And how you can unlock these qualities in yourself regardless of your age
I just finished facilitating a leadership program for a group of adults under the age of twenty-six. Working with young people is a privilege for witnessing — up close and personal — how society is being shaped and transformed.
Each generation brings its own values, experiences, and challenges. Today is not so much different to how young people reshaped society in the 1960s. A major difference now is how far values can reach.
While generational age ranges can vary slightly, I’ll use the following birth years as defined by PEW Research:
Generation X (me): 1965–1980
Gen Z: 1997–2012
There are some variations, including crossover classifications such as Xennials (1977–1983). A lot of writing out there about generations falls in the traps of stereotyping, which fuels misunderstanding and “othering” of people.
Generations are most often characterised by the qualities explored and expressed by the generation in the time they come of age — defined by their experiences in their late teens to age thirty.
The most fascinating research on generations (in my view) comes from the work of William Strauss and Neil Howe, who outlined their methods and findings in The Fourth Turning and subsequent writings.
Without diving into detail here, one key finding is how generations are shaped by predictable social, economic, and political shifts that occur in each generation’s childhood, thus shaping their worldviews and the way they approach their coming of age.
We are living in a unique yet historically predictable moment. This is not the first time the world has experienced social, economic, and geopolitical upheaval. The coalescing forces of climate change and pandemics are simply how it’s showing up right now.
Cultural vs positional power
While positional power or authority in a society is typically held by older generations, cultural power is held by younger generations.
It was youth — especially student groups — who rallied the masses and shaped public discourse in the 1960s. While positional power and political authority was still held by older generations at the time, it was young people who shaped what society deemed as important.
Strauss and Howe say this is the case in any generation — today being no different. While the halls of Congress and ownership of news corporations are yet to be infiltrated by a new generation (and likely won’t be en masse for another two decades), it is still youth culture that defines what is important to a society.
Greta Thunberg is a case in point, and she is not an isolated example. While social media or Netflix didn’t exist in the 60s to create such widespread notoriety, the 60s and 70s consisted of thousands of ‘Thunbergs’ willing to take risks to challenge social norms.
The Gen Z in all of us
An interesting dynamic in all of this is how older generations respond to new cultural waves created by younger generations.
While the discourse may not immediately manifest in public policy or institutional change, it is common to see older people jump onto waves of emergent social consciousness.
Take progressive politics for example. Often progressive groups are made up of younger people and those of older generations who are also tired of the status quo. Social movements become melting pots of people of all generations who share similar values.
So, when we talk about Gen Z (or any generation for that matter), it is less about thinking of people according to age, and more about the shared values and ideals that are awakened by an emerging generation.
[Image in public domain courtesy of McKinsey & Company.]
Gen Z and the search for truth
If we choose to see ‘them’ as a mirror, we may well see ourselves. A study by McKinsey and Company showed that a “search for truth is at the root of all Generation Z’s behaviour.” The study defined four qualities:
‘Undefined ID’: “Don’t define yourself in only one way.”
‘Communaholic’: “Be radically inclusive.”
‘Dialoguer’: “Have fewer confrontations and more dialogue.”
‘Realistic’: “Live life pragmatically.”
How many of these resonate with you?
When one of the participants on my leadership program shared this with me, I instantly saw myself. Some of these qualities are not intuitive or natural, but rather came into focus more recently in my life.
I can see how I struggle with defining myself according to one identity and reject the limitations of working or writing in a niche. It is also evident in my writing under a pseudonym that allows me the freedom to constantly reshape how I see the world and the world sees me.
I’m also a fiery advocate for inclusivity. Whereas I kept my perspectives largely to myself in the past, I am making inclusivity a stronger part of my writing and other work. I challenge exclusivity and patriarchal views that create hierarchies and separateness.
I’ve seen the ways in which my approach to facilitation has incorporated more opportunity for deep dialogue as a valued experience for the people I work with. Conversation was easily dismissed in times gone by. Now we find it embraced.
I’ve always had a healthy relationship to realism, even as an idealist. This is largely shaped by my own upbringing and coming-of-age as a member of Generation X — another generation that favoured realism. (Boomers are often stereotyped as being idealists, for example, while Millennials tended to balance the two.)
The times we live in are forcing a major reckoning. Many people I know seek truth behind illusion when it comes to politics, media, and corporate greed. The dominant capitalist system has failed the vast majority.
A natural outcome of decades of unbridled greed is a generation that won’t tolerate it. We find ourselves in this unique moment where the values we once held are not fixed, but instead are more fluid. And while it may be easy to look to younger generations and see them as “other,” if we choose to see them as a mirror, we may well see ourselves.
There is something inherently hopeful about an emerging collective desire for truth. Perhaps out of this mess we’ll find new wisdom for creating a better world. At least until the next generation comes along with new values that will invite us, once again, to reshape ourselves and the world.