Sean Lyons is professor of leadership and organizational management in the College of Business and Economics at the University of Guelph.
Millennials rejoice! Your long suffering as society's punching bag is coming to an end. You may have heard, amid all the grumbling about your having killed everything sacred, from beer to marriage, that there's a new generation on the scene. You've taken more than your fair share of abuse; you've been called entitled, narcissistic, selfish, deluded, coddled, lazy, disloyal, inattentive – the list goes on and on. Yet, if history is an indicator, the heat is about to shift from you to your successors. Now is your chance to climb up from history's bottom rung and look down on "Generation Z" or "iGen" as they have been labelled. You've earned the right to go from abused to abuser. Or, you could take a different approach and be the first generation in recent history to break the cycle of bashing the young.
The generational disparagement cycle is a well-established phenomenon. In an insightful analysis of news magazines' coverage of successive generations in the postwar era, Carolyn Kitch of Temple University in Philadelphia, found that each new generation is portrayed first as problematic and later as acceptable, and eventually, admirable.
This unfolding narrative begins with shock and dismay at the selfishness and impetuousness of the young generation, who are viewed as an affront to the values of older generations. As the generation ages, the narrative shifts to focus on the accomplishments and positive characteristics of its members. Finally, in maturity, the generation becomes the standard bearer against which subsequent new generations are judged. According to Ms. Kitch, this evolving narrative allows journalists to spin a tale of redemption in which we first encounter a strange and different generation, later admit that maybe we had them all wrong and finally become nostalgic for the days of their youthful exuberance, which is viewed to be lacking in the newest "problematic" youth generation. This was the media narrative that unfolded for baby boomers and Generation X before finding its expression on a wide range of new electronic media with millennials as its target.
As someone who studies generations as my career, I've been a first-hand witness to the past two cycles of generation-bashing. I must admit that I am not really up for another round. It's boring and predictable.
I therefore call on millennials to show a degree of mercy that was not afforded to them and change the narrative about Generation Z. This is not just good manners; it may have real impacts on Gen Z's health and well-being. A 2016 study of more than 25,000 postsecondary students conducted by the Ontario University and College Health Association (OUCHA) found that 65 per cent had experienced overwhelming anxiety, 46 per cent had felt so depressed that it was difficult to function, 13 per cent had seriously considered suicide and 11 per cent had attempted suicide. These results confirm what campus psychological-services professionals have been echoing in recent years: mental-health issues abound in today's youngest generation and they continue to grow. According to the Ontario Ministry of Advanced Education and Skills Development, Ontario's postsecondary institutions saw a 433-per-cent increase in the number of students registered with mental-illness disabilities between 2004-14. Given these statistics, it is not out of line to call this a mental-health crisis among Gen Z.
We could debate the reasons for the alarming rate of youth mental-health issues. We could blame over-protective parents for raising a generation of fragile "snowflakes" who are too frail to handle the normal pressures of student life. We could blame social media and mobile devices for creating young people who are isolated and incapable of authentic face-to-face human communication. Generational researcher Jean Twenge of San Diego State University has made this argument in her widely shared article in The Atlantic entitled "Have smartphones destroyed a generation?" Or, we could skip the blaming and shaming altogether and seek to understand Generation Z for who they are – without judgment and with empathy. We could do something really novel – give young people a break.
I have worked for the past year with youth mobilizer Kelly Lovell on a study that documents how the leading edge of Gen Z views the world of work, the fears and expectations they carry into their careers and what motivates them. We found a complex mix of pragmatism and idealism.
Gen Z seeks work that provides intellectual stimulation, learning and growth, as well as connecting with their passions, allowing them to make a difference and working for a company that they're proud of. They define career success in terms of financial security, but also work/life balance. They want better training and career support from employers, but also better mental-health support. They have relatively modest early-career pay expectations relative to millennials, but higher peak-career pay expectations. They are entrepreneurial, but also place high importance on job security. Although we have an interesting first glimpse at this paradoxical generation, much work remains to gain a fuller understanding of who they are, how they differ from millennials and their influence on their workplaces. As we strive to gain a deeper understanding of this generation, we hope to do so with curiosity and open-mindedness. It is our hope we can skip from the getting-to-know-you stage to the understanding stage without the tired old vilification and redemption story.
Millennials, we're looking to you to be the voice of reason. Make it your challenge to be the first generation in over a century to welcome a new generation with open arms, rather than disdain.