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Defining a Generation

Writer Gertrude Stein coined the phrase “Lost Generation” (which was subsequently popularized by Ernest Hemingway) after World War I to describe the cohort of people who came of age during and just after the war, with the war being the defining event of their lives.

Since then, each generation after the “lost one” has had their own moniker pinned on them, either a friend or foe depending on how you feel about it, as a way to collectively understand them. These labels reflect not only the generation themselves, but what was happening in the world when they were born and as they came of age.

For instance, the G.I. Generation (or the Greatest Generation as Tom Brokaw would name them) was defined by their involvement in World War II, and their kids, the Baby Boomers, for the uptick in births after WW II and their counterculture fights against Vietnam. Generation X, introduced work-life balance and watched the Berlin Wall crumble as the world changed for the better. Millennials witnessed the Twin Towers collapse as the world watched in horror – then they ushered in social media.

It is fair to surmise that a global pandemic walking hand in hand with economic crisis will be the defining moment of Generation Z. You may have heard of them, ages roughly 7-23 they are the ones who are currently graduating in front of their computers and being homeschooled. Before the pandemic we were just beginning to get to know them. They are entrepreneurial, engaged, and tech savvy. They are approximately 90 million strong (larger than Baby Boomers) and chock full of change makers, leaders, and visionaries.

But with a global pandemic halting movement, job opportunities and stock market elevations (we are not even going to talk about the murder hornets) just as they are gaining traction in the world, the effects on the generation look to be dramatic. “COVID-19 is going to be the 9/11 of the Gen Z generation,” said Jason Dorsey, president of the Center for Generational Kinetics (CGK), a research and strategy firm focused on Gen Z and Millennials. And it’s obviously not like the pandemic is affecting only Generation Z (anymore than 9/11 affected only Millennials or Operation Desert Storm only affected Gen X). However, according to Dorsey, the key to a generation defining moment is that it must do two things: take place at the right time during a generation’s coming of age experience, and create a powerful, unforgettable emotional impact, usually tied to fear and uncertainty caused by the event and its aftermath. Nail hit squarely on the Gen Z head.

While pundits continue to frame the narrative of generations long before their defining moment occurs, it is generally with some hindsight that we recognize what each generation is truly all about and what contributions they give to society. Generation Z will be no different, and maybe even better. This change-making generation may be defined by a pandemic but if their reaction to climate change, gun control, or human rights is any indication, they won’t let it beat them.

What do you see as the defining event of your generation? Leave a comment or share on our Facebook page.


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