How Our Current Generational Model Is Failing Us
At this point, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the Millennial thing has been talked to death. Billions of words have been written about Millennials, how they differ from their Baby Boomer and Gen X antecedents, and how companies need to change in order to attract Millennial talent and earn Millennial dollars. A large and lucrative consulting industry has sprung up to analyze and monetize this cohort of people, who were all born between 1980 and 1995 and who all (in theory) are homogenous enough to be labeled as a single group.
In the past few years, though, an increasing amount of time and attention has been devoted to the next generation, born after 1995 and whose youngest members are just now beginning to enter the workforce. Dubbed Generation Z (or iGen if you’re a rabid Apple fan), these people supposedly present a new challenge for everyone who finally got their heads wrapped around Millennials, a challenge that any number of generational keynote speakers and consultants will be happy to help you solve for a hefty fee.
There’s just one tiny problem. Generation Z doesn’t exist.
That’s not to say there aren’t people who were born after 1995. But the notion that this group of people represents some radical departure from everyone who came before them is a flawed one, and one that threatens to relegate modern business to continually chasing fads rather than creating cultures that will stand the test of time.
A cursory examination of the qualities that are supposed to make Generation Z unique is enough to see the problem. NextGeneration Recruitment argues that Generation Z of entrepreneurial, tech-savvy digital natives – but how is this any different from what we have heard for years about Millennials? Does the amount of time spent using technology necessarily translate into expertise? Isn’t spending an increasing amount of time airbrushing selfies and posting on social media something that everyone is doing? (Spoiler alert – it is.) A survey by Upfront Analytics found that Generation Z responds particularly well to edgy marketing campaigns and short videos – but then again, doesn’t everyone now? And a 2015 Vision Critical study find that Generation Z spends more time on their smartphones and less time watching television than Millennials or Baby Boomers – but in what world does this slight change in viewing habits constitute an entirely different generation of people whose needs must be met in new and unique ways?
Since the advent of the Internet, people of every age have been changing the ways they consume products, news, and entertainment. Facebook’s average user is now 41 years old, and the over-55 set now makes up its second-largest demographic. Everybody has a smartphone now, and everyone of every age buys at least something from Amazon. This is a human change, not a generational one, and to argue that it’s only the young who prefer new approaches is disingenuous at best and insulting to every tech-savvy Baby Boomer at worst.
Moreover, Millennials themselves are growing up to become a whole lot like the generations that came before them. While it is true they are postponing marriage and children longer than Boomers and Gen Xers did, they are proving to be just as interested in buying cars, living in the suburbs, and sending their kids to the nicest schools they can afford as their parents were. Again, their shift as they age has nothing to do with the year they were born but rather the fact that they are growing up. Like everyone eventually does.
Inventing a new generation every 15 years has created the impression that businesses are dealing with a completely new type of person every 15 years. That’s absurdly false. Rather, we continue to spin out people the same way we always have. It’s certainly true that our evolving technology has changed the ways in which we interact with the world and one other, and it’s equally true that the increasing speed of technological change means younger people have been forced to adapt more quickly. But they’re not a new type of person. Millennials and Generation Z are both described as searching for meaning in what they do, so impassioned by their ideals that they’ll quit their job to work somewhere more psychologically or spiritually satisfying. Did everyone simply forget about the 60s? It was young Baby Boomers who were burning their bras and protesting Vietnam, you know.
We are who we have always been. That has not changed. So yes, it is important to understand what the technological trends are, and it’s also important to understand the changing pressures of today’s world – for example, the increasing cost of housing, education, and health care, and how that impacts the decisions younger workers are making. But it’s simply not useful to pretend that the people we are creating are unlike any who have come before.
Generation Z is a myth. And it’s fitting that we’ve reached the end of the alphabet. So let’s stop trying to put everyone into their own original boxes. Z seems like a great place to stop.