The hopeless (?) generation takes the stage

In 2001, the World Trade Center falls and shortly thereafter the US goes to war. In 2008, the world economy collapses in the wake of Lehman Brothers. In 2010 the Arab Spring sweeps across the Middle East, leading to conflict, a refugee crisis and humanitarian disaster. On top of all this, accelerating climate change brings about floods, hurricanes and forest fires in rapid succession. This is the only world the hopeless generation (Generation Z), born 1995-2005, have ever known. It isn’t too surprising they feel hopeless.

Millennials are no longer young. Depending on how you define the generation their youngest members are already 24, and the oldest over thirty. They’re adults, largely with established careers. Many are parents themselves. Millennials, born around 1990, in many ways see the world differently from their younger siblings born in 2000. They are called Millennials not because they are first of the new millennium, but because they’re the last generation of the old one. The Hopeless Generation, on the other hand, don’t remember anything of the 20th century – neither its politics, nor its technology or its values. Even if they’ve obviously been influenced by their parents and their Millennial predecessors, they have a fundamentally different way of understanding the world. 

This generation missed the first wave of digitalization and were born into a world that was already digital. The smartphone was introduced when they were in first grade, and they grew up in a world where everyone from mom and dad to grandma were online – as opposed to the Millennials, to whom the internet was a sphere chiefly for the young and the nerdy. They have also always been aware of a growing climate crisis – Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” was released in 2006 and was perhaps the clearest sign that global warming had become a political hot button issue. Beginning in the mid-00s, environmental impact went from an abstract and distant problem to a tangible and urgent one. Simultaneously, the world became more complex both economically and geopolitically. With all this in mind, it isn’t strange that Generation Z feels depressed, confused, and perhaps even hopeless. What’s a person to do when the world is in such a terrible state?

Nothing new under the sun

This generation of young people is not the only one to have asked themselves that question. Generation Jones were born after the baby boom, around 1960, and grew up in a world with impending nuclear war. These, too, were forgotten in favor of their more eye-catching elder siblings. Despite being 40 years older than Generation Z, they have a lot in common – particularly, that they were born into a world that seemed difficult to understand. In those days, it was cold war and nuclear power that loomed as the most immediate threat. When they grew up, this generation was forged into the role of pragmatists and pessimists, with some visionaries that took on difficult political tasks. It may be that we’re seeing a new Generation Jones come of age today. 

Generation Z might have even more in common with a generation even further back – those who reached adulthood just on the cusp of the Second World War. They too grew up during a depression and a financial crisis, and in turn they became frugal and careful, with a very pragmatic and careful worldview. Similar patterns are becoming evident with Generation Z, who listen to podcasts on saving money and have begun preparing for retirement already as teenagers. Likewise, we see this generation looking up to actionable leaders who don’t ask too many questions but show the world their values instead – something of great value when the future seems unclear. In the 1930s this resulted in many authoritarian leaders, but also strong democratic profiles like Winston Churchill or, in Sweden, Per Albin Hansson – controversial characters who dared to challenge the norms of their time. Similar leadership styles seem popular with young people today, who often admire actionable or controversial leaders.

Five keys to understanding the Hopeless Generation

  1. Not Millennials! It’s important not to confuse the younger and the older. Based on their very different circumstances growing up, they have fairly different points of view. Generation Z tends to be more pragmatic and pessimistic where Millennials has leaned more optimistic and idealistic.
  2. Show, don’t tell! Generation Z have grown used to lies and exaggerations – and they’re also used to being able to see the immediate effects of their actions, in mobile apps or with direct feedback online. Skepticism, but also impatience, work together to ensure they trust visionary words far less than tangible (and visible) results. 
  3. Correct communication! As opposed to the open and relaxed tone that’s broadly appealed to their older siblings, Generation Z more closely manages its communication with the correct tone for the correct channel. It’s important to communicate in a uniform and coherent fashion with the tone and message matching, something which Generation Z does fairly intuitively online.
  4. Help me help myself! Generation Z looks down on coddled children and don’t believe in having their future served on a platter. They want to feel that they themselves have deserved their success, both in terms of work life and as consumers. Merely shopping eco-friendly won’t save the world, and they know that, but it might be a step on the way. Brands who are honest about providing tools, not complete solutions, will probably reach further.
  5. Seize the initiative! Generation Z looks up to competent and skilled leadership which actually takes a leadership role. Instead of asking “what do you prefer?”, a more sensible strategy may well be to state “This is my vision, do you agree?” A clear proposal is often more attractive than undirected questions, and especially being able to translate a vision into action is worth more than gold to the confused and hopeless younger generation. 

By Rikard Molander