There’s an internal debate going on in my head as my 11-year-old daughter starts charter school this year, and yes she won the lottery––literally–– in order to do so. The debate is this: If I had to choose, would I rather her be street smart or book smart? One teaches creative problem solving, the other is centered around mastery of facts and testing well. This brings us to the heart over head choices we make in life, and this particular one that may affect how my daughter performs on the SATs and the colleges she can get into. My heart said to go with creative problem solving, as that leads to independent thought which paves the way for real-life problem solving. That’s what this new school promises to teach, as opposed to the standardized approach most public schools follow. Even so, not all of life’s lessons can be learned in a classroom.
One of the weirdest moments in my parenting experience is also one that is completely unique to this era. I saw my daughter on the iPad––her headphones glued onto her ears, as has become the norm––and it seemed like she was playing a game. That was fine by me. Then I realized she was actually watching a video of someone else playing a computer game, and that completely shook me. I really didn’t know how to digest it, and I still don’t. Is that how this latest generation participates in the world? Will they all be bystanders? Because, if given the choice between the bench and playing, I’d hope she’d be playing. The School of Hard Knocks is really where I need her to attend. That’s what will prepare her for the same school that we call Life, where you have to make your own syllabus and failure is not an option.
There was something else about the gamer YouTuber that struck me. The appeal of watching someone perform an activity that is meant to be interactive is perplexing. It’s not like professional sports––it wasn’t a competition with rules and stakes that would keep a viewer following along for an entire season. Boomers didn’t have TV shows of normal guys playing golf or mowing their lawn. This type of programming for the YouTube era (or TikTok generation or whatever we’re calling it) isn’t entertainment as I know it. Rather, it’s an example of the deep fragmentation in the media landscape that can make my job as a brand builder and marketer both easier and harder.
THE BIG PICTURE
Even in a vast, diverse country like the United States, there have always been reference points and events that we all shared in (or at least were familiar with). I remember when people older than me were freaking out about Y2K and how nothing was programmed for it and how it could be The End of Things As We Know It. The Seinfeld finale was a big, universal event. On that day of the week, and only that day of the week, I couldn’t wait to get to my all-girls private school in Dallas to discuss. The last show I, as part of Generation X, remember having to wait until airing to talk to my friends about was Lost. I remember the morning of 9/11 as if I were presently sitting in my green Honda Accord listening to some early day Radiohead on the way to work, my second “real” job after college. I got into the office and “BAM!” I saw the second plane crash into the second tower. Later on, you could go up to anyone at your next job and discuss where you were when this traumatic mass murder played out. You immediately shared a common point of reference in a deeper way than most, and naturally you could connect over these stories, no matter the age groups of the people you worked or hung out with (unless you hung out with infants, and that is not this article).
Earlier eras of advertising were simpler because people had more in common. All men faced the draft, women were painted in broad strokes as homemakers, and there were only a handful of TV channels everyone was tuning into. Generalizations weren’t as problematic to the public and could believably characterize larger swaths of the population. Then came Gen X. Unlike previous generations, advertisers had to dig deeper to get to us: What music do they listen to? What brand of cigarettes do they smoke? What are their grades? Rebellion was a real act as part of Gen X, and most of Gen X will tell you the show Friends had nothing to do with the 90s, and that first bootleg cassette you got from a band called Fugazi or Helmet did. With Gen X, proof of rebellion––of belonging––was a handwritten copy of a permanent dismissal from a public school.
Now everyone is absorbed in their own niche content, and their experiences happen singularly: Not at the same time or space nor shared with as many people. Before we had collective moments, and today all the shared experiences left are major sporting events, awards shows, and cataclysmic tragedies.
As I’m wrapping up this article, the United States is in the midst of a massive protest movement. People are taking to the streets to speak up against injustice, and are facing the threat of bodily harm, imprisonment, even death to be heard. Even so, many more will be able to watch the events play out on Twitter. They can cheer from the sidelines. Far be it from me to condemn those who sit out a protest when there is a highly transmissible disease going around, yet the trend is consistent: It’s never been easier to be a passive observer in a way that feels like participation.
HOW THE FRAGMENTATION AFFECTS MARKETERS
Even in childhood I was curious about why people buy. It’s what led up to where I am now, eleven years into owning an Austin-headquartered advertising agency. People come to our firm to appeal to a younger demographic. We are known for having that growth mindset, and we have been told that our “irreverence” is why they need our vantage point. The differences between people’s buying behavior is deeply rooted in childhood—human behavior and consumer behavior are separate interests in Facebook’s Ads Manager but I argue the best advertisers innately know how someone wants to feel when they buy or use something, and that something is rooted in our upbringings.
