I often hear teachers, managers, and business owners referring to their challenges with Gen Z students and employees as "problems." While these issues may feel like problems, strictly speaking, they are not. Approaching these challenges as problems only leads to more frustration and failure.
To better understand the distinction, let's examine a diagram illustrating what a problem entails.
Problems occur within a timeframe and can be visualized as Figure 1. You start with a plan or expected outcome, but when you reach your intended destination, the result is not what you anticipated. It's only at this point that individuals or organizations recognize the event causing the deviation. To resolve the issues and get back on track, one must analyze the timeline chronologically and identify the problem event.
Teachers and managers desire the familiar outcomes they have grown accustomed to with previous generations of students and employees. They assume that there must be a problem to rectify in order to align the Gen Z workforce with the desired trajectory. However, the flaw in this approach is that the unexpected or unintended outcomes presented by this generation are not the result of a problem but something much more significant: change.
Let's create a diagram illustrating change, similar to how we depicted problems, to highlight the difference between the two.
When change occurs, there is no deviation from the plan as seen in a problem. Instead, change eliminates the existing timeline of events and establishes a new one. Change can happen at various scales, from micro to macro environments, and it can be temporary or long-lasting, as well as a minor or significant shift. Throughout history, world and generational changes have been triggered by events such as wars, cultural shifts, philosophical enlightenment, and natural disasters.
In our modern era, technological advancements, particularly in the digital realm, have become the primary catalysts for change. Gen Z, having grown up and received education in a globally interconnected digital age, is a product of this transformation.
The challenges do not primarily lie with the newest generation, who are rightly aligned with the new timeline. Instead, the struggle lies with the older generations who stubbornly cling to the outdated timeline, which is now nothing more than an illusion. What's intriguing about this shift in the timeline is that everyone is on the new one, even if they mentally and culturally cling to the old one. When Internet technology permanently altered the world, we all transitioned to a new reality. Whether we dislike, embrace, or fear it, that is where we find ourselves, for better or worse.
There are two common misconceptions that many individuals from the older generations grapple with. First, they believe that the old timeline was superior to the new one and that we should all return to it.
However, the new timeline no longer exists. There is no timeline where technology has not been created and unleashed on the world via the World Wide Web. That previous reality is now confined to the past.
The second misconception is that embracing the new reality requires abandoning everything from the past. It feels like surrendering. But that couldn't be further from the truth. When the change occurred, everyone from the older generations transitioned to the new reality alongside Gen Z and the subsequent generations. They were not compelled to forsake everything they knew, stop thinking, or be rendered obsolete. We all embarked on the new timeline together.
While many aspects have indeed changed, such as outcomes, methodologies, culture, information, paradigms, power distribution, and self-perceptions, not everything has changed. This is where the older generations can offer assistance to the new ones. Every advancement in human history presents a mix of opportunities, dangers, predators, and humanitarianism, among other things.
The older generations have previously experienced significant changes, as the boomers did in the 1960s. We have acquired knowledge and insights about life and change that can benefit the younger generations as they navigate the new timeline. The key is not to drag them back to a reality that no longer exists but to collaborate with them in making the most of the current reality we all share.
The knowledge, experience, and wisdom gained from the past are still valuable in a post-change world and can contribute to the well-being of future generations. Every lifetime, culture, and timeline requires fundamental life skills, fairness, generosity, and happiness. Every opportunity demands the ability to seize it and make the most of it. Every individual needs the skills and hope to find happiness and purpose in the world.
Most importantly, we possess the experience to guide them through change and disruption because the changes we have witnessed in our own lives are not the culmination of it all. Those emerging in today's world will encounter changes as significant and numerous as we have experienced. Let us teach them how to navigate these changes with grace and wisdom, while passing on all that we can to enhance their lives.
Give one person responsibility for listening to your customers and authority to act on what they hear.