In the previous episode, we introduced the idea of generations from the social science perspective. Generations were shaped by certain events and shifts in technology and society. We explored Strauss-Howe theory of repeating cycles through history and dived deeper into characteristics of the Silent Generation, Baby Boomers and the X Generation. We have met some famous people representing those generations that made an impact on the shape of the software industry from the business and science perspectives alike.
Today we will continue our journey through generations, starting with a closer look at Millennials, followed by Generation Z and Generation Alpha. We will also explore a bit of related anthropology, and talk about reverse mentoring as well as the challenges and opportunities of generational diversity.
Millennials were born between 1981 and 1996, which makes them 27 to 42 years old now. Strauss and Howe describe them as members of the Hero or Civic generation – entering childhood during a time of individual pragmatism, self-reliance and laissez-faire and entering adulthood during a crisis. Millennials saw live coverage of the 9/11 attacks that started the war on terror, rising environmental issues and the 2008 financial crisis. But most importantly, they were the first global generation and the first generation that grew up in the Internet age. In eastern Europe, Millennials saw the rise of the market economy, expansion of the EU and NATO and rapid growth of standards of living.
One name comes from being a kid on the verge of millennia, they are also known as the Y generation. Y, as it’s coming after X, but also “Y” that sounds like “why” – urge to question authority, traditional values and seeking meaning in work and life. Y don’t live to work but work to live and the work-life balance is an important factor. You might also be familiar with the term ’90s kids – people who had their childhood in the ’90s (not just born in the ’90s, being born in 1998 doesn’t make you a 90s kid, sorry). People born around the boundaries of X and Y generations are sometimes called Xennials – a micro-generation that had analog childhood and digital adulthood.
From the tech perspective, during Millennial’s childhood and teen years, the Internet was booming. It’s no longer a curiosity but a universal global medium. Web 2.0 and social media are born, and everyone can connect with people around the world and post cat pictures online. Nowadays Millennial entrepreneurs are shifting the business models and shaping the digital world.
- Ryan Dahl (born 1981) – creator of Node.js runtime environment
- Zhang Yiming (born 1983) – Chinese internet entrepreneur, creator of TikTok
- Daniel Ek (born 1983) – Swedish entrepreneur, co-founder and CEO of Spotify
- Mark Zuckerberg (born 1984) – creator of Facebook and CEO of Meta, the youngest person to be a self-made billionaire in tech, at the age of 23
- Melanie Perkins (born 1987) – Australian-born co-founder and CEO of Canava, a graphic design platform with over 100 million users now
- Patrick Collison (born 1988) – Irish-born co-founder and CEO of Stripe – the financial services platform
- Whitney Wolfe Herd (born 1989) – co-founder of Tinder and founder and CEO of the online dating app Bumble, the youngest female self-made billionaire
- Evan Spiegel (born 1990) – co-founder and CEO of Snapchat
Millennials embrace work-life balance and flexibility. Work is just one aspect of life, not a centerpiece of it. They tend to change jobs often and without remorse, if something doesn’t suit them. They are not afraid to tell their boss that something is stupid. They can no longer perform a task just because someone said so, they need to know the “Why” and align work with passion if possible. Targets for the sake of targets are not enough and overtime is meh. Career is one thing, but the personal brand becomes important – rich LinkedIn profiles, fancy position names, blogs, vlogs etc. With innate independence, many Millennials prefer freelancing to being on the payroll. They are more open than the older generation. Multitasking and technology are easy and natural. Relations with parents are often closer and less formal. Change is a constant.
Millennials entered the workforce around the financial crisis in 2008 and its repercussions. In eastern Europe, the free-market economy was somehow established, and it was no longer enough to just speak languages and have the will to work. Millennials are, on average, much more educated than their parents. In Poland for instance, there were around 400 000 students in 1990, but almost 2 000 000 in 2005, with no significant changes in population. On the other hand, there were many more options to study, train or take part in hobbies and the standards of living increased significantly. The classic stereotype is that Millennials are spoiled and entitled, while in Millennial’s eyes the previous generation was stiff, technologically illiterate and ruined the economy. Perhaps the conflict between Boomers and Millennials is the starkest across generations, at least meme-wise.
