“The Gen Z Effect is what happens when the simplicity and affordability of technology unites generations more than it divides them.”
For years, we’ve been talking about the workforce in terms of their generations. We use categories like Baby Boomers, Gen X, and Millennials as a shortcut to describe particular age groups. Why? Because we have been taught that, in general, the different generations embody certain values, experiences, and beliefs that distinguish them from one another.
But what if we’re wrong in doing that?
Enter Gen Z—a state of mind, not age
Generational categories have gotten a lot of attention over the past several years (I’ve even reviewed two other books on the subject: Marketing to Millennials and Manager 3.0.). But in The Gen Z Effect, authors Tom Koulopoulos and Dan Keldsen contend that our long-held beliefs about generational differences have grown outdated.
As the pace of technological innovation increases, they say, the associated changes to behaviors and beliefs are happening so rapidly that the timespan to be considered one generation or the next is continually shortening. They argue that this phenomenon makes the distinctions effectively meaningless for the next generations.
Not only do the authors believe that future generational distinctions will be irrelevant, they also think that continuing to think of ourselves as Boomers, Gen Xers, and Millennials will hinder us as we accelerate toward a post-generational world.
Koulopoulos and Keldsen are business consultants. In working with hundreds of organizations, the pair have found that the generational differences we have been taught to expect significantly impede effective collaboration and innovation. Instead of focusing on beliefs and assumptions that divide us, they suggest, why not emphasize the shared behaviors that can unite us?
That’s where Gen Z comes in.
Choosing to be Z
Although the authors define Gen Z in standard terms— as those born between 1995 and 2015—the revolutionary aspect of Gen Z is that it is not just a birthright; it is a choice. Those who embody the behaviors and mindset of the native members of Gen Z are every bit as much as member of the “generation,” regardless of their year of birth.
The members of Gen Z, whether they were born or made, are not just digital natives. They are “hyperconnectivity junkies” for whom technology is an invisible, ever-present part of their daily lives.
To them, Millennials were the beta-testers of the early technologies that have become more streamlined over time.
Members of Gen Z are accustomed to continual change, and the authors believe that the expectations of this group will radically change the business world.
The “Gen Z Effect” is what is happening as a result of the ever-shrinking gaps between the behaviors and attitudes of the generations. By exploring these changes Koulopoulos and Keldsen seek to identify ways organizations can successfully navigate them.
Many top companies have already started to act. As early as the mid-1990s, IBM responded to pressure from new hires for increased flexibility by instituting remote work programs. The results were very successful, increasing worker productivity by 50% while saving IBM $700 million in real estate expenses. The desire for nontraditional work environments and the impulse to pressure top management for change are both common behaviors to Gen Z.
Another way that enterprises can help to bridge the gap between the traditional generations to facilitate a more Gen Z environment is by introducing “reverse mentoring.”
In such programs, a younger, more tech-savvy employee is paired with an older colleague to help him or her understand and use new technologies in the workplace. This concept is based on the idea that the newer employees have valuable experiences and knowledge that can “percolate up” to their older “protégés.” Cisco has implemented formal reverse mentoring programs within all levels of their organization with great success.
What’s driving the change
According to the authors, the waning differences between different generations is the result of dramatic changes in global demographics, hyperconnectivity, the increasingly universal availability of education, the ease of use of new technologies, and new ways to accessing innovation.
Each of these factors is disruptive to traditional business models, but collectively they represent a dramatically shifting global business environment that is still in its infancy. Businesses must adapt, and soon—or they will be left behind by their peers.
These factors are explained in depth by the authors, including specific examples of how organizations can integrate and utilize each to adapt and excel.
For example, the concept of “slingshotting” has propelled adoption of new technologies. The barriers to technology have eroded as new adopters have access to the newest and best versions of new technologies which have been simplified with user-friendly interfaces.
The author’s describe the term this way: “… the accelerating force of innovation that moves technology forward to the point where those on the slow side of the technology adoption curve (the “laggards”) effectively skip multiple generations of technology and instead arrive in the same future with those who suffered through technology’s painful evolution.”
Slingshotting has significantly contributed to global hyperconnectivity. Currently more than 30% of the world’s population uses the internet. The authors note that the pace of internet adoption exceeds the speed of transmission of any other human phenomenon, including global pandemics.
Simultaneously, education is more widely available than ever before. With the birth and expansion of “MOOCs”, massive open online courses, anyone with an internet connection can hear lectures from professors at prestigious universities across the globe. Some programs even offer certificates of completion and course credit, and most are available free of charge for the sole purpose of spreading top-notch education beyond the traditional university setting.
Ease of use of technology and availability of internet access have driven more and more people online to share information and ideas. This has led to what the authors refer to as a change from “affluence to influence.”
In one major example of this shift, vast media empires funded by the wealthy elite had the power to control public opinion throughout most of the twentieth century. But recently, the technologically-aware and increasingly informed members of Gen Z have democratized the media through the rapid spread of news and opinions. Now, the hyperconnected masses wield their collective influence to wreak havoc on companies and even governments.
With nontraditional educational opportunities, access to a steady stream of innovative new technology, and the ability to spread information and influence opinion like never before, the members of Gen Z have grown accustomed to circumventing traditional methods for getting things done.
“Lifehacking”: Gen Z’s way of life
They often seek to replicate these successes in all aspects of life, which has given rise to the term “lifehacking.” This is one of the most disruptive characteristics of Gen Z, as they work around or “hack” traditional systems.
Rather than conforming to traditional bank requirement to get a startup loan, for instance, a Gen Zer’s first impulse would likely be to start a crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter and raise capital one $5 to $10 contribution at a time.
This type of funding has the benefit of built-in market research; if the market doesn’t accept the idea or find it valuable, it will not support the project.
Ideas worth your study
Koulopoulos and Keldsen point out that very few businesses have begun to integrate the wealth of new technological opportunities that exist with streamlined processes, paperless environments, and incorporating insights from “Big Data” analysis.
They urge companies to start now. A list of questions is included at the end of each chapter to help assess a company’s readiness. The appendix also includes a more detailed guide to reverse mentoring, since so few enterprises are aware of the practice.
The Gen Z Effect is not a book for summer beach reading—it is very dense and data-heavy. But the information is interesting, and the authors provide ample support for their assertions, along with examples from dozens of organizations of how they are adapting to these changes.
With change-resistant boards of directors, limited paperless capabilities, incomplete mobile banking offerings, and without a true cross-sectional approach to customer data analysis, many banks could benefit from the authors’ words of warning.
As technological innovation and accessibility increases and adoption rates skyrocket, the previously distinct differences between the generations are narrowing. Over time, we will no longer have unique experiences, values, and behaviors, and continuing to think of ourselves as different generations will no longer drive us forward.
By choosing to consider ourselves Gen Z, we move beyond focusing on the differences that divide us and embrace the changes that the digital age continues to bring to our professional and personal lives.