It’s great fun to track trends to try to figure out what the future holds. The Generation after Gen Y is a mystery. Sort of. There are some things we know. And what we know, we know doesn’t change much. For example, people thought Gen Y’s sunny optimism would die down under the ardors of raising kids, but it didn’t. And people thought Gen X’s cynical, outsider approach would change when they became soccer moms, and it didn’t.
So it’s a safe bet that once you peg a trait in a generation, it likely won’t change much over time. But it could play out in interesting ways over time. Here are some ways that the traits of Generation Z might play out in the workforce of the future.
1. Generation Z will not be team players.
We know from Strauss and Howe that as generations cycle, the team generations (such as gen y) are usually followed by individualist generations. So it is not surprising to see trends that the same thing will happen over the next decade.
Gen Y are great team players. In fact, they are so team oriented that they often feel that nothing is getting accomplished at work unless there has been a team meeting about it.
But they are not likely to teach the value to their kids. In typical parent fashion, parents stress what they are lacking so that their kids don’t lack it. This is why, for example, first generation immigrants often do not teach their native tongue to their American kids.
One way to read this trend is with baby naming. Gen Y is naming their kids eccentrically. Throughout history, most people have had common names, and common names help people to fit in and be part of a group. Uncommon names make people feel different and encourage them to think of themselves more as individuals.
(For those of you who doubt the power of naming, check this out: If your name begins with a K you will strike out more often in baseball. If your name begins with a letter toward the end of the alphabet you could be economically penalized.)
2. Generation Z will be more self-directed.
One of the failings of the helicopter parent generation is that kids had parents telling them what to do all the time. And Gen Y is known for being good kids: rule-followers, close to their parents, very good students.
Which means they are terrible at figuring out what they want to do at any given time. No one taught them. Gen X, on the other hand, was left to their own devices at an early age and is very self-directed. (So self-directed that they are basically unmanageable, but that’s another story.) For Gen Y, the quarterlife crisis is not figuring out what you like or dislike by the time you’re 30.
This will probably not happen to the next generation, because parenting is less focused (via Dr. Eades), which means self-discovery is more prominent in childhood. In an article in the New York Times magazine, Lisa Belkin explores the trend that parents are no longer spending tons of time and money dragging their kids to classes and specialists and guides to the world of overachievers. Parents are hanging out at home instead. And so are the kids. And everyone is learning about self-discovery. Because what else do you do with a chunk of unstructured time?
3. Generation Z will process information at lightning speed.
So much of the workplace today is about processing information. And the information sector will grow at twice the rate as all other jobs . We see that the more native one is to Internet technology, the better one is at processing information. We can spend time lamenting the fact that people don’t write essay-long memos by hand, and people don’t sit at their desks uninterrupted for eight hours a day. But what is the point of the lament? It won’t change. Successful leaders of the next generation will move past the lament, to watching how people adapt to the change and leveraging that happens in the workplace.
Besides, the next generation will be so good at processing information that they will open doors we can only knock on today.
Sam Anderson writes in New York magazine that, “The brain is designed to change based on experience, a feature called neuroplasticity. London taxi drivers, for instance, have enlarged hippocampi, a neural reward for paying attention to the tangle of the city’s streets. As we become more skilled at the 21st-century task [of moving through bits of information quickly] the wiring of the brain will inevitably change to deal more efficiently with more information. Neuroscientist Gary Small speculates that the human brain might be changing faster today than it has since the prehistoric discovery of tools.”
It’s not surprising, then, that when Matthew Robson, a fifteen-year-old Morgan Stanley intern, analyzed his generation, the report he generated is basically a summary of how his generation collects and processes information. This ability will be the defining feature of his generation.
4. Generation Z will be smarter.
Generation Y is the most educated generation in US history. By far. It’s not just that they have access to more information and teaching. But also, they did way more homework than any of their predecessors (which, by the way, is thought to be maybe damaging, and another reason that Gen Y is no good at self-direction.)
But the next generation could be even smarter, thanks to neuro-enhancers. Today kids experiment with ADHD medications to use in off-label ways, mostly to be more focused on getting more homework done, so they can have time to party at school.
But today’s off-label users are mostly smart, rich, at-a-great-college kids who will have wild success in life anyway. And the downside to neuro-enhancers—squashed creativity—hits these kids too hard to keep up the habit.
Another approach would be to give less privileged kids access to neuro-enhancers. Scientists and sociologists surmise that this would actually be a socioeconomic leveling mechanism that we have not been able to achieve with education.
Margaret Talbot wrote in the New Yorker that a “pretty clear trend across the studies say neuro-enhancers will be less helpful for people who score above average” and cognitive enhancing pills could actually become levelers, if they are dispensed cheaply. And Talbot quotes The British Medical Association as declaring: “Universal access to enhancing interventions would bring up the base-line of cognitive ability, which is generally seen to be a good thing.”
How does this affect the workplace? A wider range of people can do cognitively challenging jobs. And, if you think Gen Y is obnoxious about being better at processing information than the older people, think how Gen Y will feel when the next generation tells them their IQ is much higher. And they’re right. Gen Y will be getting on the Adderall bandwagon to stay competitive the way Baby Boomers today get on Facebook.