In the last few years, populism and nationalism have risen, largely driven by the resentments of an older generation that feels betrayed by the way the world has turned out. But if you thought things were bad now, the future could be even worse, with another group of men and women poised to fall into the same trap.
Members of Generation Jones – those born between 1955 and 1964 – and the baby boomers (born between 1946 and 1954) grew up in relative confidence that their place in the world was assured. Many of them passed these ideas on to their own children – often referred to as “boomers 2”. However, the financial crisis, the internet age and shifting demographic trends blew away those illusions.
Like a badly titled horror flick, Generation Z versus the millennials could be coming soon to a street corner near you. Born after 1995, Gen Zs have never known a world without the internet. Millennials, or Gen Y (typically born between 1980 and 1994, although some definitions include those born up to the year 2000), on the other hand, were handed the raw deal of coming of age in the years immediately preceding the financial crisis, then seeing all of their assumptions scuppered by austerity and the digital revolution.
Influential millennials include Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, Kim Kardashian and Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Gen Z includes Malala Yousafzai – the youngest person to win the Nobel peace prize.
Where Generation X (born between 1965 and 1979) – including myself – have found relative happiness in our middle age, we did have a relatively easy run of it, and didn’t have to spend our youth worrying about the effects of disruptive technology.
Millennials don’t have that luxury, squeezed as they are by the angry old boomers 2, who tend to make the decisions, and the energised, ultra-capable youngsters rising fast behind them.
Fortunately, I don’t need to worry so much about my own children (Gen Alpha, from 2012). Born into a changing world, digitally native and equipped to handle whatever is thrown at them, the kids will be alright.
It’s those in their late twenties and in early thirties who need our help the most.
It is worth saying that these labels, much like the signs of the zodiac, can be vague, self-fulfilling and that many people who fall on the cusp of generations exhibit the traits of both.
There is also a tendency these days to keep adding new labels and to subdivide people into narrower and narrower taxonomies. It is also dangerous to make sweeping generalisations about large groups of people. Gen Zs are said to be seen as confident and motivated, while millennials are cast as ungrateful, entitled and unmanageable in the workplace. All of these descriptions could apply equally well to plenty of people on their fifties and sixties.
While we Generation Xers sometimes have a hard time understanding millennials, those same millennials could face a similarly fraught relationship with the Gen Zers behind them. Millennials have not had much time to evolve past the problems of living a life according to pre-crisis norms, such as taking on high levels of personal debt. Gen Zs, by contrast, are already saving for the future.
For the past decade, millennials have also been fed a daily diet of messaging that their futures will be filled with political upheaval, precarious employment and diminished prospects.
To their credit, they have responded by changing their own sense of what constitutes wealth – a sustainable and ecologically diverse planet over owning a home, the ability to be passionate and productive over earning a large salary. Ethics and social impact have become the bottom line for this age group.
Gen Zs, meanwhile, are already with the programme, showing signs of real activism on the political front and taking more responsibility for governance. They also champion equal rights for all over the idea of life being an individual race to the top. They will also have new tools to work with such as peer-to-peer payment systems and a wealth of innovations, thanks to artificial intelligence.
Both groups care a great deal about the dangers of climate change and the importance of bio-diversity. Sounds like a formula for a better world, doesn’t it? Let’s just hope that the millennials and the Gen Zs can work together to create it.
We must make sure that millennials are not left behind. If not, we will experience a period of similar regression to that which we are experiencing now. How can we do that? The more mature of us can stop sneering at them for a start, whether behind their backs in the office or in the relative anonymity of social media. Life isn’t easy for anyone, these days, so we should all make respect for those younger than ourselves a standard part of common decency.
Mustafa Alrawi is an assistant editor-in-chief at The National