From my viewpoint in the marketing world, I see generational differences firsthand in how Gen Z consumes. I can tell by what they say, who they buy from, and what precedes their act of buying online. They are the ones who take pride in being skeptics (and to be fair, wouldn’t you be if a world of information was available to you since birth?) They also believe they got the short end of the economic stick. They are proud to say they show their causes by the companies they buy from. It makes sense: The more they know about the world, the more any action they take should reflect it. Recently, my daughter jumped on my bed and excitedly informed me of how well the environment was doing with so many humans stuck at home. How can you not cheer that on?
That same idealistic age group that gives me hope is also the one whose purchase behavior is most confounding. Gen Z did us all a favor by creating the retail “microbrand.” They allowed producers to give Amazon the middle finger. Now it’s starting to get exciting. Yet, if given the choice, would they buy $220 shoes from an ethically-sourced brand who only upcycled materials, or instead would they cut a $100 check to an environmental organization and look for less expensive shoes at, dare I say… a big box retailer like Walmart?
THE IRONY ABOUT GEN Z
Why is a generation born Live on Instagram so greatly impacted by the same media they communicate on as a whole. Why are they even more depressed than the digital natives before them when mental health is more widely accepted and talked about than ever before? Their depression is from a lack of intimacy, which is completely different from a relationship, be it a work one, a friend one, or a peer one. Millennials were coined “the loneliest generation” in study after study. Now it’s Gen Z. But how did we put these kids into a deepening pit of despair?
The key is in how they communicate and how they were rewarded in childhood. Millennials were praised for everything and Gen Z was awarded for being polite. This may seem minor, but I think it’s the critical component no one is talking about. Millennials may have thought they were special, but Gen Z was always told they were special and therefore are more empowered to act upon it. What’s holding them back? A lack of communication skills, based in this learned prioritization of politeness over all else. How can they keep it real when they weren’t rewarded for going against the grain, even if they know better?
So are they rebelling or are they just living? Are they emoting––not just saying––their true beliefs? I do know from social analytics that they are more prone to caring about what others think, and maybe that’s why they are ungenerously referred to as ‘The Snowflake Generation’. And when you care so much about what people think, it’s a whole different ball game in terms of authenticity. You can’t trust someone to give you an honest opinion about anything when they’re more interested in your opinion of them. Ultimately, though, we created this situation. WE as in Generation X and above. In our rebellion, and our very real acts of acting out against everything our parents stood for, we may have been selfish in our quest to be understood as individuals.
THE DISASTER THAT CAN BRING A GENERATION TOGETHER
The sense of loneliness Gen Z suffers brings me back to the matter of how their experiences leave them with less in common, thanks partly to the splintering of the media landscape. Nevertheless, there is one thing that can unite a generation. And unfortunately we’re in the midst of it.
Big disasters tend to knock us out of our bubble and realign us with the rest of humanity. It happened in this country on 9/11(if only for a short time). It’s happening again with the coronavirus pandemic, and it’s the first time Gen-Z is having one of these massive shared experiences. Again, imagine a generation too young to remember Y2K, Seinfeld, Lost or 9/11. This is a pivotal “first” for them, where they are digesting real-time information with the rest of the world. Are they digesting it differently, or the same as us, the ones that have had other collective moments with humankind? With the power to DO something with a sense of unity and solidarity, will they act upon it? Can they build a better world for themselves (and whatever generation comes after) or will they just talk about it? I have concerns about that.
When I saw my daughter watch and listen to some other schmo playing a video game, I wished she were the one doing the playing. I don’t want to raise a passive observer. I want her to jump in, get her hands dirty and grow up to be a doer. In my experience as a business owner, the best recruits have been self-taught. I want a team so smart they are clever. That requires life experience. So why would someone prefer to watch a game rather than play it? I suspect it’s rooted in fear. You can’t make mistakes if you don’t play. You can’t lose if you don’t try.
FEAR IS WINNING
There’s a difference between talking about something and participating. I don’t want this latest generation to be a bunch of talkers (or, as we 90s kids called them, posers). It makes sense that they would be, because they’ve always had access to their individual comfort zones: the digital safe spaces that they can retreat to whenever they want. Who would choose to leave their comfort zone? For better or worse, I learned to embrace the awkward and uncomfortable because life gave me no other options.
