Excerpted with permission from The Gen Z Effect: The Six Forces Shaping the Future of Business by Thomas Koulopoulos and Dan Keldsen (Bibliomotion, 2014).
At its core the Gen Z Effect is about rethinking the way age shapes our behaviours and attitudes so that we can avoid falling into the trap of rigid generational categories – these are myths that distract and separate generations by diminishing their behaviours instead of focusing on the benefits of age-based diversity and inclusion.
At the graduate level of education, students have historically been clustered within a fairly narrow age range. They either went directly to grad school from their undergraduate studies or they went back after about five years of work experience. So you had a majority of students in their late twenties, a minority in their early twenties, and an even smaller minority in their early thirties. For the most part they shared the same experiences and social context, so their conversations, case studies, and interests were similar. Sometime in the last ten years that began to change – dramatically. More students started to come in on the back end of longer careers.
For the first time, the professor is not the oldest person in the room. Today there are students from across the age spectrum in graduate school. Many in their fifties and sixties are entering their "Third Act," a time following traditional education (the first act) and a traditional career (the second act). "Third Act" is more than just a catchy term we're slapping on a small number of folks who want or need to work past a certain age.
According to our research, 29 per cent of the overall population do not expect to ever retire. That increases to 37 per cent for twenty-two to thirty-two-year-olds. Don't mistake this for simply a trend born of economic necessity. While many in the workforce have suffered because of the recessions that struck in the early and late 2000s, there is another factor at play, one we've already talked about. We can all work longer because locality and age do not stand in the way of our ability to work.
Both life expectancy and work-life expectancy are increasing, although work-life expectancy is increasing at a slightly faster rate. The narrowing trend lines indicate a long-term trend toward the merging of life expectancy and work-life expectancy within the next one hundred years
The biggest trap we fall into when trying to think beyond purely generational terms is that of the apparently immutable generation gap. One of the most common misconceptions that comes up in any conversation about the shrinking intervals between generations is the idea that a generation gap must exist, and that it will always be the source of irreconcilable tension and friction between generations. After all, the emergence of a generation gap is just a natural outcome of rebelling against authority and finding our identity as individuals within a group of like-minded peers.
So before accepting or rejecting the term generation gap, let's think about why it exists and what useful purpose it has served. First, as we've already said, we do not want to diminish the vital role that adolescence and its many changes, from chemical and hormonal to the rewiring of our brains, play in our development.
There is a valuable vigor and perspective to youth that goes beyond attitude and experience. We are not out to change that – not that we could. There are both drawbacks and opportunities presented by a young mind that is more open to – or perhaps more oblivious to – the risks and uncertainties of experimentation and adventure.
However, we do not believe that the difference between a young and old mind is the primary reason we've developed the societal notion of a generation gap. Having a gap means that those on the near side of the gap – the younger generation – can create an identifiable community within which they can find reassurance and empowerment for their ideas. Whether it's a label of hippie, Gen Xer, or Millennial, if you are part of that generation you are now associated with a community of thought, ideals, values, and beliefs.
While a gap of some sort may always exist between age groups with differing experiences, the size of the gap is directly related to how precisely we can define communities. Define community by your age, and the generation gap will be very wide. Define it through a deep understanding of people's interests and behaviours, and it will be far narrower.
Although this sort of thinking, based on very specific interests and behaviours, can be interpreted as creating micro-gaps between generations, we prefer to look at it as a way to create communities that are better aligned, more meaningful, and ultimately less likely to define themselves using age-based parameters. This community, rather than generational, focus is what we meant when we talked about Gen Z's tendency toward a hyperlocal view. The result is that, rather than being defined by an age-based generational gap, we are defined by the connections that tie us into a specific community. The same is true of the increasingly prevalent connections that tie us to the way we work.