The oldest millennials are in their late 30s. Fewer years separate today and their retirement than today and when they began high school.
The young, up-and-coming generation that we don’t understand but is being passed the torch is no longer millennials. It’s Generation Z – those born after the mid-1990s.
Many people’s first glimpse of Gen Z came this week, after the Florida school shooting. A common response I heard after Stoneman Douglas students spoke out, went on TV, and organized marches is: “Wow, these aren’t kids. They are young adults. They are their own generation and they have a voice.”
This shock happens every generation.
It happens at a specific time: A cohort that grew up only knowing a paradigm that was disruptive for every other generation before it suddenly becomes articulate enough to explain their world view through the lens of their own experience.
For the Greatest Generation it was the great depression and World War II. JFK said in his 1961 inaugural address: “The torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans – born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace.”
For Baby Boomers it was rejecting hardline social customs of previous generations. Historian Robert Gordon quotes a medical school dean in 1963: “We do keep women out when we can. We don’t want them here.” Boomers who grew up knowing nothing but the war-era realization that women are equally effective in the labor force fought that thinking.
For millennials it was terrorism and technology. Both weren’t something new to adapt to; they were a standard part of how the world worked. That offered a different perspective compared to their parents who grew up with domestic peace and travel agents.
It’s too early to know what Gen Z’s defining moment will be. But it already has an edge in something we shouldn’t discount: Social media.
Gen Z has only known a world where billions of people share their personal views online for everyone else to see. An open-to-everyone Twitter feed, not a 62-year-old newspaper editor-in-chief, has been the disseminator of information for as long as they’ve been learning. They have grown up more accustomed to being exposed to how other people live and think than any other generation.
I have a theory – untested, unscientific – on why that makes me optimistic on Gen Z.
If you grow up only exposed to the views of those around you – and practically everyone before Gen Z did – then social media has brought bitter disbelief as you uncover opposing views you never knew or expected existed. Benedict Evans summed it up: “The more the Internet exposes people to new points of view, the angrier people get that different views exist.”
But if you grew up with social media, you’ve learned since you were a kid that people disagree about everything. You’ve always heard from millions of voices who didn’t have a microphone in a different era. Without leaving your cell phone you’ve become more cultured than some of the worldliest travelers of previous generations. This is not a new perspective. It’s all you’ve ever known.
Which, my thought goes, could make Gen Z more empathetic and open-minded than any previous generation.
They’ll be as flawed as everyone else. But Gen Z is here, and they grew up in a way more connected world than the rest of us.
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