In the workplace, Millennials need autonomy, a sense of control over their lives and balance. Flexible hours, working from home, being casual. The second important thing is transparency – why something needs to be done. Do we need to postpone refactoring and technical debt reduction to finish the critical fancy feature and win new clients in the short window of opportunity? No problem, just need to know the reason, without the bullshit. Goals can be ambitious, but attainable, realistic, and meaningful. Things cannot be too boring and repetitive, Millennials need some thrill of change from time to time – discovering, trying, and learning new things. A career is not just a means to get money, it’s a journey.
The Z Generation
Members of generation Z were born between 1997 and 2012, which makes them 11 to 26 years old now. In Strauss and Howe theory – we came from a full generational circle and Z is supposed to be similar to the Silent – Artists or Adaptive generation – born during a crisis and raised by overprotective parents when social and political complexity is cut in favor of public consensus. They come of age socialized and conformist. That’s the prediction at least, what’s known is that they are the first true networked digital natives – they never knew life without the Internet, WiFi, mobile phones and social media. They got their first smartphone as kids or teenagers. Members of the Z generation might be the ones most impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic, being the first in history to have full remote classes or their first jobs. As many professions moved to hybrid or remote work, many Zoomers start their careers in an entirely different world than the previous generations.
Name etymology is rather straightforward, Z being next in line after Y. They are also called Zoomers – modeled after Boomers; generation C – from connect, communicate, and change; post-Millennials, Millennials on steroids – taking some Millennials characteristics to a stretch or Snowflakes – individual, delicate and sensitive.
From the Tech perspective, social media and mobile devices are booming during Zoomer’s childhood and teens. Everyone can shoot a high-definition video, add filters, and share it. Big data and AI are ubiquitous, and privacy and online discussion polarization are rapidly rising concerns. Facebook and Twitter are already passe and even Snapchat is on the way down – young people use TikTok, and Instagram. It was never easier to publish online content and earn money from it if it hits, whether it’s a video, song, or an indie computer game. I haven’t yet found examples of tech entrepreneurs among the Z generation with the influence akin to Millennials or earlier generations, but there is a myriad of tech startup founders in their early twenties who might be on track to be the next Zuckerberg, Musk or Gates. Just give them a little more time.
What are the common themes around Zoomers? They take Millennial traits further – little attachment to traditional values, individualism, easy access to information, embracing globalization, flexibility, curiosity, and thrill-seeking. Multiculturalism, diversity, and inclusiveness are natural for Zoomers. They are sensitive to social injustice and many world problems, including animal treatment and climate change. They not only want to know why things are done, but also whether those are actually the right things to do. Business purpose is not to make money, it’s a necessary condition but not the ultimate one – the goal is to create value for individuals, communities and the planet. Despite this, Zoomers are perhaps the most entrepreneurial generation of all – turning their passions into a source of income with the help of new technologies and platforms. It was never easier to start a business than now, you no longer need a massive investment in order to launch an app or to reach thousands or millions of potential users organically in social media. Zoomers are thriving in professions that didn’t really exist 20 years ago – progamer, Youtuber, drone pilot, cloud developer. The term profession has become vague and flexible anyway.
In the workplace, Zoomers like to have fun and a good, relaxed atmosphere. Work should no longer be a boring and stiff necessity, but something cool. Work is like a game to be played so gamifying its aspects, for instance – the recruitment process might help. Zoomers value individualism – unification, dress codes, strict rules, rigid hierarchy, and all that is a deterrent. Forcing the same desktop background or login screen on the work computer is a bad idea. If Zoomer wants to write code with a flashy gaming keyboard – let them. Zoomers also value quick feedback loops – they are used to posting stuff on social media and getting rapid reactions and comments and using responsive technology, not waiting a year for the evaluation process. Zoomers are attracted to companies with clear and bold mission statements and values that genuinely want to make the world a better place, not just companies that make money. And this must be a part of the company’s DNA and culture, not an empty slogan.
The Alpha Generation
Alphas are the youngest generation at this moment, people born after 2012, 11 years old and younger. Strauss and Howe predict that they will be similar to Boomers – Prophets and Idealists. The most significant event during older Alpha’s life is probably the Covid-19 pandemic and the rapid shift to an online and remote world. The World is undergoing disruptive changes in front of our eyes – Russian uncivilized invasion of Ukraine, tensions around Taiwan, the clash of the USA and China (or more broadly democratic vs authoritarian way) over world domination, broken supply chains, Globalization beginning to reverse, rising inflation, stark political society polarization and extreme weather events. We might be standing on the verge of another big Crisis. While Zoomers don’t know the World without the Internet, Alphas don’t know the world without smartphones and other smart mobile devices and are rooted in technology even more from early childhood. They might know how to install a new app before they learn how to tie their shoelaces.
