As millennials--you might have heard of them; they're the people born between the early '80s and early 2000s who you've been trying to understand both as a talent pool and customer base for a decade--graduate into leadership roles and general adulthood, you might as well get a glimpse at the generation coming next.
ChicagoBusiness.com has recently gone so far as to provide one, pegging millennial expert Scott Hess, SVP of human intelligence at marketing agency Spark, to explore what comes next. The post-millennial generation is going by a few names currently--"Posts," "Homelanders," and the (boring) "Generation Z" among them.
Acknowledging that generational classifications can only be made in extremely broad strokes, Hess nonetheless says he's gathered some insights into the next generation to come. He answered a few questions from Inc. about what companies should expect from "Posts." A lightly-edited transcript of the exchange follows.
So, what are the defining traits of "Posts," as we're calling them, thus far?
I think in many ways they’re intrinsically egalitarian, attuned to fairness not in an activist manner, but in a kind of post-liberal, "the world is already as it should be" kind of way. They’re startled by racism and sexism and homophobia first, offended second. Across many spectra, these kids are growing up in a zero-tolerance climate when it comes to discrimination and mistreatment. This is, I think, a kind of progress. Of course, it might also make them take a lot of social progress for granted.
They are more global and open in mindset than any previous generation, having grown up with a media operating system--YouTube, Facebook, Xbox Live, Google, Twitter--that is itself inherently global and inclusive in nature. One used to grow up bound by (his or her) street and community, religion, and region. The Post generation will feel far less constrained by geography and, as a result, ideology than any previous generation.
And where we’ve talked about Millennials as "maturiteens," I think we’ll perhaps refer to Post as having grown up...exposed to mature language and concepts and culture at an earlier age than ever before, given the ubiquity of their access to free and unmediated high-bandwidth content.
For Millennials, this exposure happened a bit later, and seemingly came with a surprising and very positive level of composure, as we saw most of the so-called "vice indices"--smoking, drug use, teen pregnancy, and the like--actually decline during their march to adulthood. For Posts, who likely will lose their innocence even earlier, the results remain to be seen.
In what other ways do they differentiate from Millennials, who companies are just now starting to understand?
One way they’ll differ is in their relationship to their Gen-X parents in particular and to authority in general. Whereas Boomers have been notorious for "self-esteem parenting," Gen-Xers seem to be returning to the more authoritative parenting style of their own Silent Generation parents. They know the world is dangerous, and they’re not about to let their kids move as freely as Boomer parents have.
Where Boomers have been all about respecting their children’s boundaries (and) privacy, GenX parents seemingly have no qualms about invading their kids' digital realms (smartphones, social network), setting rigid expectations for behavior, bedtimes, "screen time," and the like. And they’re more likely to require their overscheduled progeny to "follow through" on commitments--sports, arts, etc.--that Boomers might have let their Millennial spawn back out if it "didn’t feel right for him/her."
This shift in parenting styles will also be reflected in the way the Post generation are taught and, eventually, managed in the workplace, potentially inspiring them to create their own spin on Gen-X's famous aversion to authority and rules. But whereas this attitude was a central part of the Gen-X "slacker" identity, I’m guessing--and even seeing, at first blush--the Post generation will use their digital aptitude and autonomy to create autonomous zones of their own, wherein their meddling parents and teachers simply can’t follow them.
Can we really make judgments about a generation whose oldest members are, what, 13 or 14 years old? Most of them haven't even hit high school yet.
We certainly can make judgments. I make them every day. Whether or not we can make accurate predictions is the real question.
I was a creative writing major in college, and there’s no doubt that skillset comes in handy sometimes in my job. And let’s not forget that generational theory is soft science to begin with, perhaps more art than science. Analysis and synthesis are equally important, and insights that fail to communicate and inspire implications are useless.
That said, I have been able to look at some data around how 12- to 15-year-olds answer (questions about their values) over the past 20 or so years, and that data suggests several shifts in attitude that warrant further scrutiny. Optimism, the centrality of religion, and devotion to in-style fashion are all in recession, so to speak; meanwhile the importance of both family and money are on the rise. It would seem this generation is, at least in its infancy, favoring the tangible over the intangible. That they are relentless digital fact-checkers is not in question, as their teachers and parents can readily attest.
At the same time, hard demographic trends are impossible to ignore and will themselves almost certainly herald a greater number of multi-generational households (which are more common among African-American and Latinos, who make up a larger part of Posts than any previous generation) and a further acceptance of racial and ethnic diversity as operating reality.
The Post generation is the first for whom non-white members will begin to outnumber their white peers. This we know.
To what extent does emerging technology define a generation? And this one in particular?
When technology enables behaviors and inspires values that simply couldn’t or didn’t exist before, you can say it plays a foundational role in defining this or any generation.
Although one of the major reasons I call (this) generation "Post" is that they arrive on the scene on the heels of more seismic technological and social change than perhaps any generation in recent memory, I’ll also admit that this arena--technology--is also the one that’s hardest to predict and most likely to yield wild cards.
At this point we can feel pretty certain that Posts will live in a technological world that’s mobile, real time, and rife with rampant expectations for rapid progress. That said, I find it incredibly difficult to imagine what kind of discontinuous technical change is next over their horizon. And whatever that may be could very well change everything.
Soon enough, we're going to start seeing Posts enter the workforce. Yikes! What do employers need to know about this generation's values as prospective employees?
Now you’re really asking me to gaze into my crystal ball.
I’ll simply say this: As each generation has arrived on the stage of the workplace, it’s almost been a tradition that those who occupy the corridors of power label them lazy, entitled, and even narcissistic. These labels have more to do with lifestage than generational cohort, in my opinion.
And, even if they were true, they do absolutely nothing to further the goal of creating a productive, let alone happy, work environment. So, my advice to my Gen-X peers and my Millennial friends, who likely will occupy the upper boxes on the org charts of the Post generation’s future is simple: Embrace them, for they are just like you, only better.
Their inevitable quirks, such as they might be, are merely evolutionary adaptations that better prepare them to face the workplace of the future.
Meet them as people. Manage them as friends. And be prepared to get out of their way when the time comes, as it always does.