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Will Gen Z be the Disruptive Generation?

August 4, 2014
Young People2 The media loves hyperbole. If there’s a way to spin a story or add drama to it, whether needlessly or not, the media has perfected the art. Examples abound so I won’t waste your time reciting well known instances.

There’s a new storyline being developed now, but one that will take years to play out to validate the excitement that the media is attempting to stir up: Generation Z, and how it will replace Gen Y as those young people with even greater talents. Gen Y has been perceived as a generation of bright young people, between 18 and 33, who are narcissistic and spoiled, the result of their Baby Boomer parents. Or so goes the well-told storyline.

Gen Y is also a generation that was to have the world by the tail. Numerous consultants and writers raved in the late nineties and early 2000s about how this new generation would benefit from Boomers retiring in droves, its ease with technology and a strong economy.

That narrative went out the window with the Baby Boomer-fueled 2008-09 financial meltdown and the subsequent Great Recession, the effects which seem to linger perniciously. Add globalization to the mix, with work being distributed around the world, and you now have Gen Y split down the middle: those in their late twenties and early thirties who have had some success in starting careers and those younger who’ve been creamed in the job market, while their student loan debt load mounts.

Meanwhile, Gen X (the so-called Excluded Generation) hasn’t done too shabbily. They’ve got families formed, for the most part, and their career development is coming along quite nicely. Though they still hold a lot of contempt for Baby Boomers (who can blame them), Gen X has lucked out given the economic context in which we’re all struggling.

Ann Mak Just as with Gen Y, technology gurus are starting to yammer about Gen Z and how much it will bring to society’s wellbeing and to the economy. There’s no doubt that there are many rising stars among Gen Z, defined as those being born after 1995 (18 years of age and under). Take 17 year-old Victoria, British Columbia, inventor Ann Makosinski (pictured) who invented a prize-winning body-heat powered flashlight. This past June she demonstrated her flashlight at the Ontario Science Centre in Toronto, subsequently receiving the 2014 Weston Youth Innovation Award.

Makosinski is uncertain about whether she wants to attend university. She’s interested in perhaps participating in 30 Weeks a New York City design program for entrepreneurs engaged in technology start-ups. Progressive universities, having realized that MBA programs are rapidly losing their attractiveness, are introducing what are called “entrepreneurial hubs.” For example, the Thiel Fellowship provides $100,000 to teens who forgo university for engaging in entrepreneurial activities.

Then there’s 17 year-old Jack Andraka, a Maryland student who at the age of 15 invented an inexpensive dipstick sensor to detect pancreatic, ovarian and lung cancers. Despite receiving some 200 rejection letters, he persisted and finally secured a place at Johns Hopkins University and a mentor. His diagnostic method, which is 90% accurate, resulted in awards and numerous speaking engagements, including this TED Talk TED Talk.

And how about 17 year-old fireball activist Adora Svitak, who in 2010 delivered a TED TalkWhat Adults Can Learn from Kids that has received over 3.3 million views and been translated into 40 languages. Pacific Standard Magazine called her one of the world’s top 30 thinkers under age 30, describing her as an activist for feminism, youth issues and liberal politics.

pint size leadership 2 Yes, Gen Z has its share of super sharp young people who will help make our world a better place. They’re questioning conventional beliefs, such as the traditional university route to “success.” On technology, the parents of Gen Zers are pushing back on how much time their kids spend on the internet. Of side interest, the biggest demographic on Facebook is women 30 to 40 years of age.

The pandering to teens such as Adora Svitak, who are perceived by many as mini prophets, should cause society to ease off the throttle when it comes to the fascination with Gen Z. This occurred in a similar fashion, though in a different form, as noted above with Gen Y. Each generation has its unique qualities.

The much despised Baby Boom generation, now between 48 and 67, was once perceived as the renegade generation, preaching peace and love in the Sixties and protesting against the Vietnam War. Younger generations would do well to familiarize themselves with these protests. Start with the Kent State shootings.

I’ve worked with many young people, notably Gen Y, both when I worked in the public sector and for the past few years in the private sector. And some are Gen Zers. What gets lost in the media and consultant-fueled commentary on how bright and talented young people are is the value of contextual knowledge and wisdom, both of which cannot be acquired in a short period of time. That Baby Boomers, and even older Gen Xers, are seen as technologically laggards and just plain boring and irrelevant is not just a mistake on the part of young people but indeed incredibly foolish when viewed through a national competitive lens.

Old and Young People like Canadian technology guru Don Tapscott don’t help the conversation by gushing effusive accolades on young people, first Gen Y and now Gen Z. Tapscott makes a valid point about engaging young people in business decisions and solutions to society’s big challenges, including the environment. However, the real challenge is determining how to break down inter-generational barriers in order to work across the generations. What appears to be happening now is a new barrier being erected, based on the emerging commentary, between Gen Z and Gen Y, let alone Gen Z from the rest of the population.

One of the huge challenges facing society is the growing gap between the haves and the have-nots. By this I’m not referring to just the economic haves and have-nots but the technological haves and have-nots. Technological have-nots–those not able to participate actively in society because of lack of access to the internet, which is tied to illiteracy–remain economic have-nots. The link between technology and economic wellbeing is inextricable.

So let’s stop the hyperbole bus before it takes society too far down a road from which it may not recover, or at least easily.

We need to value each generation for what it offers, gifts and warts. It’s a new call for leadership from each of us. Let’s dump the negative generational stereotypes and begin to collaborate across the boundaries.


Trust is something that happens within people only when it is created between people.

Chip Bell


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4 Comments leave one →
  1. August 4, 2014 5:27 pm

    Your focus on literacy / illiteracy is very important. Some people make it through high school and can use a smart phone to text friends. But they need help filling out an employment application, and ever achieve enough literacy to read a text book or write coherently or persuasively. This is really the barrier which prevents them from using technology effectively. Technology is a tool used to communicate. You really need to master the communication skills (literacy skills up to a certain level) in order to make effective use of technology. If you don’t have the communication skills, you can’t get a job which will enable you to use technology or afford to buy technology. Even if someone GAVE you the technology, you’d be unable to use it effectively (such as for a job) because you haven’t mastered literacy and communication skills to the required level. I’m seeing this issue right now with some young people I know.

    • August 4, 2014 5:36 pm

      Thanks for stopping by and making important observations, Lynne. The literacy issue in North America is not on the public’s radar, nor in the public policy field dealing with labour market issues.

      • August 4, 2014 5:46 pm

        It’s a hidden issue, Jim, in North America, because these people are graduating from high school, yet unable to succeed in college. They are also unable to succeed in even the low-level job market due to poor literacy issues.

      • August 5, 2014 1:02 am

        Very true. Even low skills jobs are requiring more education than in the past.

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