Although the students arriving on campuses this year cross the starting line of both generations Y and Z, (having been born between 1990 and 2004), they are a generation of tech savvy, socially networked, communicative thinkers whose use of PDAs is as natural as their next breath. In fact, the majority of these thinkers sleep with them by their sides and sleepily text, post and tweet intermittently during the night. They grew up in a world where everyone gets a trophy, where competition is no longer the main focus of group activities and sharing the win, sharing the loss, working as a team is the norm. They are in constant communication with many of the adults in their lives and consistently want their “friends” to know about everything they do and want to hear what they are doing, too!
This generation embodies and embraces the idea of impermanence. They will work, live, do what they want and they have little to no sense of failure if they have to move back home with their parents, and some just never move out at all. They seek support and encouragement from everyone in their lives. Their social networking abilities are constantly at their fingertips, and the exchange of information and connection is happening at lightening speed.
Here is a generation who has spent their whole lives thus far in a world that has been at war. This generation has been living and trying to play in a context of global unrest, from Desert Storm to 9/11 to the second Iraq War and Afghanistan; they have been here for all of it. They have not known life when the United States was not at war. As parents, relatives and neighbors, how do we release our children into this world? It is our natural instinct to protect and nurture them, to want to ensure their safety; yet we are living in a society that sensationalizes its violent acts and where conflict and personal tragedies ring out from TV and the Internet.
How will these young people be successful in college when they have no idea if there will be a job waiting for them when they get out? How will they repay their student loans? Support themselves? What industry will be left for them to work in? For this generation, the future is not a bright light. It is a daily headline of stocks crashing and major companies closing or going bankrupt. The opportunity to own a home, make a major purchase or live a better life than their parents is almost impossible to fathom. They have seen their parents and relatives losing their jobs. What possibilities do they have?
We want the next generation to be successful; we want them to grow into productive adults who have a passion for life. And we, as parents, relatives and neighbors, also want to make all of the transitions in their lives seamless, smooth and even a little bit easy. But we know we have to let them stumble; let them find their own way. How do we release them to find their way when the world seems so unsafe and uncertain?
As they enter the workforce, organization leaders will need to keep up and will need to change their style and approach to what is coming and how best to harness the energy and ideas of this new generation. Information and knowledge will need to be available and interesting. We—parents, leaders, supporters and society as a whole—will need to stimulate this group of thinkers or we will lose them.
Leaders in organizations will be faced with needing new ways of managing and engaging. This generation has been taught to not only seek out, but also to expect to receive feedback daily. They have lived in a social fluidity that has allowed them, and at times encouraged them, to change their mind, their major, their circumstance and their job based on how they feel and what will “work” for them. While they may have had the opportunity to see someone hold the same job for most of their lives, they do not aspire to do the same, nor does it seem to be an option even if they wanted it to be. This will be a generation of multiple careers and interests, and a confidence that celebrates that wide breadth of choices and experiences. This generation is no doubt our fastest growing and changing element that will impact the success of not only our, but also future, organizations and our society. In order to gain as much as we can from them, we need to recognize this change and be prepared for it. The question to us all is—are we ready?