Originally published on “Matters” by Designit
I am a Gen Xer, pushing into my mid-forties. For most of my twenties and thirties, I didn’t think to look back — I just pushed forward. Now I look around and see that there are people younger than me pushing themselves forward as well. Every generation — and everyone to some degree — is self-centered, in a sensible way. We don’t spend much time thinking about generations much younger or older than ourselves because we are so invested in the swirl of our lives that it is difficult to relate.
But this year I started to notice the 30-something millennials. As someone who works with a lot of 30-somethings, I’ve developed a fairly good grasp of the generational mindset. For instance, they are more sensitive to critique and feedback than my generation, while also not being very confrontational. That can lead to a lot of frustration — they sometimes respond to suggestions by inaction. I’ve had to adjust by sometimes just letting go and giving them more ownership over their choices. I get the sense that they want to have more say in decisions, and in the long term that’s probably a faster way for them to learn from their successes and failures. But what about the next generation — how will I work with them?
Recently, I reviewed a resume and noticed that the candidate put his birth year on his CV. He was born in 1994. If you were to say he was 23, I would say, sure, of course. But when I read that year, all I could think about was being in my junior year in college, the Clinton era, and going to watch Reality Bites. It blew my mind that someone born that year could also be in the same workplace as me.
I have been doing research for 15 years, and despite the diversity of people in terms of culture, geography, gender, education, and health, I have never spent time with teens — that amorphous proto-adult still in the process of completion. Luckily, we recently completed a study to understand individuals in this generation, who only in 10 years may be occupying some of the desks next to me at work. I was curious, and a little anxious, to understand this group of kids. What if they are so alien that the learning curve to working with them is exponentially more complex (and difficult) than working with millennials?
In this study, we met with 12- to 18-year-olds. What did we discover? That these kids are incredibly self-aware, self-directed, and self-secure.
Kids and teens understand the relationship between short-term actions and long-term consequences. Like all teens, they want to do things that are forbidden, but this generation sees many of these restrictions as being acceptable. We heard this phrase a dozen times: “Yeah, there are things I want to do, but my parents don’t want me to do it. I understand why. If I were a parent and I had my own kids, I would do the same thing.” Historically, most kids don’t say things like that, but this generation has a broader understanding of “self” and how it can or should relate to others.
Many of these kids are being taught in schools through a teaching model focused on self-directed learning. Teachers are demonstrators of concepts; they guide kids to resources and tools so they can figure things out for themselves. This style of learning, and the attitude that anything can be learned or understood, has created a generation of intellectually curious kids who are eager to try anything. YouTube videos that demonstrate knowledge, craft, and techniques feed this hunger. One of the kids we met was attempting to build a magnetic coil gun because, he said, “It’s good physics. I’m bad at physics so if I can do this, I can get better at physics.” Notwithstanding the obvious point that if you are considering building a magnetic coil gun, you are probably not too shabby at physics, this kid demonstrates a can-do attitude that is pervasive with this generation.
Finally, the kids we met seemed less insecure than their millennial counterparts. This generation is perhaps the most diverse — there are more mixed-raced kids today than ever. They are exploring their gender and sexual identity at much earlier ages, and society has shifted over the course of a decade to be more inclusive to differences. I do not want to tread into the waters and claim that bigotry and prejudice is dead, but from the kids we met, they seemed quite confident and secure with themselves and with their place in society. Perhaps because this generation of kids is more quick to define themselves, they spend more time pursuing their interests and passions. Most the teens we met had an “obsession” with some area of knowledge, competence, or skill.
So, what’s going on here?
One thing that became apparent is that all these kids are the children of Gen Xers in their mid-forties and early fifties. It turns out that this is a significant influencer. Gen Xers are a generation otherwise known as latchkey kids. Their parents divorced at a higher rate than prior generations. Many Gen Xers today romanticize their childhood as being a time of freedom. They talk about the many risks and dangers they faced, and about the times coming home to make their own meals before an adult arrived in the evening. Some call that independence. I call it neglect.
What’s true is that the way teens today are raised has a direct correlation to the way their parents were raised. Gen X parents try harder to be involved parents — to teach their children what they’ve learned and to do a better job of monitoring and shaping the ways in which their children become good citizens and engaged with the world around them. Parents are committed to talking to their children about real-world consequences of their actions, even while creating space for their children to take risks. Those conversations help shape the values of the next generation. Teens today feel empowered to be independent, buoyed by their parents’ support.
What we picked up from this group of kids and teens is that their parents are teaching them about the real-world challenges ahead. As a result, many of these kids are considering pragmatic career options. Parents also informing their children about how reputations are built and destroyed, and how to protect and cultivate one’s public self. Parents make it clear that it was a tough world they grew up in, and that one should not take things lightly. They are preparing their kids for a life that isn’t all roses — the way boomers may have shaded the world for their millennial kids.
Our favorite comment came from a 16-year-old girl who, when asked, “What’s the key to success?” replied:
“The key to success is to believe in yourself, don’t let anyone put you down, don’t let anyone say you can’t do this, you can’t do that because you know that at the end of the day it’s what you want to do. Motivate yourself, have confidence, and be rockin’ awesome.”
This generation has resilience in spades. Our research suggests that it comes from the mix of latchkey parents determined to do better and independent-minded kids who are taught to be curious and confident. In 10 years, some of these kids may be sitting at the desks next to mine. I can’t wait to welcome them.