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About GEN Z: How crash test dummies cope with the digital era


How do future generations cope with all the inventions that are made nowadays? According to Thimon de Jong, specialist in future human behaviour and societal change, there will be a paradigm shift in the way we use technology today, and it will happen fast. De Jong states that there is a need for a new social media platform.


︎︎︎JONNE DEINUM / SOCIETY


For Thimon de Jong (43) the corona crisis has had a lot of impacts. Besides researching the future, de Jong advises big companies such as KLM, Vodafone, Ikea, Rabobank, and the NPO to make their leadership and business strategies future-proof. These workshops, due to COVID-19, are all held online. Because of the pandemic we also stuck to this online setting and held this interview over Zoom. I see de Jong with an extensive switchboard including all the tools you need for a professional video meeting. De Jong explains how he can switch screens during a video session and he has multiple cameras that he can also switch. Moving with the times, that is typical for de Jong, but how does GEN Z deal with an increasingly digital world?  



The contradiction of generational thinking

‘I want one thing to be clear before we talk about Generation Z, there is a lot of criticism from science about generational thinking. This is because there is scientifically seen no evidence for the existence of generations. For instance, a generation usually takes up to  a lifespan of 15 years, which means that everyone in for example Generation X (born between 1965-1980) would have the same type of characteristics, which is clearly not the case’, says de Jong.

He explains that as a person, you have formative years. This is the period between your 12th and 24th  year in which you are formed. If impactful experiences take place during this age, you take this with you. De Jong mentioned; ‘I have not experienced an economic crisis or many terrorist attacks between the age of 12 and 24, partly because of this I have an extremely optimistic worldview.’

Another point of criticism that de Jong wants to highlight is that there is a lot of discussion about when a generation starts since there is always an intermediate phase. This phase takes around two years, but some claim that this phase takes up to five years.  

Finally, you have to take age stages into account. De Jong describes; ‘I am 43, I have a mortgage to pay, I am a dad, and I am close to my midlife. These characteristics that belong to my age make me likely to be much more conservative compared to a teenager. Research showed that nut-eaters have more in common with each other than with people belonging to the same generation. I see generations more as a piece of storytelling, that I use to define the zeitgeist.’


Thimon de Jong. Image by MN2S

GEN Z
In the media, you read a lot about GEN Z, and how this generation will change the world. But will they? Some facts about this generation; GEN Z is the generation born between 1998 and 2015. Also known as digital natives. They grew up in a digital world full of economic crises. There are around 2 billion GEN Zers worldwide (McCrindle, 2020). In contrast to the Millennials, the Z’ers not only recognises the world problems, but they also act on them. They are more activist and enterprising compared to the Millennial (Vollebregt, 2019). De Jong gives an example; ‘Look at the many young people involved in Black Lives Matter protests and in climate strikes.’


The sociologic new wave
When you follow GEN Zers on TikTok or Instagram you will probably see posts about Black Lives Matters, climate change, or other activistic messages. Young people correct each other when they make a mistake in terminology or say something that is downright unacceptable in their eyes, this is something that I find heartening and fascinating to see in my generation.

What de Jong finds inspiring is the following: ‘I admire their entrepreneurship. I recently spoke to Microsoft and they told me that they have lowered the minimum age of LinkedIn after they implemented new-generation research. They discovered that a lot of teenagers wanted to create a LinkedIn profile. I can not imagine that I would have done that when I was 16 years old with a paper route.’

‘I hope that GEN Z, with their do-or-die mentality, will stand up against the ingrained views at companies by the older generations. I hope that they will stand up against, for example, a company like Apple, which only paid 2% taxes last year. I hope that young people realise: “What a shit-company! We are going to drastically change things.”

What de Jong thinks is even more admirable is that GEN Z is fond of their privacy. ‘I thought privacy was a lost cause, that each generation would become more careless about what they share online. That was a misjudgment. On the contrary, GEN Z is aware of its digital vulnerability. That possibly explains the success of Snapchat. The photo you send out disappears after a few seconds, which can also be questioned of course.’


Dealing with shit, also known as social media

As a phone-addict GEN Zer myself, I can say that sometimes it is hard to cope with all the digital inventions. A new social medium is launched in a split-second and a minute later I am addicted. Recently a documentary was launched about the social media landscape we live in called The Social Dilemma. The biggest lesson that I took out of the documentary is that we should question everything we read online, especially if it is presented to us in a way that reflects a detailed understanding of our preferences (Rhodes, L. & Orlowski, J.,2020). Is that possible when you, as a GEN Zer, grow up surrounded by social media?

Digital media overload. Image by Miko Maciaszek

The digital platform issue


De Jong believes that the responsibility for the dangers of social media is still often wrongfully placed at the individual. He explains; ‘If you start watching a film, you get all kinds of warnings beforehand. “In this film, there is aggressive language and this is 16+”. On TV, certain programs are not broadcast during the day. These warnings are because we have seen what works well and what does not, through the damage and disgrace the programs caused. This is often the case when it comes to technology, we always go a bit too far with the technology and then step back from it. For example, when the car was developed, there were a lot of accidents and that led to the invention of a seatbelt. It goes on and on like this. I think the measurements should come from the older generations, from parents, colleges, universities, manufacturers, or the government. GEN Zers are not working on these kinds of safeties for themselves, they are working on global issues such as climate change and institutional racism.’

De Jong also has an idea of how that problem can be solved. A solution could be a new social media platform. To clarify this, he states; ‘Someone at Instagram just thought that the number of likes should be shown with a photo and that that would influence the algorithm. That is too shallow for GEN Z. There is a need for a social medium that connects people more and I expect that to be there faster than we might think’.

A blessing in disguise

All digital innovations have also emotionally impacted a GEN Zer. This was also evident when I asked de Jong about the biggest danger for the generation. To a large or small extent, every peer of my age will recognise the following. I do bet money on that.

De Jong says; ‘That is an easy one, mental health! GEN Zers have to think more thoroughly about the right choice of study because of the lending system, a huge recession is coming, global warming is causing climate anxiety and I have not even mentioned the problem of the ‘big bad’ smartphone. The smartphone was given to them too early. The stupid thing about that is that when it was finished it was thrown into society and nobody knew how it would impact our lives. Questions like “what is a useful social medium” and “how to control it” were not raised. GEN Zers are the crash test dummies for the new technology and because of this, the statistics show that the mental health of GEN Z is worse than that of the generations before. Everything is about likes and the best pictures, this affects their self-esteem enormously. Faster distraction, more stress, and more use of antidepressants. The positive thing is that GEN Z can talk about it. I hope that GEN Z will reverse mentor the older generations, that they advise on how to improve their mental health. Because my generation can not do that.’


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