The Past is Foreign Country for Generation Z

When my daughter announced that she was striking, I asked her whether she was concerned that the PM objected. She responded, “Oh no. He is old. Why should he care? He’ll be dead when crocodiles start swimming up George Street. But I’ll be alive and trying to dodge those jaws.

Michael Eckert, Ashfield

The past is foreign country…

Inspired by the then 15-year-old Swedish student Greta Thunberg who pledged to protest outside parliament in Stockholm until the country caught up on its commitments under the Paris Agreement, Australian students held similar protests across the country in December 2018. The response from Australia’s politicians and media commentators was best captured in the response of the then Resources Minister Matt Canavan,

Walking off school and protesting, you don’t learn anything from that. The best thing you learn about going to a protest is how to join the dole queue.

Politicians have demonstrated the tin ear of a generation for the concerns of the coming generation of voters who will soon be sizeable proportion of the workforce.

Millennials may have elected a black president and legalised gay marriage, but Gen Z don’t understand why this was a problem in the first place.

Gen Z were born after about 1997. They are often confused with Millennials. But, just as the evolutionary cycle of technology is quickening, so it is between generations. There are distinct and telling differences between the Gen Z and Millennials groups.

Gen Z give life to L.P. Hartley’s quote from The Go-Between, ‘The past is foreign country; they do things differently there.’ For Gen Z, the Millennials, Gen X, and Baby Boomers are in many ways unfathomable.

I’m not like you…

Gen Z don’t know a time before the September 11 attacks or the significance of the election of a black president; for them, this is simply a fact of life rather than a ground-breaking event. Many have grown up in a time of economic and political uncertainty. And, they have been digitally connected all their lives.

Social justice, ethics, and political issues are front of mind for Gen Z. Equality in gender, race and sexual orientation is an expectation, inequality is an abnormality. Those who market brands, products, and services to this generation are well attuned to Gen Z’s focus on social change. Google, Adidas and Nike emphasise messages of individuality, diversity, same-sex couples, and anti-racism in order to forge an association with this generation.

Nike’s advertisement showing Colin Kaepernick’s face resulted in a significant backlash including online videos of people burning Nike products and refusing to purchase their products. Less widely reported is that while Nike lost sales in some demographic groups there was a 31% increase in sales that was attributed to Gen Z.

The stereotypical view of Gen Z focuses on parental handwringing over the amount of time they spend glued to technology or concerns of just what is being shared through the many networks that connect them together. Gen Z are labelled as having the ‘attention span of goldfish’ because they spend so much time fliting along what was once known as ‘the information superhighway’.

Gen Z are often lumped in with the disparaging descriptions of Millennials who are often described as the ‘lazy generation’. We should take these descriptions with a grain of salt. Older generations have had concerns about the idleness, inattention, and lack of robustness of the emerging generation since Aristotle. However, there are differences between the Millennials and Gen Z; and interestingly, it is Gen Z who see these differences most clearly.

It may be that Gen Z are different from those that have gone before. For example, this is the first generation raised in an environment in which constantly connected technologies is pervasive. Smart technology and social media enabled by instant messaging, visual media, and constant connectivity are the norm for Gen Z. These are the first true digital natives. They are given little credit for being the first generation to practically navigate the ethical, and moral challenges that come with constant connection. They have done this with little guidance or assistance from their parents who are struggling with the problems in an abstract rather than practical way.

There is an open question as to how well the Baby Boomers (raised on pen and paper), Gen X (raised on desktop computers), and even Millennials (raised on laptops) can provide advice and guidance to those who see tablets as redundant technology.

Gen Z don’t see the ‘future of work’ as ‘emerging’ or a ‘problem to be solved’, they are living in it every day. The don’t see Industry 4.0 as something to be built over time, it is all around them. This generation is starting to move into the workforce (they are estimated to constitute one third of the workforce by 2020) and they will soon begin to play a larger role in politics (directly and indirectly). They will want to know why the preceding generations have been wasting time, money and effort on talking and tinkering with the obvious rather than getting on with the job of making the world a better place. This is a generation of engaged activists.

I’m not a target, I’m a consumer…

Gen Z, immersed in information and access, are fully aware they are consumers. This is an important distinction from previous generations. There is no intermediary between production and consumption. A product or service is not sold to Gen Z as if they were a ‘target’ segment. They have bypassed that concept and practice to understand that they ‘consume’ regardless of the medium by which it comes to them. They also produce information and services for others of their generation to consume.

For Gen Z, the connection between consumption and identity is direct and immediate. Social justice, climate change, equality, diversity, brands, products, information, and services are ideas that Gen Z consume as a natural part of their daily appetite.

There is no medium such as politics or media commentary or advertising through which this access is exclusively filtered. They are not listening. Instead, they are talking to and learning from each other. The implications of the direct connection between consumption and identity is critical for those wanting to connect with Gen Z.

  • They consume based on value. They know that attention is finite, and the sea of information is vast. They want what they need now and with a minimum of fuss, and preferably visual.
  • Simple and visual. The observation that this generation has the ‘attention span of a goldfish’ says more about preceding generations than Gen Z. Gen Z has been swimming in the world’s information sea all their lives. They have learned to filter, categorise, simplify, and focus. They process visually and quickly. They are fast.
  • Partner with me. You are working with this generation not directing them. They want to be treated fairly and equally, and they want to be valued for what they can contribute.
  • Authenticity. Authenticity is not a brand to be worn for the purposes of a sale or a message. It is not a means to an end. Gen Z does not have time or attention to spare on the inauthentic.
  • Don’t sell, help. Gen Z knows you are selling to them. Everybody is selling something, that’s a given. What are you doing to help? How are you genuinely connecting to what they value?
  • Stop talking. Show me. Show me quickly. Engage me emotionally and rationally. Why are you still talking?
  • Do good in the world. Gen Z wants to make a difference. The connection between them and the ‘big idea’ is immediate and direct.
  • Foster community. Gen Z are part of many communities online. There are no social or geographic boundaries to these communities. They share freely and openly. They are creative and engaged. This is not a socially isolated generation. Show me why should I belong to your community?

So what?

Listen to the tone of voice and sentiment of Mr Eckert’s daughter’s observation on climate change quoted at the beginning of this article. She is saying I am going to be living with the decisions you are making and not making today. You are deciding my future and I disagree with you. I have a voice in my future, and I am focused on the practical consequences of what you are doing. Listen to political response, echoed as it was the time by the media, it is patronising, self-centred, and inadequate in tone and sentiment.

There is a Greek proverb that says, ‘a society grows great when old men plant trees in whose shade they know they shall never sit’. While generational differences are often over-emphasised, the conditions in which Gen Z have been raised are different; consequently, the preceding generations will need to listen closely to their views. Gen Z may be better placed to show the preceding generations what trees to plant and where to plant them.

About the Authors

Holly (I’m not a Millennial) and David (I’m nearly a Baby Boomer) work at Synergy in the People and Organisational Development practice.