Gen Z. The Myth. The Reality.

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Geometry UK's Richard Wise on Generation Z.

I sometimes read out loud this excerpt from a Time magazine story to my colleagues when discussing Gen Z:

“Deeply committed to the redemption of social imperfections, they have taken on a vast commitment towards a kinder, more equitable society; they are markedly saner and more unselfish than their elders.”

Everyone nods respectfully, seeing images of Greta Thunberg in their mind. 

There’s One Phrase for the Aspirations of Gen Z that I Think is Oracular in an Interesting Way … 

The twist: it’s from a 1965 issue of the magazine. And they’re actually talking about Baby Boomers.

It’s easier to spot mythic thinking when it takes place in the past – like the idea that a single generation would be more “unselfish” than any previous generation. 

Selfishness is a human constant; it can’t be repealed by something as nebulous as a generational self-concept. 

But once in a while a generation comes along that is particularly…smug. And that generation is not “Z,” it is Boomer.

Yes, the Boomer myth is that they wanted to “teach the world to sing in perfect harmony.” But the reality of their self-righteousness gave us an American culture torn apart by angry political divisiveness and a preference for divorce as a way of resolving marriage conflicts.

So how could the Yale-educated writer at Time make such an error in capturing a generation’s character? How could he miss all the signs of entitlement that were already quite visible and would later be superbly documented by the generational experts Strauss & Howe in Generations: The History of America’s Future?

We project. We all do it. 

We do it negatively. That’s called “judgmental.”

We do it positively. That’s called “delusional.” 

We just can’t help it. We congratulate ourselves on our own values by either finding them sorely lacking (“spoiled snowflakes”) or in supernatural abundance (“they will save the world”).

And just as we go through life constantly finding out that we are quite fallible at reading people, so it goes with generational insights.

If you are part of the marketing community of a multinational headquartered anywhere in the Western hemisphere, it’s a good bet that you despise Trump, bemoan Brexit and perhaps abstain from eating meat (or just admire those who do). You probably take these views to be “self-evident.” But the truth is, you’ve worked hard to become a member of an elite cohort whose views have been shaped by a privileged education. 

Therefore, when it comes to generational insight, if you have an optimistic temperament, what the behavioral economists call “confirmation bias” will take over and you will describe Generation Z as emblems of political correctness. 

But, here’s the thing: Gen Z are not politically correct. Just the opposite.

Therefore, when it comes to generational insight, if you have an optimistic temperament, what the behavioral economists call “confirmation bias” will take over and you will describe Generation Z as emblems of political correctness. 

But, here’s the thing: Gen Z are not politically correct. Just the opposite.

The Pew Research Center’s latest survey shows that Gen Z are far more likely than Boomers to agree with this statement:

Too many people these days are easily offended by language. 

That’s right. 

While Gen Z agrees that climate change is man-made, are more comfortable with alternative pronouns and more supportive of decriminalizing marijuana, they also tend to think we’ve all gotten too politically correct.

Corroborating Pew, The Atlantic recently reported that Progressive Activists represent a vocal minority of only 8% of Americans. But 79% of Americans under the age of 24 think that “political correctness has become a problem for our country,” and they are the largest age cohort to agree with that statement. Who doesn’t have a problem with political correctness is the aforementioned vocal minority and, you guessed it, wealthy Boomers. The rest of us are tired of it, frustrated by its constantly changing rules and the intransigent severity of its wrath.

So, if you are busy trying to figure out how to make your brand “woke” by aiming it at the apex of political correctness, you are probably just tuning it to an elitist – and annoying – projection of what Gen Z is. 

Remember when Emma Watson posed for Vanity Fair in a provocatively revealing crochet cape and it made a firestorm on Twitter? Supposedly, she had betrayed her woke feminist beliefs by doing this. It was interesting to scrutinize her puritanical critics, sorting them through the generational filter. Easy to find elitist Boomers. Almost impossible to find Gen Z.

The difference between political correctness and genuine respect is that political correctness is a virtue signaling code. It’s driven by status affirmation – something entirely different than discerning the truth. Like that naked Emperor strutting about in his new clothes.

Ogilvy’s Rory Sutherland describes how this affects even restaurant recommendations in the UK:

"Indian restaurant recommendations are like this. Whenever I have tried an Indian eatery on the advice of a knight of the realm or a Nobel laureate, I get served fancy crap. When a plumber or a builder recommends a curry house, however, it’s always bang on the money. In recommending a restaurant, the eminent are more interested in displaying sophistication and discernment than in relaying useful information. It is this signaling instinct that led to the culture wars. A noisy minority has co-opted the focus of political debate from discussing how problems can best be solved, to demonstrating how much you care about those problems.”

So is there something factual you can say about Gen Z, without merely making elitist demonstrations of “how much you care?” 

Gen Z are the first true digital natives, that’s what.

And that means they have experienced as given – not innovative – everything that the Internet and smart phones have done to accelerate six major macrotrends, most of which have been going on for decades, all over the world.

Click here to download the PDF.