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Generation X, Generation Y, and Generation Z are different generatons. Generation Y was the children of the baby boomer generation. Generation Z represents the kids born after 2000. These kids have low attention span, a sense of entitlement. Very different from the Silent Generation. Will they turn out as we predict? Watch the documentary by Michael Apted called 28 Up.


 
Home / Success & Failure  /
X Marks The Spot For Generation Z
Generation Z

Typical Generation Z'er member pursuing advanced studies on a plasma television set


It must be the hallmark of any earlier generation to promulgate to today's generation the way things used to be and why they were so grand.  We've all heard from parents or grandparents, "When I was your age, people used to have to do A or B," implying that doing A or B back then was somehow better for your character.  I used to tune most of this stuff out.  As a teenager, I asked how could my parents, members of the Silent Generation born between 1925 and 1945, understand what it was like growing up as a Generation X'er, born between 1961 and 1981?

Probably less than I assumed they did.  My parents were toddlers during the Great Depression and up until the end of the Second World War.   They missed these major history markers in memory, but through their own parents who remembered these incidents very well, their generation's thinking was shaped.  By the time my parents were in their late teenage years in the mid 1950's, the USA was experiencing a level of relative prosperity compared with the rest of the world it will never experience again.  The USA had an industry, an economy, and job prospects no other place on the planet could match.    There was one enemy, the Soviet Union, but it was far away and not an omniscient threat.

One paid a price growing up in this time period though.  Buying into this prosperity meant buying into the system hook, line, and sinker, great if you were already the unquestioning type.  The Silent Generation was silent, all right.  They kept their mouths shut.  They married right out of college to a partner who was probably more a reproductive mate than a soul mate, had kids almost immediately, and set about finding the safest job they could that would insure a long and prosperous career.  Most women didn't and weren't required to work. There was little room for alternative lifestyles, doubting of authority, or breaking any molds.

I and my peers in Generation X grew up during a very different time.  There were oil crises in 1973 and 1979, recessions, major stock market crashes, the fall of the Berlin Wall and Communism.  Other economies had caught up to the US and others were still on the way to catching up.  Japan and Germany were major powers, Europe had rebuilt its war torn economies and the citizens there actually enjoyed higher real standards of living than did those in the US.  Former poor economies like Korea, Singapore, and Taiwan were up and comers with standards of living rising to match America's own.   Outsourcing began, and the job certainty so prevalent in my parents' generation was gone, though it still lingered a bit longer in mentality in Europe and Asia.    My generation could marry when and whom we pleased (or not marry at all) and live a lifestyle on the fringe if that's what we desired.  But in real terms, most of us were poorer than our parents.  A study released in 2007 documented that American males earned, on average, 12% less than their father's did 30 years earlier.  The women of Generation X worked.  A lot of them thought they were doing it to exercise their equality with men, but the reality is that they had to work to help households keep pace with inflation.  Real wages in the United States peaked in 1973.

My generation is nicknamed the MTV generation because we came of age as MTV and the 3-minute attention span was birthed, but it's the generation which came after me, Generation Y (roughly, those born between 1982 and 1997), who felt more of the effects. 

I never felt much of a kinship with those from Generation Y.  To me they seemed overly materialistic and obsessed with celebrity.  Marketers took immense interest in them, as these children of the Baby Boomers obtained their initial purchasing power when e-commerce became a buzzword.  What the Y'ers want and what appeals to them dominates the marketplace today.  Depending on which stats you believe, Generation Y is either 50% larger than Generation X (Julie Connelly, The New York Times, 22 September 1999) or "more than three times the size" (Businessweek, 15 February 1999).  They dwarf my generation however you do the counting. 

There are advantages and disadvantages to being part of Generation X.  The advantages are that I still have some firsthand experience of what life was like before the world moved so fast, when politicians still had some level of respectability remaining, and the American Dream still seemed like it might hold true, regardless of what the dream was really trading at in the black markets.  The disadvantage for us X'ers is that, many times, we still see the world in a way in which it no longer is.  When I first came across Facebook in 2007, all the Y'ers were already on it and using it daily.  My generation was not an early adopter and only came onto the social networking scene two years later, which can be considered decades in internet time.

It's harder for X'ers to continue to feel relevant in a world increasingly tilted toward Y'ers and their younger brothers.   The Y'ers set the course for the prevalent attitudes among the progeny of my own generation, known as Generation Z, those born after 1998.  Z'ers know of no life without internet, ubiquitous cell phones, iPods, and 24/7 entertainment.   They're more brand and fashion conscious at younger ages.  I know of Z'ers who use better laptops and cellphones than I do.  They are truly products of the Digital Age.

In some respect, my generation represented the juncture at which the analog world became a digital one.  We X'ers were the first to grow up with home computers, though they were not very powerful ones.  As we entered early adulthood, we were still being geared up and trained in the thinking of the old analog world and the models it bred.  As such, X'ers were the last generation to have straddled both worlds.  Some of us have not made the adjustment to the new paradigm as smoothly as the succeeding generations have.

I had been given an unwilling front row seat to Generation Z via my girlfriend's son.  He was age six when I first met him.  Personally, I had recognized in myself the lack of a paternal gene and did not think I'd ever be or prioritize being a father.  When I became involved with her and we moved in together, I found myself having to assume a father-figure role, rather reluctantly, I might add.   I witnessed what he was studying -- or not studying, as the case usually would be, how he focused his attention, how he used his time.

