By D.G. Martin
Gen Z, I thought to myself, what in the world is that?
Because it was the theme of the annual Emerging Issues Forum in Raleigh last week, I knew I was behind the times.
Just so you will not be so far behind, here are some basics. Gen Z is shorthand for Generation Z, young people born during the nineties and the early part of the current century. Not everybody agrees on the exact dates, but the Emerging Issues Institute defines Gen Z as “today’s 9-to-21 year-olds.”
Why label them with the letter Z?
They follow Generation Y, the group born during the 15 years or so before the nineties, sometimes called Echo Boomers because they are the children of the Baby Boomers.
Before Generation Y came Generation X, those born in the late 1960s into the 1970s. “Newsweek” characterized them as “the generation that dropped out without ever turning on the news or tuning in to the social issues around them.” Hence, they are sometimes called the Lost Generation. They were preceded by the post-World War II generation known as Baby Boomers.
Why would the important Emerging Issues Forum focus on Gen Z, the demographic group that is mostly still living at home and not working, or voting, or making policy?
The forum sponsor and speakers quickly delivered a series of answers. In 2020 this new generation “will be the 18-to-30-year-olds comprising the emerging core of our state’s workforce.”
Baby Boomer retirees will be dependent on the productivity and earning power of Gen Z workers to pay Social Security premiums and other taxes that will fund the Boomers’ retiree benefits.
Politicians will not have to wait. This year, the early cohort of Gen Zers will go to polls and help settle the question of who runs our governments.
Gary Pearce, longtime political consultant to former Governor Jim Hunt, told me he would advise a candidate for governor to hire 20 Gen Zers to work full time sending out tweet messages to stir up interest and deliver timely messages about the candidate’s positions and proposals.
At the Emerging Issues Forum, Pearce learned that Gen Zers send an average 3,000 tweets each month. Receiving and sending message after message is their way of getting current information. Breaking into that system of information exchange is as important in reaching Gen Zers as television has been to reach the Baby Boomers.
Although Pearce is much too old to be a Gen Zer, he says he entered the tweeting community and now gets almost all his current political information by following the tweets of political activists.
Some people at the forum wanted to jerk the iPhones and other devices from the hands and ears of the Gen Zers, who seem addicted to them. They feel young people suffer too much from the loss of personal, face-to-face interaction. But others, like Pearce, are upbeat about the new fast-moving communication that the Gen Zers have mastered.
Machines like the ones the Gen Zers use to send their tweets will continue to revolutionize the work place. Factories and offices will continue to increase efficiency. The good news is that factory and office workers will be more and more productive. The bad news is that the more efficient working places will need fewer and fewer workers.
Still, good jobs directing designing, building and directing the new equipment will be available for Gen Zers who are educated, directed and trained.
The challenge for the rest of us is to be sure North Carolina’s systems of education and training are up to the task of preparing the Gen Zers for opportunities that will be available.
We have at least one good reason to make sure it happens: The retirement income for us older generations depends on the prosperity and success of the Gen Zers.
D.G. Martin hosts UNC-TV’s "North Carolina Bookwatch," which returns Sunday at 5 p.m. For more information or to view prior programs, visit the webpage at www.unctv.org/ncbookwatch.