Whenever I’ve been asked about a post-millennial “Gen Z” or “iGen” — or whatever you want to call it, I’ve said the same thing: Too soon to tell. Without rigorous study, the only information we have to go on is snake oil from marketers, and there aren’t any rigorous studies yet. That changed when I read Beeline: What Spelling Bees Reveal About Generation Z’s New Path to Success, by Northwestern professor Shalini Shankar. By studying competitors in the Scripps National Spelling Bee, Shankar has produced the most important work of scholarship to date on the coming cohort.
We spoke about what’s behind South Asian–American dominance at the Bee, why Scripps had to introduce a vocabulary test, and the real difference between millennials and Gen Z.
How did you decide to approach this generation through this specific avenue of spelling bees and specifically South Asian participation in spelling bees?
I came to it through a number of different avenues that coalesced around spelling bees. One was as a linguistic anthropologist thinking about how we engage with language, another was my long-standing work in South Asian–American communities and working with youth and thinking about what matters to them and the rise of media and media representation of South Asians and South Asian–Americans. So when I saw this winning streak being discussed, it was a perfect collection of my research interests.
I think that winning streak by South Asian–American kids is probably the first thing anyone coming to this study would ask you about, and you have a pretty concise answer. Can you talk a bit about the Immigration Act of 1990?
If you look at the pattern of Indian immigration to the U.S. since 1965, it is always highly educated immigrants, with accommodations for other skill levels. Since 1990, however, overwhelming emphasis has been put on those who are highly trained in STEM fields. So you have this concentration of STEM professionals who value education even more intensely than the earlier waves of immigrants had. And they’ve built up this infrastructure for their kids, including this whole minor-league spelling circuit just for South Asian kids. This community has invested so much time and energy in this process, and the result is this winning streak we see now.
You talk about the role of the televised spelling competitions in spreading awareness of the activity — its growing placement on ESPN in particular. And spelling bees are just part of this larger increase in televised youth sports [spelling bees are considered a “brain sport”]. Now we have this other field of competitive reality shows for kids, with preprofessional competitions in cooking, clothing design, etc. How are these shows shaping the imagination of this generational cohort?
I think the shows are vital because they provide a path kids can take that goes beyond hobbies or goes beyond interests that they hope to pursue as adults and they have the opportunity to delve into them in an intense way as children. It’s less of “When I grow up I want to be … ,” although they still have that long-range idea, but they get to operationalize that as children.
Even though most will never make it to TV?
Yeah, and beyond the South Asian kids, just all kids with intense pursuits. Just that these TV paths exist even potentially has a big role in how they’re choosing to dedicate themselves. It wasn’t there ten years ago, there wasn’t this idea that kids would make such great TV when they were displaying skill and expert knowledge. That’s a late realization. Jeopardy! was an early adopter, but there’s a huge gap between that and the new wave of kid versions of adult shows.
One of the things that the Bee methodology lets us track and measure is this increase in youth work. How has the Bee changed in difficulty over time, and why is that?
The Bee has changed in difficulty for a few reasons. When the dictionary became available to winners of the regional bees not just in a print edition but also in an online searchable edition it changed the way that spellers were able to study. The idea of studying the dictionary instead of word lists changed the way that kids oriented themselves around preparation. As the Bee got more competitive, there were also media considerations to take into account; there wasn’t enough time to eliminate all the kids who could spell all the words.
The levels of spelling performance improved so much over the years that they had to introduce other metrics to eliminate kids. So in 2013 Scripps introduced a vocabulary round, and that increased the difficulty tremendously. Now you can spell right onstage all the way to the finals and you still might not make it because you don’t have a high enough vocab test score to advance to the next round. It’s this dialectical process where the kids get so good you have to create tougher rules, and then the kids get too good again. And it shows no signs of stopping. They had three sets of co-champions in a row, so they had to introduce another written test. As kids get better and better, they will keep making this harder and harder.
How will they keep getting better? These kids already spend basically all their time spelling. Are they going to have to keep finding ways to get more efficient?
The number of hours that you spend studying definitely goes up. There is an increase in study efficiency, there are computer programs that people make themselves or license from others, and that helps a little. But so much of it is just that they know how much time it takes and they commit to put in even more time. And at the highest level, some kids just have abilities that others don’t: Kids who have a predisposition for language, kids who have read a lot, the kids who have maximized their studying efficiency. And then there’s luck. There was only one kid I spoke to who said he knew every word in the finals. Most of them will say, “I didn’t know my competitor’s word, but I knew mine, so I got lucky.”
For people who are competing at such a high level I thought the kids were surprisingly honest with you.
It’s a good reminder that they’re amateurs, that they are children. When I look back at the movie Spellbound, there have been a lot of changes in the culture of spelling, but one constant is the openness and honesty with which the kids approach this exercise.
What did you see as the decisive break between millennials and Gen Z?
The defining ones have a lot to do with the way they were parented in contrast with millennials — I’m talking about both the white middle-class core that we use to define the cohort as well as the immigrants that I focused on. There’s a lot less “helicoptering” and “snowplowing” in Gen Z parenting, and an emphasis on having them try to figure things out on their own. To swoop in if needed but otherwise let them navigate it. But it’s not a clean break, there’s a lot of overlap between the edges of the cohorts.
One of the things that seemed most dramatic to me is that your subjects were doing this sort of metawork that I haven’t seen millennials doing in the same way. These kids have been doing, like, yoga their whole lives explicitly as an emotional control tool. They were designing routines and thinking about their own performance on a higher level. I feel like with millennials, the idea was you just point us in a direction and tell us to run as hard as fast as we can until we die or win. But the Gen Z spellers are thinking differently.
I think the idea that the process has value even if it doesn’t offer instant reward is something the spelling-bee kids had a handle on. This is a very small, specific group of Gen Z, and it’s hard to generalize, but I do see that ethos of self-management come through even with my own kids. If they make any sort of club or group, they have specific jobs, they know how to create infrastructure. They seem to understand that there’s value in inhabiting these work roles as children that they’ll potentially eventually be exposed to as adults, and it doesn’t seem onerous to them, it seems exciting. You even hear this rhetoric of self-care, which seems ridiculous because they’re kids, but you hear it.
They seem like they’re less brittle than their millennial equivalents, partly because of the techniques they have for emotional control.
There’s that, but they’ve also been taught to expect less. For example, almost none of the Bee parents had any expectations that things would go well for their child. They hoped. They were doing everything they could to make it happen. But there’s this overwhelming sense of precarity. Even with the brightest kids, no one felt a sense of entitlement or confidence about winning. After watching a decade of millennial college admissions, parents know how hard things have gotten. There’s an uncertainty about what is possible despite people’s best efforts. They’re much more realistic about what they can expect their efforts to yield.