On the flip side, we are talking about a very capable generation. My niece had to stay at my sister’s home in Brooklyn for a month, and all our conversations were about just how capable she was in the big city with a phone, her choice of different map apps, and her daily itinerary. This is an independent generation. But independent thinkers? I’m not so sure about that. I remember all the times I’ve been completely lost in a new city and had to use my wits––not my phone––to find my way back home. Did it scare me in those moments? Yes. Was I completely present and was I forced to work with others and meet people unlike me in terms of race, class and gender? Yes. Did they help me in my journey home? Yes. Will my daughter have the chance to have those experiences? Only if she forgets to charge her phone.
Personally, I have to learn by doing. I’m perplexed when a new employee asks someone to ‘teach’ them how to use our project management software or, say, Google docs. These products didn’t exist until relatively recently and nobody was around to teach us when they came to the market. One older millennial who managed the younger recruits who’d ask for constant instructions eventually got fed up. Finally he had to state the obvious: “Why don’t you just get in there and figure it out?”
Unfortunately, that’s about as direct as that older millennial could be. I found long threads in our project management software of that same person arguing about a project with a person who sat right next to them. What might have been a five minute conversation sprawled out over consecutive comments on one thread. Were they just too afraid to discuss––even through a healthy argument––face to face? And we are not talking about a quiet office. I want everyone to be completely uncensored when we’re talking about blue sky ideas. Sometimes the path to a great idea is lined with foul language and perverse jokes. Those in the know push me to watch Veep apparently our Rock Candy Media culture is similar to the White House the show depicts.
Do we have an entire generation of fear-inflicted posers? Are they weak? Will they be less prone to take risks and more inclined to complaining online anonymously? Because I can tell you I see it all the time, particularly Glassdoor. This site allows anybody to anonymously review a workplace without having to confirm their employment. I’m sorry but if I take a chance on someone and they can’t be bothered to look up some software instructions, I shouldn’t have to be bothered with them again. Just go away losers. All of your problems will persist until you manage to disagree with someone, and dare I say it, aloud. Confrontation is not a bad word. In fact, it’s what changes minds (and hearts) when done right.
When someone avoids confrontation to an extreme extent, they’ll miss out on the kinds of conversations that open them to new viewpoints. Confronting people isn’t always about arguing—the goal should be to reach a mutual understand, even if you don’t fully agree on something. Let’s say you run across someone protesting for schools to reopen during the pandemic. You might brush them off as being irresponsible. But what if you talk to them and find out they need their kids to go to school so they can go back to work and their kids can get a free lunch, with the understanding that they know their government isn’t going to further assist them. In this way, confrontation can lead to empathy. You might then be motivated donate to a charity that would help this protestor. A generation of citizens who are allergic to confrontation will be trapped in their safe little ideological bubbles.
When I hire someone, it’s because I want them to change my mind. I’m hiring for smarts, for someone to share the “why” behind their disagreement with me. I encourage it every day with my words and my actions. But this is the first group of entry-level post-graduates where they take too long to change my mind, even if it’s clear that’s the key to getting promoted. I hire them to attempt to do what’s right by the client, who hired us because they don’t have the time to figure it out themselves. The clients are humble enough to know in order to grow their business they need to hand over some of the responsibility to us. Then they can get back to doing what they love to do. They don’t want to hire a “yes” team––then they’re still the ones making all the decisions. They can go somewhere else for that. That’s a lot of pressure, but the only way to do the job well is to tackle it head-on. New employees have to be willing to attempt challenges without being driven by fear.
Do these young employees think that our clients, leaders at emerging technology companies, went to school to learn how to use the business software it takes to run their company? They’re in that position of power because they have the right mix of innate talent and ability to adapt. We just do it. But how do I define “it” to a kid in his early twenties I just hired who asked me to “teach” him social media? One, we are not running a school here, and two, give a damn to learn it on your own time if you really want to do this. Mean what you say, and, for real, mean it. Meaning it means actually doing it.
This is what worries me about the latest generation: If they’re afraid to play their own video games, what are they going to do on our client’s dime, with my reputation, and when the stakes are high? They have to be in the game to make change happen. I need change agents for a time when survival of the fittest means evolving in real-time. With millennials, they don’t hold back as much. I rely on two of them to give me a differing opinion after I’ve made a decision. There’s no harm in getting their side, and with millennials the conversation starts when you ask them a question and they realize that you value the answer, unfiltered and raw. The question is not for them this time, it’s for the generation they are managing and I am paying for. Can this shared experience––their first––of a global pandemic give them a common reference point, to work more collectively, and allow them to take action when needed?
I believe in you, Gen Z. Are you going to step up to the challenges ahead of you? Are you going to walk the talk? We want, no, we need you to. We want to know that you say what you mean, and then you do as you say.