Which celebrity best encapsulates Gen Z? Older generations might presume its someone like Olivia Rodrigo or Andrew Tate, or any one of countless lifestyle influencers – but no one captures their attention quite like Jimmy Donaldson.
Known by his moniker MrBeast, Donaldson is a 25-year-old American YouTuber who has been making videos on the site since he was 13 years old. His content could be categorised as charity porn: entertainment made from performing extravagant philanthropic acts for those in need, or asking average citizens to compete in challenges for large sums of cash. Some examples of his recent videos include “I rescued 100 abandoned dogs!” (100 million views), “I built 100 wells in Africa” (140 million views) and “Survive 100 days in circle, win $500,000” (271 million views), which have generated millions in ad revenue and drawn in lucrative brand partnerships.
While the popularity of most of his YouTube peers during the 2010s has plateaued or dipped, Donaldson’s celebrity has only grown. In recent years, he has found a new, rapidly expanding audience of younger viewers. On 1 January, Donaldson tweeted that his YouTube account gained the highest number of new subscribers in 2023, accruing nearly 100 million new followers in 12 months. He led by a wide margin – the runner-up and third place only gained 40 million and 36 million subscribers, respectively. His audience is mostly under 30, with some social media experts highlighting his particular popularity with Gen Z. This aligns with what the twice-annual Piper Sandler survey of American teenagers found in September: Donaldson came second in the favourite influencer category (third and fourth places went to Taylor Swift and Drake, respectively).
On the surface, his popularity may be baffling. Donaldson’s content bucks the trend in terms of young audiences’ content preferences: he favours long-form video over short form, doesn’t participate in trends and tends towards a terrestrial TV style rather than a vlogging one. However, Donaldson understands something fundamental that the influencers and TikTokers often associated with Gen-Z tastes don’t: instead of feeding into fads and passing trends, he makes content that is emblematic of the core beliefs of a significant portion of young people in 2024. Branding himself as an altruistic role model – or even to live in hope of being benevolently blessed by – Donaldson has become emblematic of Gen Z’s politics.
The reasons why so many younger viewers see Donaldson as a figure of hope are obvious. Economically much worse off than their predecessors – both poorer now and projected to have less security in old age, with fewer assets and smaller pensions – the idea of receiving a sudden windfall of cash after proving their grit (such as beating a physical challenge) or worthiness (like being selected as deserving) may, to some, seem like a more realistic way of achieving financially stability than working long hours at a job. Donaldson’s apparent altruism has enabled him to brand himself as philanthropic and generous, making him aspirational. As Amanda Silberling wrote for TechCrunch in December, after Donaldson released a video in which two strangers lived in isolation for 100 days together to win half a million dollars: “The American Dream is no longer the promise that anyone can get rich if they just work hard enough. Now, it’s the hope that maybe one day MrBeast will film you living in terrible conditions for a few months, and then you’ll be able to pay off the debt you accumulated by simply just going to school or getting sick.”
While Gen Z’s economic circumstances can help explain some of Donaldson’s appeal, his fandom isn’t solely from people vicariously watching others receive surprise pay-outs. Donaldson’s conception of the world appears to align with Gen Z’s political beliefs. Rather than being the left-wing, anti-capitalist cohort the media often portray them as, under-30s tend to be more fiscally conservative than millennials and even Generation X. A 2023 study found that Gen Z values power and achievement more than their predecessors, and place greater importance on being rich than any other age demographic. A Redfield and Wilton survey of Britons in 2021 found 18- to 24-year-olds were more in favour of government spending cuts than all other age groups, and the second-least likely to endorse tax increases. (A study from the same year found that Gen-Zers disproportionately value self-reliance.) In often difficult financial straights, many young people, rather than turning to socialist principles of wealth redistribution, have lurched rightwards and adopted an “every man for himself” mentality.
An individualistic philosophy, with an added philanthropic gloss, is precisely what Donaldson embodies. He is a modern, self-made 20-something who has, his fans believe, justified his vast wealth – and who generously gives back to less those fortunate (again, chosen individually). Donaldson is a highly effective poster-boy for this 21st-century vision of capitalism, in which the benevolent social media millionaire builds an algorithm-friendly system for determining the deserving poor – all of which can be made into PR-friendly content that is entertaining, ever-green and lucrative.
While most, if not all, social media stardom fades, Donaldson has built a brand that allows him to not just avoid obsolescence, but supersede it – benefiting from something much more substantial than the fads that a majority of influencers rely on. By playing to their politics, Donaldson has remained popular with Gen Z. To them, he is more than a fantasy or trend, but a vision of a future they truly believe in – whether or not it actually exists.