Tuesday, the 27th of August has been marked in my diary ever since the new series of The Great British Bake-Off, or Bake-Off as it is otherwise know, was announced.
Whilst I quietly mourn the end of summer and witness the first signs of autumn ushering in, at least I, and countless others, can look forward to the comforting joy and happiness that Bake-Off brings. Like me, many wait impatiently for Tuesday 8pm to enjoy an hour’s worth of visually pleasing, sheer delightful baking creations in all their forms and glory.
Now in its tenth series, Bake-Off has been an unexpected cultural phenomenon. The format has stayed pretty much the same but the contestants have got younger. This year’s series represents the youngest line-up since its inception: seven out of the 13 contestants are in their 20s, of which two are 20, meaning that they were ten when the first series aired (this makes me want to reach for the eye cream …). And the younger contestant is also reflected in the young audience: when Bake-Off moved from BBC to Channel Four, Channel Four reported that over 2.5m of the audience were 16-34. No doubt when the show was originally pitched to BBC execs they might have, understandably, assumed the audience to be 50+, but the show is immensely popular amongst my age group of twenty-somethings. This, initially, seems rather surprising. Or is it?
Lead and longest standing judge, Paul Hollywood, surmises that it is because baking has become ‘cool’ amongst the young and that, ‘if you can bake, you’ll get friends — always’. It has certainly worked for Paul. But not all who bake are out to win friends and influence people, so there must be more to it. What is it about baking that appeals to Millennials and Generation Z?
The first aspect that occurred to me was the very act of baking itself. The constant anxiety, worries and concerns that my peers experience with modern-day living, ranging from mild anxiety to burnout, needs no explanation. Baking allows time for people to switch off, unwind and decompress. Whether it is the quiet concentration required when needed to achieve exacting measurements, or the calming rhythm of kneading dough, there is an almost mindful, meditative element to baking that can be rarely achieved elsewhere. The methodical process cannot be rushed or hurried, less you want to ruin your creation. Baking, therefore, is the antithesis of modern living.
Indeed, one of the contestants, 28-year-old veterinary surgeon, Rosie Brandreth-Poynter, cited that baking helps her to unwind. And Rosie Dummer, a former helicopter pilot with the British Army, turned pro-baker from Channel Four’s ‘Extreme Cake Makers’, stated:
‘baking is a form of mindfulness which requires the baker to be in the moment and this is, in itself, a form of stress relief’.
They are not alone in this sentiment. A recent YouGov report found that 23 per cent of young people bake to deal with stress and anxiety as opposed to 14 per cent of those who are 35+. When so much else seems to consume us, from endless commuting, ticking off dull but necessary life-admin lists, to rushing to the next ClassPass, baking is an activity purely enjoyed for pleasure, enhancing our well-being.
And, along the same mindfulness vein, unlike mindfulness apps which require the use of the very object that is a cause of stress in the first place, baking allows people respite from their phones. 21st-century technology is not a perquisite when baking. It signals a delicious hour spent away from the phone, absorbed in something else that demands full attention.
The flip-side, however, is that phones are a prerequisite for when the time comes to showcase your creation. For the all-too image conscious Millennials and Generation Zs, snapping and sharing your aesthetically pleasing creation is as much a part of the process as the eating aspect. But this sharing is a way to showcase skills and talent amongst peers in a more affirming, meaningful, self-achievement way. And, it is certainly a less vain way when compared to a baseless selfie.
It is this sense of achievement which is a key reason for baking’s popularity. Obtaining desired ‘life goals’, such as buying a house, travelling to far-flung exotic places, or securing that sought-after promotion, can feel so out-of-reach, but the end product of a baked good can feel like a small but significant victory. 41 per cent of Millennials claim that baking gives them a sense of accomplishment as opposed to 33 per cent of those 35+. And this is especially pertinent to Generation Z. For those three Generation Z-ers that have graced the tent, their reasons for participating in Bake-Off may slightly differ from the Millennials’. Generation Z is seen as a more competitive and confident cohort, and more happy to work independently than Millennials who are seen as being more collaborative. Baking, for most of the time, is a one-person job and the competitive element of Bake-Off could be an attraction.
But doesn’t baking with refined sugar, full fat butter and white flour go against the grain in the rise of wellness amongst the young? More and more young people embrace alternative diets for personal, environmental or social reasons. Between 2017 and 2018, nearly 60 per cent of those aged 16 to 29 had tried a vegan diet. With various dairy-free and gluten-free alternatives, baking has been opened up to everyone, whatever their dietary needs. At the time of writing, alternative baking hashtags on Instagram are impressive: #dairyfreecake totals 20,244, #glutenfreecake is 162,012 and #vegancake is at a whopping 733,597. Baking still counts as part of the wellness trend.
Lastly, there is something that I have been pondering. Could baking also be said to fit into my generation’s desire to achieve authenticity? Having grown up in a world of disingenuous advertising, mass products and fake news, we are a group who is becoming a far more discerning customer, wanting to know the origins of what we are consuming. What could be more authentic than baking your own cake, from scratch?
The popularity of The Great British Bake-Off amongst young people is a symptom, not a cause, of their desire for a psychological outlet. In comparison to other outlets, such as a few glasses of wine, we aim for something more pure, wholesome and good: baking fits that bill — something rather simple in an otherwise messy, hectic and disorderly world. Who wouldn’t want a slice of that?