The name originated from a survey conducted by an Australian consulting agency. After the last of the Latin alphabet, comes the first letter of the Greek alphabet, a fresh start. The inspiration was also taken from the hurricane naming schema. It is expected that the World Alpha generation population will reach two billion by 2025. First Alphas will enter adulthood around 2030, with a projected world population of 9 billion and the highest ever proportion of people over 60, bearing the burden of an aging world. It is also expected that the Alpha generation will further delay standard life markers like marriage, having children and retirement. What else will happen, and how they steer the World, time will tell.
Shift and Reverse
An increasing rate of changes and complexity of the modern world as well as shifting demographic and life length extension has brought us more generations coexisting at the same time than ever. They might have the starkest differences than ever in history, on the other hand, we now have the broadest arsenal of tools to cover up those differences and find common grounds on both technological and human understanding spectrums. Historically, young people were learning from their elders. In medieval times, a blacksmith would inherit their father’s workshop and pass it on to his sons along with the intricacies of the craft. Cultural Anthropologist Margaret Meade described the cultural shift during the twentieth century, where we moved from postfigurative to prefigurative transmission. In postfigurative cultures, the cultural transmission is predominantly from elders to youth and is past-oriented (“ancestor worship”). In prefigurative cultures the transition shifts to predominantly youth – elders transmission and is future-oriented. This is a new concept for humanity, and we might not be used to it yet. Our schools and many organizations still predominantly operate on outdated models. Some models are even two millennia old now and still refuse to adapt for that matter.
In the early nineties, a Reverse Mentoring term was popularized by former CEO of General Electric, Jack Welch. Welch recognized his lack of new technology skills and believed that young people joining the company are more knowledgeable in this area than his experienced employees and managers. He encouraged his top executives to seek mentors among new joiners. While traditional mentoring focuses on more experienced (and often older) individuals to pass the knowledge and guidance to less experienced individuals, reverse mentoring recognizes gaps in various areas on both ends and seeks to take advantage of mutual learning and respect in a less formalized, balanced way.
Challenges and Opportunities
The thing with diversity in age and experience in the company is a similar matter as with other diversities – cultural, ethnic, gender, and personal. It’s both a challenge and an opportunity. In simple repetitive work, cohesive teams might have a slight edge and are easier to create, but when we move to any kind of knowledge and creative work – the benefits of diverse teams outweigh the drawbacks decisively. People of different generations have different experiences, views, and focuses. Allegorically, the new young person in a settled environment might just not know that something is impossible, attempt to do it and succeed with a fresh out of the box approach. An older person has seen a lot of different things in many variations and might spot patterns, possible analogies, risks, and opportunities that a young person has a limited chance to predict. Generation differences may account for a lot of conflict in the workplace, and wander around self-fulfilling stereotypes, but in the end, are we realty that different? Younger people need some degree of stability, inspirational leadership, basic structure and respect too. Older people, on the other hand, also want flexibility, a good atmosphere, life-work balance, autonomy, sense of purpose, and a just cause too. You can encounter a winded-down, grumpy and stiff teenager as well as energetic and curious 70-year-old running marathons. To reiterate, individual differences trump generational differences, and differences are an asset, not a liability if taken care of appropriately.
Software companies usually have a bit different demographic than the market average. Several years ago, Uncle Bob mentioned that the median experience for a programmer in the world is just 5 years. There are much more young people in the industry compared to the market average, especially in eastern Europe and emerging countries. My first work experience in 2009 was that there were barely any people over thirty years old over the horizon, and if there are, they were managing, not coding. In my current company, almost 80% of people are Millennials, with a slow shift to generation Z which has started entering the labor market just recently. The remaining 10% is generation X. There is not a single person from the Baby Boomers generation across one thousand employees, not to mention the Silent generation. The median age is slowly shifting though as more and more people are born digital natives and start working in tech while existing employees and the whole of Western society are aging. Times are changing, but in the end, the timeless idea is to construct bridges not walls, and embrace similarities and dialogue instead of picking up on differences and wage conflicts. Only mutual respect, openness and individual approach to people will save us in the uncertain times to come.