Weighing in on the generation gap

Verity Johnson. Supplied.
Verity with the two photographers on the 18x18 project, Susanne and Coco.
A new exhibition by journalist Verity Johnson examines the unique pressures and stereotypes surrounding 18-year-old women living in Aotearoa today.

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With Chloe Swarbrick’s “OK Boomer” comments making the news last week, people are once again talking about the gap between generations. But what’s it really like being an 18-year-old in today's society, having the housing, mental health and climate crises hanging over your head?

Journalist and youth ambassador Verity Johnson examines this question in her upcoming exhibition, 18x18. The show looks at the lives of eighteen 18-year-old women and challenges stereotypes around young people. I talked to Verity about the show, what she’s learned putting it together, and how much her life has changed since she was 18. 

Seed of an idea

Verity first became interested in the project while working as a youth ambassador for the YWCA in Auckland. She was hearing from a lot of the girls that they felt frustrated at not having a voice and about the way they were being represented in the media. Verity’s writing often tackles issues affecting young women, so she was immediately drawn to the story.

“A project idea began to emerge where we talked to young women about what it’s really like being a young woman today,” Verity says. “It kinda blew up from there into a full-scale book, exhibition and national tour… So the response has been incredible!” 

Quickening pressure

Even though Verity is only 25, she sees some big differences between the subjects of the exhibition and her life at that age. I ask Verity what some of the issues facing 18-year-olds today are.

“Climate change is obviously the big one. As are issues around money, financial insecurity and in some cases food insecurity. On a daily level it’s also around this immense pressure young people feel to know at 18 what they’re doing for the rest of their life.” 

“On a daily level it’s also around this immense pressure young people feel to know at 18 what they’re doing for the rest of their life.”

Verity acknowledges that these pressures existed when she was young, but feels they are worse now. Although she felt like she had to go to University and get a degree, she still took time out to enjoy life. “I wrote a lot of angsty things which I’m sure I thought were deeply insightful and hilarious, but were probably just irritating. I went to Melbourne, and spent the years between 18 and 21 getting drunk and doing stand up” 

Influencers and mentors

At 18, Verity also began her journalism career with a weekly column. From there she started writing features and interviews. She attributes the guidance of journalist Graham Adams, for helping her develop her style. Graham read a lot of Verity’s early columns and helped shape them. “He taught me way more than Uni ever did.”

Another early influence was children’s author David Hill. “I won a mentorship with him through the NZ Society of Authors when I was doing creative writing in school at 16. He read many of my early pieces, recorded his feedback on a tape player and mailed the cassette to me. It was incredible - I’d never used a tape before!”


Verity with the two photographers on the 18x18 project, Susanne and Coco 

Recently, Verity was part of The Big Idea’s mentoring program, where she was teamed up with fellow journalist and social media whiz, Kirsten Matthew. Verity says one of the key values Kirsten instilled in her was to take her work seriously. Until recently, Verity felt that she kept sidelining her writing, even though it was giving her life purpose and meaning.

“My whole life I’ve been pretending that I have a ‘real job’ and my writing is just a hobby I do for kicks. I was convinced that successful adults have real jobs doing real things like law and architecture. But Kirsten basically sat me down and was like, stop pissing about - you’ve got a creative career to think about here and it’s serious.” She now feels like she has a clear path to take her writing to another level. 

“Kirsten basically sat me down and was like, stop pissing about - you’ve got a creative career to think about here and it’s serious.”

Verity is currently working on a book (“What a cliché!”) and is developing her comedic rapper personer Verit$izzle — “The dollar sign is silent”. But it’s the exhibition that she seems most passionate about.  She feels with everything that’s happening in the world, it’s important to have these conversations now.

“It just seemed like now was a really pressing time to find out what’s really happening for young people in NZ. And we wanted them to tell their own stories about how it really was, no filter, just real talk.” 

18x18 is powered by YWCA Auckland and runs from Thursday 28th Nov to 1st Dec, more details at www.18x18.co.nz 

Written by

Dominic Hoey

26 Nov 2019

Dominic Hoey is an author, playwright and poet based in Tāmaki Makaurau. His debut novel, Iceland was a New Zealand bestseller and was long-listed for the 2018 Ockham Book Award.

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