Generation Alpha is set to inherit a world completely unrecognisable from the one their parents and grandparents remember. We uncover what childhood looks like in 2023.
The most elderly millennials are now parents. Generation Z are graduating from university. So what’s next? Meet Generation Alpha – the oldest of whom, born in 2010, are now aged 12 or 13 – on whom a huge amount of research data has already been collected.
Of course, the inescapable and defining experience, setting Alphas apart from any previous generation, is the impact of the global Covid pandemic during their first decade of life. “The pandemic is a severe and extreme example of how a moment in history influences what’s going on with people,” says Tamsin Ford, Professor of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, whose work focuses on interventions and services to optimise the mental health of children and young people.
“While the pandemic affected everybody, your life stage at the time modifies and mediates the lasting impact. Children who were babies or toddlers during the first wave of the pandemic are now arriving at nursery and school very unused to other people, notably immature and unready in terms of language, social skills, sharing and turn-taking, because they were starved of wider social contact at a really important time.”
Lockdown and factors such as increased use of electronic devices have also limited opportunities for children to develop their peer play skills. Professor Claire Hughes, a developmental psychologist and Deputy Director of the University’s multidisciplinary Centre for Family Research, says that while this has had adverse effects on wellbeing, fixing the problem is hard because many of us – wrongly – believe there is a trade-off between education and wellbeing.
Hughes’ research has adopted groundbreaking strategies to build up the clearest picture yet of the wellbeing of primary school-aged children. Very few prior studies have used methodologies in which children below the age of eight “self-report” – that is, provide answers to questionnaires or evaluations that are consistent enough to be reliable for analysis. But now Hughes’ Economic and Social Research Councilfunded Ready or Not study is tracking several hundred pupils from Reception to Year 1, using a seven-point questionnaire that asks how they feel about school life.
The study invites four- and five-year-olds to respond to the HIFAMS questionnaire (How I Feel About My School, first developed by Ford and others) by selecting one of three emojis – a sad, neutral or happy face – that captures how they feel in different school situations. The study’s results show that children’s ratings on the HIFAMS are as stable over time as parent ratings, Hughes says. In other words, even very young children can reliably report their own wellbeing – a significant advance in our ability to understand Gen Alpha.
Another innovative enquiry from Hughes’ team observes parent-child pairings as they play Etch-a-Sketch, gathering five-minute speech samples of their interactions. “Completed video-based coding of the interactions has revealed a strong overlap between ratings of positive parent and child behaviour, confirming the view that it takes two to tango. Our findings also indicate two distinct dimensions of child behaviour: positivity and autonomy – indicating that children need to be both willing and able to cooperate with others.”
“Ofsted has now put wellbeing on their checklist,” Hughes says. “In fact, parental hopes and expectations often show a striking disconnect. When asked what they most want their child to be, most parents would say ‘happy, kind and confident’ – but when asked what they expect from a school, parents typically cite the three Rs of reading, writing and ’rithmetic.
“So, one take-home message for parents and grandparents of Gen Alpha youngsters is to recognise that successful problem-solving hinges on children being both willing and able to engage with a task,” Hughes says. Indeed, the evidence suggests that interactions that foster fun and enthusiasm are just as important as those that transmit knowledge or skills.
Tania Clarke’s doctoral research explored this relationship between wellbeing, school experience and academic attainment, in the upper age band of Generation Alpha. Her fieldwork involved nearly 1,000 young people aged nine to 11, across 17 schools in England, and found they were notably concerned with their academic performance.
In a multi-site study of Cambridge primary schools, Clarke concluded that children felt best at school when they were attaining highly and felt less good about themselves when they “failed”. “Of particular note is the importance children give to receiving ‘dojo points’ or rewards for good work from their teachers, and their preoccupation – even fixation – with test scores,” says Clarke. “My findings suggest that performativity cultures in schools negatively play into children’s core developmental needs and can have a detrimental impact on their self-worth.”
It is an insight with particularly painful relevance for Generation Alpha. That’s because the prevalence of what Clarke calls “learning-losses rhetoric” during the pandemic – when schools and pupils had to shift to online forms of learning – means there is now a focus on playing academic catch-up. Just as with the younger age group, helping children cope with this demanding educational environment requires empathy and support from parents and other relatives.
“I would encourage families to ensure the narratives rehearsed at home value children just as they are, irrespective of their academic attainment, and that adults take care in how they discuss societal ideals and expectations of their children in their company,” Clarke advises. “While encouraging children to put effort into their schoolwork, which can be critical for life outcomes, it is imperative that parents and grandparents balance this with demonstrating that they love and care for the child, no matter what.”
Thankfully it’s not all stress and anxiety for Generation Alpha. Clarke found that this generation already has a strong sense of its worth and its rights. She encountered children concerned about being taken seriously by adults at school, having their rights upheld, and receiving direct support from adults to help them resolve conflict. And, anecdotally, it appears that this cohort – perhaps we could call them Generation Greta? – understands that these obligations also apply on a global, intergenerational scale.
Tamsin Ford, who is also co-lead for the new Cambridge Children’s Hospital, which will be a world first in terms of its integration of mental and physical health, cautions against a rush to judgement on another aspect of Gen Alpha’s life-experiences – technology. “People assume social media is bad, but we don’t have high-quality longitudinal data on this,” she says. “It’s not right that the internet is one of the few places where children and young people are treated in the same way as adults, and we need to look at that. But it’s crucial to understand what children are using their phones for. During the pandemic, for example, phones were a way not only to access lessons, but also to keep in touch with friends and family. Plus, Generation Alpha will almost exclusively have smartphones and iPhones by now, so it becomes a problem socially if you don’t have one.”
Ford fears that past funding cuts have impacted on a range of provisions assisting the most vulnerable members of the cohort, including children’s centres, support for parents and special educational needs budgets. But it is heartening to remember that we now know just how effective interventions can be, both in breaking down poor behaviours and in building up positive, resilient traits.
“Bullying is our most tractable public health risk factor, but there are lots of programmes that can address this,” Ford explains. “It’s OK to be angry, but it’s not OK to slug the person next to you because you feel angry – recognising that distinction is something that children can learn. We know that our society needs people with really good social skills, who can problem-solve, and who can resolve conflict without it escalating into arguments and factions – these are all skills that can be taught.”
Generation Alpha may be pressured like no cohort before it, with the twin stressors of pandemic-imposed learning losses and the subsequent burden of expectation to catch up. “Professional educators and parents alike should be mindful that learning is about lighting a fire, not filling a vessel,” says Ford. But as research is making plain, Generation Alpha thrives on being respected and listened to – and that’s a pedagogical duty that falls to all of us. Says Ford: “We shouldn’t underestimate the impact we all have on young people, and especially the importance of time spent listening to what they have to say.”
Learn more about the new Cambridge Children’s Hospital, including how you can support this world-leading project.