A friend of mine, who is a teacher, recently told off a student in class. “OK, Boomer,” the student replied to titters from his classmates.
“OK Boomer” is somewhat of a flippant phrase that’s tossed around quite loosely. At 35 years of age, my friend in question is actually a millennial. But the phrase is meant to mock older generations for being “out of touch” with today’s most pressing issues.
The student and his classmates are children of the great recession, the climate crisis, automation and rising nationalism. Many are justified to feel less secure about their futures—in terms of housing, jobs and the environment—than their forebears. And it doesn’t help when a Gen Z standard-bearer like Greta Thunberg is often shouted down when she speaks up. It only reaffirms her peers’ concerns.
“OK Boomer” is symptomatic of a generation who believe their views are derided, if not ignored entirely by their elders. At a time when rampant tech progress is forcing us to ask complex ethical questions, dismissing an entire generation because of their age is nonsensical. It’s their age that makes Gen Zers uniquely placed to find answers to these questions.
“OK Boomer” is symptomatic of a generation who believe their views are derided, if not ignored entirely by their elders.
Tech troubles and trust trade-offs
Organizations today face all sorts of tech-propelled challenges. Capitalism is under pressure, with demands growing that companies find genuine purpose beyond profit. Employees at big technology firms are taking a stand on topics such as what technologies are used in warfare. And ride-sharing companies are facing fierce opposition on workers’ rights.
Somewhat ironically, technology itself fuels discontent. As Lukianoff and Haidt wrote: “Social media makes it extraordinarily easily to join crusades, express solidarity and outrage.” Organizations would, therefore, be wise to listen closely to the views of a generation that is not just digital natives but also AI native.
However, a generational shift in attitudes means the mistrust goes both ways. The clearest examples are in the global climate movement. Ms. Thunberg was named Time magazine’s Person of the Year for leading a global movement of young people who believe that today’s leaders are falling at the first fence. That is, they’re failing to lead in addressing the climate crisis, leaving their children and grandchildren to bear the consequences.
And we see the trust of today’s youth in institutions, from government to media, in increasingly short and diminishing supply. This is evident in our recent study on responsible leadership. Gen Zers tend to judge leaders by the impact their decisions have on those around them—what we call stakeholder inclusion. Older generations are more focused on what underpins decision-making—mission and purpose.
We see the trust of today’s youth in institutions, from government to media, in increasingly short and diminishing supply.
Disinterested, naïve and weak, right? Wrong.
This disconnect has encouraged the rise of several myths about Gen Z. Left unchecked, a myth can be self-fulfilling, driving an even deeper wedge between generations. Therefore, it’s worth looking at the evidence:
Myth #1 Gen Zers are disinterested. Social media has warped their moral compass, meaning they prioritize breadth over depth in relationships. This prevents them from truly caring about the world around them.
Reality: Mass movements such as FridaysForFuture and Parkland Teens suggest social media can be used as a positive force for action. And there are numerous other examples of Gen Zers looking to fix global problems. From the McEwan sisters who took McDonalds and Burger King to task over plastic toys in kids’ meals to Jack Andraka, who invented a new type of cancer cell sensor, and Malala Yousafzai, the youngest recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, there are plenty of Gen Zers who are working to make the world a better place.
Myth #2 : Gen Zers are naïve. Younger generations lead sheltered, insular lives, which robs them of the “real-world” knowledge needed to solve global issues.
Reality: While experience is not to be sniffed at, the speed of technological progress makes novices out of even the most seasoned leader. Gen Zers were weaned on technology, and our recent research uncovered their innovative yet pragmatic approach to addressing some of today’s toughest questions about ethics and tech (Accenture Research: Seeking New Leadership, November 2019). Issues covered in the research ranged from factory automation to facial recognition technologies.
Myth #3: Gen Z are overly sensitive. Cossetted in their digital echo chambers, they lack empathy and resilience, making them prickly, unhelpful partners.
Reality: It’s true that Gen Zers are less willing to sacrifice personal happiness for professional success and tend to report higher levels of personal challenges such as mental health. But because the archetypical leader doesn’t show vulnerability, these Gen Z behaviors are conflated with weakness. What they’re actually demonstrating is, as Daniel Coyle writes in The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups, “The most basic building block of cooperation and trust,” and a key trait of any good leader.
Bridge the generation gap
Gen Z already accounts for almost a third of the global population and contains the key customers, citizens, employees and leaders of tomorrow. Today’s leaders cannot afford to ignore Gen Z in the hope that the historical correlation between age and conservativism holds. Technological progress shows no signs of slowing down, which may well further accelerating shifts in generational attitudes.
The leaders of today should be more inclusive of Gen Z. In addition to not dismissing tomorrow’s leaders as “brats,” here are three other ambitious actions we recommend taking:
- Meet Gen Z online: Don’t wait for Gen Z to come to you. There are myriad social and collaborative tools through which you can ask for their views and insights. From traditional social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter to newer apps like Instagram and TikTok, Gen Zers are often more accessible than older generations.
Similarly, the video-sharing platform YouTube and live-streaming platform Twitch are extremely popular with Gen Z. Create profiles specifically for connecting with Gen Zers and try reaching out to popular influencers on apps like Instagram. The key here is to encourage Gen Zers to engage with you and to make it easy for them to do so through a platform or service they’re comfortable with.
- Build youth in decision-making groups: Greater diversity helps us to avoid groupthink. A report from the Council of Europe on youth participation in decision-making processes advises adopting more innovative methods such as digital participation, co-management and co-production. These should take the place of less innovative forms such as youth councils and related bodies. The goal is to create a space for young people to get involved, where they can share their beliefs and values and help influence decisions and outcomes that impact them.
- Develop your stakeholder inclusion: Build trust by showing vulnerability. Stand in the shoes of diverse stakeholders and foster an inclusive environment where everyone has a voice. Take a position on pressing social issues like climate change and demonstrate empathy towards different social groups. Stakeholder inclusion calls for leaders to express good communication, feedback and negotiation skills, plus open-mindedness, listening and understanding skills.
Many thanks to my colleague Dom King for contributing to this post.