How reliable are generational classifications?

    Understanding social dynamics is paramount to predicting people’s behavioural patterns. The need for a categorical definition, which is generally required when describing and managing economic and political processes, affects many areas, from the determination of production processes to the development of marketing strategies, from the choice of media content format to the planning of outreach activities.

    The hypothetical categories created by generalizing some standard features can be expressed as the factors that shape the decisions of employers, advertising agencies, political actors, policymakers, and educators. Although this standardization effort offers advantages in some aspects, such as identifying human resources and understanding their perceptions, expectations and motivations, it might also lead to oversimplifications that undermine the interactions of individuals from different age groups, disrupting societal synergies.

    Generational classifications are not something written in stone. They are based on the conditions of contemporary socio-economic structures and events that affect society. Such typification has repeated itself throughout history, echoing differences between generations. “What is happening to our young people? They disrespect their elders; they disobey their parents. They ignore the laws … Their morals are decaying.”

    Although these and similar sentences sound familiar today, they were expressed over 2,000 years ago by ancient philosophers such as Plato, Aristoteles, and Socrates. These generational differences generally exist because of different experiences, historical contexts, cultural differences, and technological elements.

    It must be reiterated that generations cannot be separated from each other with sharp boundaries. For example, the generation born between 1946-65 was referred to as “baby boomers” because of the increasing birth rates after World War II. These same baby boomers have laid the foundation for the digital age. Thanks to their work in different sciences, the emergence of computers, the internet and many other elements of the digital revolution were invented. Similarly, Generation X (Gen X) characterizes those born between 1965-80, and Generation Y, which follows it, played a leading role in accelerating technological transformation.

    Gen Z was born in and after 2000 when digital technologies began to spread worldwide. This history has also led to the definitions of digital natives and immigrants. So, Gen Z people are considered digital natives, whereas the previous generations are described as digital immigrants.

    Gen Z: Generation that has already been defined

    Definitions offer the possibility of classification using some specific parameters. But, despite early access and immersion in technology from a young age, which is the primary motivation for the Gen Z definition, other social, economic, and cultural differences must be addressed. Studying sociology and making classifications is one thing; these are useful for managing dynamics that make society, from industry to the service sector, from education to politics. However, perpetuating stereotypes is another thing. It just creates division within the community and will do more harm than good.

    The discourse that Gen Z is freedom-obsessed and only successful in using technology can harm young people within similar age grouping when they have different traits and interests. Such labelling creates the perception that individuals belonging to Gen Z prefer to use technology and do not work well in group settings. Such stereotyping can hinder their career paths and development. Moreover, it sends the wrong message to Gen Z people that opportunities brought by the digital era give them a sufficient edge, making them lazy to gain other knowledge or skills.

    On the other hand, the exaggeration of being a technology user strengthens the consumer role while hindering understanding, production, and the establishment of a beneficial relationship with technology. Moreover, the perception that Gen Z is the generation that is constantly involved with technological products hinders the implementation of measures against the harm linked to modern technology. The latter includes an ever-decreasing attention span, digital addiction, and the feeling of missing out on everything are phenomena linked to digital natives.

    Gen Z individuals are constantly also faced with attempts to define themselves continually. Such an exhausting self-awareness process will inevitably have negative consequences for individuals. Although some see the positive side of these definitions since they are generated from scientifically conducted surveys, many findings are questionable.

    Moreover, many academics and politicians try to assign a role to Gen Z and tap into this reservoir to make some theoretical assumptions or political gains. This approach is another common mistake. Gen Z individuals are not the same. There are cultural, regional, and country differences that make them very different from each other. Thus, making absurd generalizations, such as “Gen Z sees life in this way,” “Gen Z is against authority,” and “Gen Z is distant to religion,” are over-simplifications that should have no place in modern societies.

    Paradoxically, this blanket approach, which ignores the uniqueness of human beings, states that Gen Z is a generation that can observe all the diversity and differences thanks to the internet. Yet, it considers them as a homogeneous mass without specificity. Therefore, politicians who want to use Gen Z for their political agendas based on exaggerations will be utterly disappointed.

    This article originally appeared in the opinion section of the website Daily Sabah.

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