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The most rewarding way I gain post-millennial insight comes from doing scenarios sessions with children and teens. While scenario methods like Futures Wheel, STEEP brainstorming and cross impact analysis are typically intended to help organizations find strategies and discover new opportunities, they also allow us to discern the thought processes of those who partake in the exercise. Of course, traditional surveys, focus groups and ethnographic research methods continue to have merit, but I find the scenario approach particularly effective in learning how young people think about the future. Providing structure without putting creative limitations on the participants, children or teens explore trends, contemporary events and emerging issues, and are then nudged to combine their observations into plausible, internally coherent scenarios. These exercises tend to convey unspoken attitudes, perceptions and worldviews inherent to a generation that has only seen the world of the 21st century. It gives us a preview of a brand new zeitgeist about to unfold, and which will shape our future in the years and decades to come. In other words, while useful for the participants themselves, scenarios can also provide pivotal insights for researchers.
I recently did a scenario workshop with a group of 12 year-old girls who first brainstormed various trends and then selected the two most uncertain trend variables. The chosen trends were those the tweens felt could produce very different futures. The variables were given high and low values and coordinated in a 2×2 matrix, which elicited 4 different scenario logics.
While I would never claim that these girls represent a whole generation, their insights opened the window into some of the worries, excitements, threats and opportunities young people are facing today. And many of their concerns do in fact reflect observations I find in other sources.
1) Environment and Tech Engaged Less Than Politics and Economics
We started with a STEEP-exercise, which is essentially brainstorming a variety of trends categorized as Social (or cultural), Technological, Environmental, Economic and Political. The girls enthusiastically came up with 7 economic trends and 7 political trends. But surprisingly only 3 environmental and 4 tech trends were mentioned. Social or cultural trends were somewhere in the middle. This focus was unexpected at first, but it makes sense when considering which future domains represent the greater uncertainties for these kids. It’s not that kids care less about the environment and tech – quite the opposite. Gen Z’ers care deeply about environmental issues, and take technology for granted, but these domains are already welltrodden paths. Noone in this generation would question the existence of environmental degradation. Noone questions the fact that technology has almost limitless possibilities to solve some of these problems. But that is it. This generation is well beyond “the environment is hurting” and “new tech is cool” narratives. To engage them you will have to get beyond context-less discussions around new technology and environmental degradation. Instead Generation Z will take these discussions one step further, and bring agency and action into the picture. And here is where politics and economics come in.
The strong engagement with political trends likely had a lot to do with the election year and that the workshop took place soon after the Brexit referendum. The tweens had likely heard a lot of political buzz, which created an artificially strong interest in this topic. Their interest in economic trends was noteworthy as they seem to sense deep macroeconomic challenges associated with The Fourth Industrial Revolution. So again, the heightened interest political and economic issues are effects of deep technological shifts.
2) Corporate Concentration of Power Undermines Future Entrepreneurs
In 2013 a report from Oxford university suggested that 47% of today’s jobs will be taken over by robots and artificial intelligence in the near future. MIT professors Brynjolfsson and McAfee have popularized these ideas in The Second Machine Age, and suggested that not only will technologically outsourced jobs increase income disparity, but the corporate structure itself will only have room for a few winners and many losers. This has to do with technologically enabled scalability. Network -or platform companies do not necessarily increase their operating costs when volumes increase or markets expand, which makes local competition increasingly difficult. The combination of machine intelligence and diminishing marginal costs abate the demand for, and the relative power of workers and entrepreneurs in ever more industries and professions.
The girls had an almost eerily accurate premonition of these trends. While envisioning a future where digitally caused unemployment is likely to increase, they also believed that we would have fewer small businesses because competition from the tech giants is increasing.
By contrast, MTV recently surveyed 1000 Generation Z members across the countries and found that if this generation were to name themselves, they would want to be called The Founders. And not because of some powderwigged dudes from the Enlightenment Era. This is a generation that has been spoonfed a digital diet of YouTube fame, Instagram memes and inspirational quotes plastered on top of hedonistic images of Richard Branson.
But Gen Z consists not only of Silicon Valley hopefuls constantly comparing who can poop the prettiest rainbow and attract the most VCs. Most of these kids have ingested enough recession coal to know that unicorns are fantasy figures – at least most of them. Gen Z watched their older siblings get trophies just for showing up until they entered a job market where neither trophies nor living wages were anywhere to be found. These kids seem to have an intuitive understanding that the mechanisms that once used to lead to a steady accumulation of Volvos, 401K value and white picket fences can no longer be taken for granted.
Surveys show that unlike Millennials who remain remarkably optimistic about the future despite current economic set-backs, Gen Z display much more realistic expectations. Viewing the startup bonanza with a grain of salt could mean that they will plan for their careers more sensibly.
3) Increasing Segregation and Nationalization
The tweens weighed in on Donald Trump’s presidential platform as well as the Brexit vote. The group suggested we might see a future with many types of walls rising, both figurative and physically. The parallel between Britain’s decision to withdraw from the EU and Trump’s nationalistic agenda did not go unnoticed. The group suggested that supranational institutions, such as the EU and maybe even UN might become weaker and that we might experience what they called “national bullying” – or bullying between nations. The concept is noteworthy because this is a generation growing up with social and emotional learning in their school curricula along with cultural globalization. The more unsavory rhetoric in the election campaign seems to have very distinct effects on this generation.
4) We Will Use Technology to Help the Environment
The group came up with ideas such as using drone-based watering systems to save on fresh water (yes, it’s a thing), increased use of rooftop solar panels, windmills and turbines to generate energy. They even deduced that if people are going off the grid, some of the tax base would disappear because self-sufficiency would dismantle utility based taxes. In noticing the disappearing tax caused by prosumerism, the group seems to have identified yet another technologically derived trend that turned out to have political and economic consequences.
Beyond Faster, Better, Cheaper
Embedded in a futurist world where everything seems to be undergoing accelerated change, X-Prize founder Peter Diamandis recently asked in an article in Medium: “What will remain the same?” He quotes a conversation he had with Amazon founder Jeff Bezos where the king of digital distribution answers that people’s desire for lower prices and faster delivery will always persist. Is it really fair to assume the next generation will continue to put “Faster, Better, Cheaper” above all other concerns? In my research and many conversations with young people there is a growing awareness that the products we produce and consume are part of greater system that take many other factors into account. Factors such as environmental impact, automation vs. human employment issues and inclusiveness are issues that matter to younger workers and consumers. In fact, when companies create their young consumer strategy nowadays one of their first checkpoints is to make sure the business fulfills triple bottom line standards (People, Planet, Profit). If kids see this, why don’t turbo-futurists like Diamandis and Bezos?
After a decade-long obsession with tech entrepreneurs and narrow-minded focus on technological prowess and new business models, we are starting to ask questions about how we use these technologies can be used to solve problems, and Generation Z is taking a lead in shifting the narratives. It seems that when you grow up between technological abundance on the one side and technological unemployment on the other, you have more important concerns than faster delivery time and pies in the sky.