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After millennials: Introducing Gen-Z

Nicknamed The Founders by MTV, who are this next generation and should we care?

It’s not a common occurrence for MTV to make headlines these days, is it? Yet that’s exactly what happened when pop-culture’s former gatekeeper caused a stir by announcing that Gen-Z – the generational cohort currently sitting somewhere between birth and latter-stage puberty – would be known as The Founders.

Firstly, let’s explain how this whole mad decision came about. MTV essentially decided to allow Gen-Z, the first post-Millennial generation, to name itself. Despite the fact that many Gen-Zers are yet to be born (more on this later) MTV took a sample of 1,000 mid-teen Americans and got them to choose from a limited list of suggestions as to how a global generation should be forever recognised.

“It’s ridiculous,” laughs Raymond de Villiers, a partner at strategic future-planner Tomorrow Today. “It’s ridiculous because MTV’s process was wrong. They didn’t have a good sociological framework and the list [of names] seemed relatively random. The Founders has way too much of an American, puritan, founding fathers feel to it,” he explains. “It’s too Eurocentric. As a concept, I wonder if Gen-Z would be comfortable knowing their nickname relates to colonialists who stole land. The whole concept is ignorant to the fact that a society existed before.”

Gen-Z has grown up in a world that is financially less stable – as a result they seem to be more conservative

De Villiers – who at 43 years old describes himself as “comfortably Gen-X” – is an expert in generational theory. Generational theory is the thinking behind what characterises define a generational cohort, a social demographic that is born within a specific period that usually spans – but is in no way limited to – a 20 year period. While Gen-Y, also known as the Millennial generation, spans from the early 80s to the start of the 2000s, Gen-Z are the group coming after them.

As it happens, de Villiers has a few suggestions of his own for what Generation Z’s nickname should be. “One option is the Selfie Generation; another is the iTouch generation,” he says.

“They are the first cohort that has not had to read or type to use a computer. They can recognise an app by the icon. They don’t have to use a mouse. It’s why a three year-old can sit and play with an iPad, or a tablet. They’re totally touch orientated.”

Generational theory is used to predict how the new generations such as Gen-Z will interact with society as a whole, including the generations that existed before them. In her brief introduction to generational theory, Talkin’ ‘bout My Generation, Dr Yolande Knight says that social scientists can use it to explain why and how social changes occur. As well as dismissing a simplified media take on generational theory (here’s looking at you, MTV), Knight explains that a positive recognition of generational differences can help when different cohorts start coming into contact with each other.

So how will Gen-Z, aka MTV’s Founder Generation, differ from the Millennials? Media outlets have almost universally described them as the first truly digital natives, stripping the Millennials of the same title in the process. This, many argue, is simply because while the Millennials grew up as technologies were being developed (remember when VHS was phased out by DVD?), the Gen-Z population was born into an environment where smart devices and touch-screen technology already existed.

Due to their early life experiences, Gen-Zers will likely be less narcissistic than Millennials. They will focus on their role in a larger, more collective society

“Gen-Z has grown up in a world that is financially less stable – as a result they seem to be more conservative,” de Villiers adds. “Where the Millennials reflected the optimism of the Baby Boomers, Gen-Z is more cynical; the world isn’t all roses and happiness for them.” For de Villiers, Gen-Z shares a lot of characteristics with the Silent Generation and it is easy to understand why.

Born between 1925 and 1945, the Silent Generation endured plague, global financial meltdown, and World War Two, scenarios not dissimilar from Gen-Zers’ experience of Ebola scares, the fallout from the sub-prime lending fiasco, and a seemingly endless War on Terror. “Recovering from the World War, the Silent Generation had a ‘get your head down and work’ attitude,” de Villiers says. “Similarly, Gen-Z is going to be more focused on stability and making sure they don’t make the same mistakes as previous generations.”

Due to their early life experiences, de Villiers anticipates that Gen-Zers will likely be less narcissistic than their Millennial predecessors. Due to all that hardship, doubt and worry, Gen-Z, he suggests, will also become much more network conscious, focusing on their role in a larger, more collective society.

But without sounding too selfish – or is that narcissistic? – do we really have to start focusing on Gen-Z now? If generations are formed in two decade eras, Gen-Z still has a few more years to add to its numbers. Realistically speaking, the oldest of the Gen-Z population are still only around fifteen-years-old and dependent on their parents. At the same time, businesses, academic groups and professional bodies are still frantically trying to understand how they can adapt to work with the Millennials.

“They have an emotional intelligence that is off the scale compared to any of the other generations. They don’t just see the dots, they see the white space between the dots”

“We need to focus on them in some ways, and less in others,” de Villiers explains. “In terms of talent development and organisational dynamics, we have significantly more to be dealing with in helping the Millennials integrate into the workplace.”

However he also adds that Gen-Z, with access to all that convenient touch technology (think Amazon’s deceptively easy one-click buy), will likely have a greater commercial impact than any generation before them. He says, “There is a possibility that their influence will be felt first as consumers before it’s felt as employees. Typically you only become a significant wallet when you get your first job and your first pay check – Gen-Z is going to be economically significant before they get their first jobs.”

Regardless of their eventual impact on society and the world they exist in, Gen-Z still has a few more years in which world events can shape and define them. There is, as with all theories, a certain level of guesswork in saying where they will go and what they will do. Wild card events, which for the Millennials include historical moments like 9/11, could still alter their eventual defining characteristics. That said, de Villiers is still confident that we can predict great things for the Gen-Z population.

“They have an emotional intelligence that is off the scale compared to any of the other generations,” he says. “They don’t just see the dots, they see the white space between the dots. From them, we could see a global leader – perhaps a Mahatma Gandhi for the planet – that builds on peace.”