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March 6, 2018

Pakistan’s awesome Generation Z


March 6, 2018

The wonderful Kamal Siddiqi has just written a fabulous piece about post-millennials titled ‘Behold, Generation Z’ that everyone should read. As a proud, but aging member of Generation X, it is tempting to sneer at all youngish people as ‘millennials’. His article offers a number of important insights, beginning with the most crucial: not everyone younger than Gen X is a millennial.

Millennials are those born in 1984 and after, whereas Generation Z is those that are born in 1995 or after. In previous generations, the gaps tended to be longer. Someone born in the early 1960s, through the 1970s and up to the early 1980s is seen as Generation X – making it a multigenerational generation. In contrast, millennials were born in the short window during which Boris Becker used to win Grand Slam titles (starting with his 1985 Wimbledon win and ending with the Australian Open in 1996). Generation Z are those young people that were born after 1995.

Siddiqi is a father, so he knows a little bit about dealing with Generation Z. Perhaps more importantly, Siddiqi runs the superb Centre for Excellence in Journalism (CEJ) where millennial and Gen Z reporters, editors, and producers are provided with refresher courses on the various tricks of the trade of journalism at a world class facility, under the watchful eye of the widely respected Siddiqi. In the last decade or so, I have been in a position to work with many millennials and some members of Generation Z. I haven’t been the biggest fan. But like Siddiqi, I have begun to accept two things about millennials – and especially Generation Z.

First, the generational shift that marks the distinctions between older folks, and younger ones are not the product of deliberate choices. Generation X did not choose to privilege hard work, earning your way up by doing time in the trenches. That is just how the world worked before. And the newer generation, millennials and especially Gen Z did not choose to have a sense of entitlement about voice and opportunity; they too are a product of the circumstance into which they were born. At the heart of these differences (as I perceive them) is not choice, but technology and economics.

Second, entitlement and high expectations are a good thing. Millennials and Gen Z are awesome. It isn’t their fault that my knees hurt, and I can’t keep up with them at mehndis or at the gym (if I ever manage to get to a gym). Every generation complains about the one that follows them. So if they haven’t started already, millennials will soon enough – ‘boo hoo, Generation Z cribs too much, wants too much, too fast’. We can ignore the noise. The generation of people coming of age in 2018 is humanity’s best product yet. Why? Because their entitlement and high expectations are borne of experience.

The world has gotten tighter, smaller, sharper, with better resolution, better internet speed, better awareness about carbohydrates, and better medical facilities available – every year that they have been alive. And the changes they have seen in less than two decades are substantially more in absolute quantity and in magnitude than what their elders saw in their first two decades on the planet. Members of Gen Z have a higher processing capacity, more complexity and more sophistication than middle-aged men like me can fathom. This is a beautiful thing, and it produces a number of policy implications that deserve urgent attention.

Generation Z did not witness the rise of Vaclav Havel in the former Czechoslovakia. Generation Z did not graduate slowly from a Pentium I to the iPhone. Generation Z did not experience socialism as a living global phenomena. Closer to home, Gen Z did not live through the Zia years, or even, in terms of political consciousness, through the Musharraf years. Gen Z’s eldest members were no older than thirteen when Gen Musharraf ‘retired’ in 2008. Generation Z are digital natives. They have no memory of Newsline’s Razia Bhatti, or Takbeer’s Mohammad Salahuddin. To Gen Z, Shahzeb Khanzada and Jibran Nasir are seasoned veterans, not the inspiring youngsters that my middle-aged eyes see.

Generation Z was more likely than not to have working mothers, more likely to have been raised by a single parent, more likely to have had parents that met each other independently of their families, more likely to have lived in a city than any generation of Pakistanis before them. Most importantly, Generation Z has no experience of peace – which is one way to define the absence of war. Pakistani Gen Z was born into conflict, has lived through conflict and is equipped to survive conflict but is, most crucially, shaped by this conflict. Crusty old people thinking about the world in crusty old ways are being relegated to irrelevance every single day because they can’t think at Gen Z or even millennial speed. And no, Botox and tight pants don’t make old people think like the ‘ridiculous’ young people running around like they own this joint. It just makes them look ridiculous.

Societies all over the world are struggling with how to deal with their versions of Generation Z. Millennials, unbeknownst to them, are now old enough to be part of the establishment. This might be the saving grace for organisations and governments all around the world. Without the small numbers of brilliant millennials that have penetrated power centres that privilege experience over competence, the world may well be even more of a worrying mess than it is today. We should continue to be worried, but our worries need to be anchored in a few realities that may be cause for optimism.

Generation Z is less likely to be as tribal and as susceptible to groupthink as previous generations. Despite this generation being the absolute pinnacle of individualism (and what may even be extreme selfishness at times), this may also be the generation for which collaboration comes most naturally. As specialisation and customisation have increased both in supply and demand, people have a greater tendency to collaborate and convene together. Personal ego and tribalism has failed this generation, and I am hopeful that patronage, at least as it has been practiced to date, is likely to be replaced by something different.

Generation Z is most likely to be more comfortable with multiple identities than any generation preceding it. In my generation, one had to have been lucky enough to be multilingual, or multicultural, to enjoy the full range of the benefits of multiple identities. As technology has changed, today’s youth has been able to exercise a range of identities with greater ease than ever before. Will this be a boon to elites that are comfortable with diversity and pluralism? And could it be the death of rigidity among identity-based marketeers, advertisers, politicians and establishments? Modi, Brexit and Trump all say no. But might these be pre-Gen Z phenomena?

Generation Z has had exposure to more, sooner than any previous generation. It is tougher and more equipped to manage and process violence on the one hand, and system-wide failure on the other. But this comes at a price for rigid structuralists. Generation Z has no romantic inclinations toward the concept of the state, or central authority, or coherent identities that are attuned to textbooks from the 1970s, 1980s or even the 1990s. It is not that ideology is dead. It is that when it comes to nonsense, Generation Z spits more regularly than it swallows.

Generation Z will vote in 2018. They are faced with a diverse array of peddlers of nonsense – both out in the open and behind the shadows. But Gen Z isn’t as gullible as their parents are or were. Generation Z has been given a Pakistan that is not as wealthy, stable or peaceful as it should be. Will it reward the narratives and people that have given them this Pakistan or will it punish them?

The writer is an analyst and commentator.

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