The most crucial distinction between generations right now

Much has been made about how millennials and Gen Z are different — or not — from their Baby Boomer elders, and what that means for business and society.

To some, the difference is glaring. Soft and dewy-eyed millennials, it’s been said, really do see the world in an entirely new way.

To others, not so much. Young people today (always loved that phrase) are just that, young now, with predictably fresh ideals that will, soon enough, age with them. In short — this narrative goes — younger generations of 2019 aren’t different from any other younger generation.

So which is it? Are the younger generations today really different, or is that just what people always say?

Of course there’s something to the latter point, but having cogitated about this quite a bit, I think we need to recognize that there really is something unusual about today’s younger generations.

If you buy that argument, there are huge implications here. But first let me explain why I think this is the case.

A brother, aged 4, and sister, aged 1, play with an iPad and iPhone. (Photo by Mark Makela/Corbis via Getty Images)

The first question to ask is: Have there been historical or societal developments over the past few decades that might cause younger generations to be different? I would argue yes. After the tumult of the 1960s (more on that later), not all that much changed in the world in the 1970s, 1980s and into the 1990s. But then, significant changes came right as millennials were coming of age.

One of the first and biggest of those shifts was the Digital Revolution. And that —technology — is the most important reason why today's young people are unlike the old. Obvious yes, but there’s much more to this than you might think. Each succeeding generation is now increasingly digital, and that change is accelerating. A 6-year-old child today has as much digital knowledge and expertise as a 60-year old. Because of that, they say, Gen Zers have an eight-second attention span. Who knows if that’s really true, but it’s apocryphal enough.

Millennials and Gen Zers are used to conducting life through their cellphones, says Denise Dahlhoff, senior researcher for consumer research at The Conference Board. “The concept of having access to lots of info 24/7 shapes their behavior and their expectations. Also the idea of having a voice through social media that can be amplified throughout the world.”

Let’s face it: The import and effect of all that is unknown, incipient, and can’t be overstated.

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A personal anecdote exemplifying differences: When I began in the news business in 1985, the exchange of information from my bosses to me was about 98% from them and 2% from me back to them. The editors told me everything about writing, reporting, interviewing, etc., on the one hand. On the other hand, a few editors would ask me which bars were cool now. That’s about it.

‘Coming of age in a recession’

Today, I would say that ratio has swung to somewhere around 50%-50%. Yes, people like me are now the ones imparting best practices to young reporters. But I am constantly peppering them with questions about digital tools, analytics — never mind help with devices.

All of this is shifting the balance of power at work — and in our economy writ large. Think about Silicon Valley and the new corporate juggernauts that hold such sway over our economy. The youth-power of Google (GOOGGOOGL) and Facebook (FB), for example, is stunning and unprecedented. Unencumbered by legacy pre-digital thinking, those companies have almost overnight achieved positions of global dominance, which by the way — no small point here — would probably be best served by some older-think.

Technology has also created other generational divisions. Examples: I think it’s undoubtedly the case that tech has exacerbated wealth gaps around the world and made cities more desirable for young people. This notion of young, tech-savvy, politically left-leaning diverse and inclusive urban dwellers, distinct from older, non-techie, more conservative rural-living folks is a stone-cold reality not just for political operatives, but also chief marketing officers of consumer products companies, for instance. Consider for instance how the retailing business has to a degree bifurcated to app-based shopping and experiences for the young, while Boomers still populate department stores.

A worker carries a box out of the U.S. investment bank Lehman Brothers offices in the Canary Wharf district of London September 15, 2008. REUTERS/Andrew Winning (BRITAIN) - GM1E49F1UDB01

Another factor dividing the generations is the one-two punch of 9/11 in 2001 and the Great Recession of 2007-2009. I won’t dwell on the former except to say that it obviously was hugely and catastrophically informative. As for the economic maelstrom last decade, the Great Recession was to many young people a defining element of their upbringing and family experience. Not only did it make them wary of mortgages, banks, and other traditional financial institutions (hence paving the way for the acceptance of fintech), but it also made them question the notion of America as a place where growth, opportunity, and mobility are givens. While some skepticism on that score is healthy, to have that as your default thinking changes your makeup and shapes you into someone very different from your elders.

“We’ve seen millennials be very reluctant to invest in equities,” says Tracie McMillion, head of global asset allocation strategy at the Wells Fargo Investment Institute and co-author of this study on generational differences in wealth management. “We think that probably has a lot to do with them coming of age here in the great recession, that has made them more cautious.”

‘The relationship with power is changing’

Think too of how frugality and familiarity with technology accelerated the acceptance of the sharing economy driven by Lyft (LYFT), Airbnb, and Uber (UBER).

Bottom line: The implications from this, positive and negative, on home ownership, savings, job tenure, and travel are still unfolding.

The generational approach to work is different too, says Liane Davey, a management consultant and author of ”You First: Inspire Your Team to Grow Up, Get Along, and Get Stuff Done.” “The relationship with power is changing,” she says. “[Young people are] more willing to tell the boss they can go find another job elsewhere. Baby Boomers are learning that from younger folks.”

Another significant difference: I think you could argue that climate change is another huge point of demarcation, as young people recognize, care about, and are active about climate much more so than older generations. (See the massive recent global demonstrations by students.) It just makes sense that you would be much more concerned about the future of the planet if you are 15 than if you are 75.

How might that matter? In a recent survey, the investment management firm Nuveen found 93% of millennials have a strong interest in responsible investing. And related, millennials are twice as likely to ask a financial adviser about corporations acting poorly, says Megan Fielding, senior director of responsible investing at the firm.

Net net I think it is irrefutably the case that we are living in a time of profound generational change. As I think about this, I realize that in the arc of my life (such as it is), I’ve been a party to two of these widenings of the generations. As a child in the 1960s, I was at the tail-end of that famous Generation Gap — the subject of so many magazine covers and TV specials — and now here I am, perhaps at the very beginning, of the Digital Gap. The difference between the two it seems is that first gap was at its core, very much about culture and politics, while the current divide is to a great degree at its core about technology.

Gen X may be caught somewhere in the middle of that divide: Born between 1965 and 1980, they didn’t grow up with email and cellphones like many millennials did. But a Pew Survey last year suggested they’ve adopted technology at a faster rate than Boomers.

It’s important to remember, though, that all of these people will always be people. Younger folks, for instance, are always more ideal than older people. Differences in the generations will likely dissipate over time. Our country that is so divided right now, to a degree split by this generational schism, will come back together. It did before and it will again.

Andy Serwer is editor-in-chief of Yahoo Finance. Follow him on Twitter: @serwer.

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