Every year around graduation time, chatter about "generations in the workplace" takes over my newsfeed. It makes sense. Business executives want to know what they are in for with "this generation." And, every year it is pitched as "something new" or "something impossible."
What's often not talked about is why this generation is the way it is. What has influenced them to have the beliefs they have, and shaped their responses to marketing initiatives?
Generations Shaped by Experiences
Generations are not just randomly assigned to bracketed years and given a random name. For marketing purposes, generations are actually broken up based on historic cultural events that influenced our society as a whole, and young people during their formative years. I specify 'for marketing' because you will notice that years for each of the generations are bracketed differently based on who did the research and the purpose that it will be used for.
Our identity is shaped by these shared experiences and each generation has specific ones that left an impact on them at a pivotal time in their physical and psychological development, influencing their values, attitudes, and preferences. Because of these similar experiences, they share a bond and common preferences for music, movies, foods, and other products, and have a tendency to respond to the same type of marketing.
Generational patterns can surface for things like money management, views on education, or even religious or spiritual beliefs, to name a few. How a societal event affects someone in their mid-teens is going to be different than how it affects a young child. By highlighting a few key historical events, we can start to broadly understand the defining moments that have shaped different generations:
First nuclear power plant; President JFK assassinated, Civil Rights Act of 1964
Gen X (1965-1979)
Rise of the personal computer; Watergate Scandal, Three Mile Island Meltdown
Girls’ Movement; TV talk shows; School violence; Rise of social media, Desert Storm
Gen Z (1996-2010)
Terrorism and war; Social networking; Smartphones; Great Recession, Election of Barrack Obama
Without a doubt, we're in one of those defining moments right now with Covid-19. None of these generations has personally experienced a pandemic, or knows how it will affect families, or the economy, or how it will influence Generation Z or Generation A — the generation after Z that is still too young for us to have too much information about them.
During key developmental stages, both Gen Z and Gen A are being taught to "stay home and don’t leave;" and to "fear someone may be sick." Personal space is now extended to six feet plus.
Kids of emergency and essential workers are being shown that they are not important enough to protect — they can still go to daycare and live life "normally" while their friends have disappeared and their parents apparently must sacrifice themselves for others.
Possible effects could be strengthening the family bond (or amplifying abuse); re-teaching people how to be bored; realizing the value of face-to-face interaction; identifying new ways to accomplish old goals that possibly are more effective and efficient, and a complete re-thinking of education as we know it and of what truly is important.
New Experiences Shaped by a Pandemic
I’m not going to dive into the individual effects of the possible social values, attitudes, and preferences. It is too early to tell what those will be. But I would like to highlight some areas that I see directly affecting these generations and our society post-pandemic Covid-19, and how it could relate to your business and building your brand especially as more of Gen Z and A come of age.
The end of online vs. bricks and mortar.
There has been a big movement of stores online for the last ten years. The pandemic has shown us that if you do not offer online shopping you could be put out of business overnight through no fault of your own.
Redefined in store experiences.
Currently, store aisles are wide enough to comfortably get two carts or two people walking through. If personal space is now extended to six feet, younger generations who will have no other frame of reference will find this claustrophobic, and stores will either need to be significantly bigger or they will carry a lot less. Checkout registers will also have to be rethought because we currently stand very close to each other and now there are lines on the floor to tell you where to stand — six feet apart. We may also be raising a generation that doesn't know how to grocery shop!
Democratization of media creation.
With every smartphone having a high-quality camera, and some two, it’s hard to justify paying for someone to do what you can do by yourself, today. Quality and raw-ness have been shown to have a direct impact on marketing results. Where marketing video was once competing with what was being presented on TV, the pandemic has made it acceptable to do what was normally done in a studio, possible in a boring everyday home without all of the fancy equipment and associated costs. The shifts will affect social media, traditional media, advertising, and marketing for all businesses.
The end of 9 to 5.
The pandemic has made it a requirement for businesses to accept different ways of working that could possibly get rid of the 9-5 mindset. Some industries and companies have been more accepting of this than others. For years now, companies have been telling employees that working remotely isn’t as effective as being in the office, now they are having to say it is just as effective. The younger generations are growing up seeing it’s ok and expected that you work from home and that the office is something talked about, but not necessarily a reality. Why go to another location when you can do everything you need to do right here?
New educational models.
While I am not interested in going down the rabbit hole of what is perceived as right or wrong with our education system, the pandemic is showing us that the traditional model is not the only way. The younger generations are learning in a different way and from different people than what is considered traditional. Will they still value formalized education? Will they perceive it as better than what they were offered? Will these generations end up being the smartest generations because of the difference in how they are having to learn? Will they want to bring that into the places they work and teach that to their kids? Will the agricultural-based school calendar survive this? Will the "factory" model (classes at specific times, sit down, shut up, and listen) survive? Or will we see how we would have more options with a year-round less structured model? It will be interesting to find out.
The end of the travel boom.
If every message that these young generations are receiving is "Stay home. Stay safe," will the curiosity about other places and other people ever develop? Airlines smash people together like sardines — clearly violating what is now the six-foot rule of personal space. And you can meet any person, anywhere in the world through Zoom or FaceTime. Will the auto industry continue to be as much of a pivotal part of our economy? Will owning a car be as important as it was pre-COVID-19? Or will it be less important?
This by no means is meant to be a political post or a judgment of how the pandemic is being handled. It’s simply to get marketers thinking about how this massive societal upheaval is guaranteed to forever change the lives, beliefs, attitudes, and preferences of both Generation Z and Generation A.
What earlier generations know as normal, think of as traditional, and trust to be stable will be challenged by these generations who know nothing of that world. The office, how operations, policies, and procedures are built and managed, and how marketing is done to future clients, and how brands are built, will have a new foundation with new rules. I guarantee it.