The clash of the generations is ablaze and unabating, stoked by the ruthless exchange of stereotypes and speculation. Whether it be the Baby Boomers’ supposed traditionalism and ineptness with technology, or Generation Z’s lack of awareness of the world outside of their smartphones, each generation is supposedly defined by a set of characteristics. As Gen Z reaches adulthood and the next generation develops, I can’t help but wonder what its defining characteristics will be.
Generations were originally formed as broad frames of reference for historical events and those who endured them. This made for an interesting taxonomic system. Trends and observations emerged regarding the influence various circumstances had on people of different ages. Baby Boomers came after World War II, named after the massive “boom” of births after the global conflict. Generation Xers were born during the ensuing “baby bust,” when birth rates declined. Millennials are those who cannot remember the world before the internet, born on the cusp of the turning 20th century. Gen Z is often defined as those who cannot remember the attacks on Sept. 11, either because they were not yet alive or were too young to perceive the tragedy.
The current consensus labels the next generation “Alpha,” referring to those born somewhere around 2010. Still not over a decade old, members of this up-and-coming generation have not yet revealed any trends or prominent attributes. In fact, the youngest of them are still absorbing the realities around them without judgment, without the ability to compare to previous realities. Their minds are slabs of dough, kneaded with the spices and oils of this new world, just barely taking their long-term, oven-ready shape.
We cannot say who these children will grow up to be; nor will we be able to spell out the generation’s idiosyncrasies — at least not until its members grow up and become more active participants in the world. But the events that surround them in their earliest stages are right in front of us. If we can think about how the events of our early lives influenced us, we might be able to look at current events and determine what the future might hold for Generation Alpha.
Pens and paper to the newest generation might be old-fashioned dust collectors at the bottom of drawers, replaced by touch-screen computers. In-person meetings — unheard of. Appalling wastes of time and fuel. Hand-shaking? Gross. Might as well sneeze in everyone’s faces.
Obviously, these trajectories are paved by a fantastical vision of mine and of some other speculators. The future is always uncertain. However, the fate of today’s youth should be a primary consideration when making decisions in all regards; think of climate change, for one.
We should look at what the world is for a young person, someone whose first memories will be of this time. There’s a lot to unpack there; we are living through a pandemic, a revolution against white supremacy, and one of the most decisive election cycles of the century, among other things.
Let’s consider the pandemic further. Those born in recent years might never remember a time before people wore masks and applied hand sanitizer religiously. A lack of face-to-face interaction with peers now might lead to different social scenes as these kids grow up. They might be much more wary of and proactive regarding global catastrophic risks that once seemed far-fetched. Completely impressionable, these kids’ brains are at the mercy of the wildly changing world around them. Their norms might be what we now consider radical novelties.
Discussing what an entire group of people will become is dangerous territory. It can, and often does, come off as overly generalizing. Let’s be clear: Generational trends do exist. Preferences are different across cohorts. People of different ages grew up with different societal experiences. That said, at times the ordering system does go off the rails, morphing into more of an unofficial mindset focused on deepening age-based divisions and assumptions.
If you think about it, the constant intergenerational mockery is completely inane. In fact, generation designation as a form of branding doesn’t do much for people except divide us and, in certain ways, turn us against each other. For example, a boomer might call a millennial self-centered and lazy, and to that, a millennial might retort “OK, Boomer.” It’s more of a game now than a tool to analyze or predict aggregate behaviors. A game that can be fun to play, but is not the most constructive, to say the least.
Stereotypes and insults are one thing. Evaluations of the impact of childhood experiences are another. We can safely say that on average, Gen Zers spend more time on their cell phones than Boomers. For good reason — Gen Z aligned with immense technological advancement and the popularization of personal devices, while many of these did not even exist for much of Boomers’ lives. It’s fair to say Apple technology, for example, will play a greater role in Gen Zers’ future lives than it plays in the lives of Boomers today.