An editorial by Eliza Filby.
An editorial by Eliza Filby.
“They think they know everything,” one author wrote about young people, adding with some understatement that “they’re always quite sure about it”. It’s a familiar observation these days, but this particular judgement was penned not by a modern commentator, but by Aristotle, in Ancient Greece. Nearly 2,500 years later, it’s Generation Z (currently aged 11-26) that is shaking up society and the world of work.
Before them, Millennials (born 1981-96) were the disrupters, making themselves heard across the world in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis. They were following in the tradition of Generation X (1965-80), who spent their youth pushing for social change in the 1980s and 1990s, and before them came the Baby Boomers (1946-64), particularly in the West, leading the charge on everything from civil rights to the feminist movement.
So is Gen Z anything special? Well, yes. They are the first global generation; their causes, platforms, music, fashion and experiences – such as the pandemic – are global. Crucially, they are digital natives, but also digitally exhausted and much more sceptical of tech than older generations. The average Gen Z has had a smartphone in their pocket since they were 13, which means they do not see the smartphone as ‘tech’ per se, just as my mother did not view the electric kettle as ‘technology’, even though it was so to her mother. Yet the smartphone has become a megaphone for this generation. They have also been parented, schooled and brought up in a culture that has encouraged a decline of deference and a belief that everyone deserves a voice. In Gen Z, we have a hyper-individualistic, but globally connected cohort.
But even this portrayal is fraught with generalisations; not all Gen Zers are Greta Thunbergs. I work with companies all over the world, helping employers understand the dynamics of a multi-generational workforce, and my job isn’t to divide people with generational labels; it’s to build empathy between people at different stages of their lives and help them understand that because they have lived in a different time, they inevitably have different values, methods and ideas. In doing so, I’ve been struck by how much we can have in common and how much each generation can learn from another.
In a work environment the relationship between apprentice and mentor is being disrupted. Gen Zers often start work armed with more digital expertise and experience than those who have been working for years and, as we contend with an ageing society and the AI revolution, we have to encourage the transfer of knowledge and skills up the ages, as well as down.
Outside of work, family dynamics are also changing. It’s said that one-in-four UK Gen Zers have been clubbing with their mum. The number of multi-generational households in the US has quadrupled since the 1970s. Mothers and fathers are actually spending more time with their kids than in the supposed golden age of the family in the 1950s, and they definitely have more values in common than many families did in the recent past. As society ages, the family unit may strengthen as Millennials, in particular, are called upon to look after their ageing parents. At home, as in the office, the generation gap is actually narrowing.
Into this mix comes a new generation, Gen Alpha, those born after 2012, nicknamed Gen AI in reference to the way that artificial intelligence will shape their world. They’re primed to use Chat GPT to do their homework: by the time they enter the workforce, they will have been using AI for years. They see the world differently and already mock Gen Z for spending too much time on TikTok.
Another wave of generational disruption is coming, as it has done with every generation since Aristotle. If we’re going to make the most of it, we need to forget stereotypes and focus more on what we can learn from each other.
Dr Eliza Filby is a generations expert and historian of contemporary values. She helps companies, governments and services understand generational shifts within politics, society and the workplace and has worked with organisations including VICE media, HSBC and the UK’s Ministry of Defence. She has written several books and hosts her own podcast, It’s all relative.