The key to thriving in the 21st century is, we are often told, a readiness to adapt.
We live in a time of ever-increasing flux: post-modernism meets the information age, at the speed of light.
As the old certainties of state, religion, big business and geopolitics look decidedly uncertain, the present, and for sure the future, requires intellectual deftness and social flexibility. Humans will need to be constantly primed: ready, often at the drop of a digital hat, to change everything; careers, locations, skill-sets. The whole kit and caboodle.
But here’s the rub. Never before has an upcoming generation – Generation Z – been so ill-prepared for such a way of life.
Parents who were born in the ’60s and ’70s, now well into having children of their own, seem to be unwittingly creating the most dependent, routine-focused cohort of humans that the Western world has ever seen.
From day one, as Gina Ford’s Pavlovian regime begins to bite, every minute of every day is planned: naps, feeds, ‘structured play’ (please) and the like. It’s all about the ‘routine’.
“Thank you. We’d love to come for lunch. But we’ll come at 3pm please, as Tabitha has her sleep between 1.30pm and 2.30pm.’
WTF? The bad manners are – except to the addled parents – obvious, but what about the damage to Tabitha? What about her ability to learn that so much of life, and more so now than ever before, is about adapting, changing, learning to respond to the environment around her?
We seem to have sleepwalked into a dark Copernican revolution where adults’ lives have to revolve around those of their kids, as opposed to the other way around. And it doesn’t end with the milk teeth. 8 year-old Mathias is being bred to be just as reliant on the structure that his doting parents build around him. From comforters to pulling up the teachers when they don’t quite adhere to his ‘rhythm’, he is given little chance to develop independent thought.
The minute he isn’t quite ‘settled’, out comes the iPad, pre-loaded with his favourite TV show and his headphones. And so he does indeed ‘settle’ – but in every respect of the word. He is cut off, isolated; compromised and lobotomised. Removed from the jumbled, exciting stimuli of the real world, and the precipice that is boredom – Matthias is also removed from two of the key jumping-off points for creative thought: one of the few ways in which his generation will be able to add genuine value.
Molly-coddling has been turned into a bizarre, mid-brow ‘intellectualism’ that, astonishingly, seems to be a matter of some pride for the people involved. Take a look at mumsnet.com if you don’t believe me, but gird yourself first, and don’t say I didn’t warn you. Every trivial, mundane, workaday reality of parenting is examined, labelled, diagnosed; excused and medicalised. Victoria didn’t let Margaret play skipping with her today? Don’t worry – there’s a ‘dys…’ for that!
The societal impacts of this dissonance between demand on the one hand, the need for humans to be super-flexible, and supply on the other, a generation that knows nothing but ‘routine’, are likely to be profound, and not terribly happy.
But what about the possible opportunities?
For the children who aren’t locked into self-centred structures and dependencies, their world as adults will indeed be their oyster. It will be such an exciting and empowering time to be alive; with so much richness and potential. Able to harness the indifferent winds of change, experienced in turning them to their advantage, these kids will have a natural feel for how to thrive in the 21st century.
In this respect, we may witness a quiet revolution where, in broad terms (there are always, always exceptions), the offspring of today’s parentally-overbearing professional classes will be seriously outshone by those from the upper and working classes, where – in both cases – children indisputably rank just (but only just) above dogs in the family pecking order,and so have long since learned to be independent.
For the others, when the apron strings are finally let go (and that will, of course, have to happen at some point), any products and brands that offer stability, consistency and sameness will be highly prized by these latter-day Augustus Gloops, Veruca Salts and Mike TV’s. And that in itself represents a huge opportunity, especially to marketers.
The radical, the new, the different will be unattractive to these people, because it will be everywhere; ubiquitous, and troubling. Marketing to Gen Z should instead highlight the familiar, the long-established – hat-tipping and heroing ‘simpler times’.
New products and innovations will go down a storm – provided they look and feel like old products and innovations, where the shiny is played down in favour of the ‘lived-in’. Cues should be taken from the ways in which new-world products were marketed to old-world immigrants to the US – ‘just like Mama used to make’. And further ‘inspiration’ will come from the way in which the very elderly are sold to now, fusing nostalgia and an appeal to practicality with an exceptionally dull colour palette. Think of it as the chance to sell one big security blanket: to a whole generation of wet ones.
Beige, here we come.
– this piece first kindly published by The Marketing Society