks good on social media!
How can brands convey this in an authentic way?
It is not enough for a brand to say they are just supporting a cause.
They need to put their money where their mouth is. They need to say we are giving money to a cause, we believe in them and that we will cut ties with anyone who actively go against this. If you just say it, you’re corrupting a movement and you’re just doing it for personal gain.
I think it is also really important that brands are careful about appropriation. There is an Instagram account called Diet Prada that calls out big companies on ripping off small brands for taking credit for something that isn’t theirs.
When it comes to diversity, brands should also be careful about cultural appropriation and should think about how they can naturally represent who their consumers are.
What does the future look like for you and others in your generation?
I don’t know if there’s an American Dream anymore. I guess the dream for anyone is to feel safe, both physically and emotionally, and I don’t think we feel either of these things in this country.
People my age want to do something that will help build the world we want to live in, but at the same time, people can’t afford to live in the places that provide us with opportunity.
I would like continue to drive change in my future career, but it is difficult to find a firm footing when college debt and rent is so high. This has created a pessimistic feeling amongst my age group and a conflict between getting a job you believe in versus just getting any job to pay the bills.
I think brands need to understand that for my age group, financial situations can change so quickly and this is placing a lot of pressure on individual aspirations.