I was probably initially insensitive to the way I viewed all of this.  My excuse is that I didn't consider myself a father-figure yet.  I watched him as an observer only, as a man who could clearly remember his own experiences at that same age and how those experiences led up to where I am now.  It's too easy for most parents to see their little Junior through the biased and cute lens of the present without being able to adjust the lens for future distances.  Since I was not yet fully invested in my girlfriend's son's future, I thought I could see him without any of the paternal biases.    

Well, what did I see?  The first image was a kid who lived in front of the television set.  One of the ironies of cable television is that even with over 70 stations, there's still nothing to watch.  It didn't matter to him.  Movie DVD's cost just $3 apiece over here, and he'd built up quite a collection already.  He was happy to re-watch the same movie ad infinitum.  Eventually, we limited his television access.  When my girlfriend brought a laptop back from Korea and he started using it regularly, it was Facebook games, non-stop You Tube videos, and entire TV series (like The Simpsons) online.  My Generation X mind didn't see the computer as a Generation Z mind does, which is as an extension of the television set.  In the end, we just lumped the computer, the television set, the DVD player, and the playstation into a single category and limited access to the lot. 

There was within him a lack of passion and inspiration, no doubt brought on by the passivity bred from too much non-interactive entertainment.  We bought him a paint set, he hardly used it.  Got him a bicycle.  After the first month, he barely rode it. Purchased educational DVD's for the computer.   I could probably resell them as new.   Whatever he was given and no matter how much, he always felt entitled to more.

Now please don't get me wrong and conclude that I viewed my girlfriend's son as some sort of a hellion.  I'll admit that I was overwhelmed at first.  In my acquaintanceship with him, I was shocked at how much kids had changed since my generation's turn at childhood.  I blamed unfairly on her son much of what I found fault with in Generation Z.  I later came to realize he was par for the course and plenty of his peers at school were much worse. 

My girlfriend's son is considered one of the brightest kids in his class.  Maybe I played some small role in that by forcing him to do extra reading and homework assignments after school.  I have no idea.  I do know that the school doesn't push reading in general and that none of his close friends ever pick up a book.  By the time I was seven, I'd read the complete Chronicles of Narnia series and probably would have digested the Harry Potter series if it had then existed.  My girlfriend's son is coming from a different place.  To this day, I have to put pressure on him through a punishment-reward scenario in order to get him to consistently read.

You see, Generation Z doesn't read.  They have short attention spans.  All their entertainment is on a screen.  The faster pace of today's world has made patience an irrelevancy for them. They're the Now Generation. In my childhood, one had to wait several years before a movie went from the theaters to television.  Today, there could be no wait.  In Thailand, a kid can see a pirated version of a movie at the same time as it's playing in the cinema.  Objects of one's desires are picked out on the Net today and mail ordered out tomorrow. 

The impatient Z'ers are growing up a lot faster than us X'ers ever did, in more ways than one.  The internet can be a fantastic educational tool -- to instantly look up the biography of nineteenth century American paleontologist Othniel Marsh.  Or to skim X-rated information and content that would have been out of bounds and out of reach for any X'er.   And with a more adulterated and instant diet full of hormones, chemicals, and preservatives, the Z'ers actually seem to look physically older at younger ages than we did back then.  At parent-teacher conferences recently, my girlfriend's son's teacher told us that the kids were starting to go through the hormonal and behavioral changes which can make them difficult to be around.  He was referring to puberty, of course.  In the days of Generation X, you didn't have this discussion till the kid was twelve. 

With today's technology and the decentralization of knowledge on the internet, Z'ers should be the healthiest generation which ever lived.  Should be doesn't mean they will be.  The fast food industry as I knew it in the 1970's has grown by leaps and bounds since then to include high profit margin foods pre-made in grocery stores.   With two parents working the norm, Z'ers grow up eating more instant noodles, TV dinners, and fast food family menus without a commensurate amount of exercise to balance.   The paunch that might've shown its first signs for us Generation X'ers by our mid thirties will be evident in the Z'ers before they hit their teenaged years.  More Z'ers will experience disease at earlier ages, diabetes mellitus being one of the more common ailments, and have to rely on ever more expensive medicines to mask the symptoms.

Those entrepreneurs who know how to tap into the less mentally nimble Z market are minting the next round of fortunes.  Currently, the most popular poster on You Tube is a seventeen-year old actor from Nebraska playing a six-year old in a series of webisodes.  I would never have believed such videos would get five million or more views, yet they do, largely because Z'ers like my girlfriend's son and his friends watch them.   For several weeks, my girlfriend's son was busy in front of the computer working on his virtual farm on Facebook.  I didn't pay much attention until I later found out the CEO of the company manufacturing these free games had a net worth of almost $1bn, valued largely from the success of this game.    I would posit that very few X'ers have willingly watched those You Tube videos or devoted significant time playing those Facebook games.

Are my fears for Z'ers overblown?   If a car is moving at 60 miles per hour towards a cliff sixty miles away, you can do the math to predict where the car will be in an hour unless it changes course. You can't condition a generation of kids to be passive, lazy, and have a sense of entitlement and then expect motivation and inspiration to take hold of most of them by the time university studies arrive. 

Years ago, I saw the movie 28 Up.  Begun in 1963 as 7 Up, director Michael Apted interviewed a group of fourteen British 7-year old children and did follow ups every seven years.   Remarkably for many, you could see the seeds of who they became at 28 in the children they were at age 7.

Similarly, generation Z's future is written in the aspirations of today's chubby youngsters watching Epic Movie for the seventeenth time.

If you liked reading this, consider:
 How Good Were The Good Old Days Really? Part II.
 The Friend And Fan Divide
 The Complete Article Index