The agile brains of Generation Z, rewired through technology, may boost productivity in business, but at the possible price of meaningful human interaction, writes psychologist Dr Helena Boschi
As the spotlight fades on Generation Y – also known as the “Millenials” (those born between 1980 and the mid-to-late 1990s) – there are new kids on the block: a whole new generation. Collectively and logically named Generation Z, these so-called digital natives are garnering attention among educators and organizations alike. Born between 1995 and 2010, Gen Z’ers will never know a life that is not connected to the internet. As well as being acknowledged as technologically savvy, this generation is being referred to by researchers as socially responsible, educated, connected and environmentally aware, drawing a marked comparison with their “overconfident” and “entitled” Y predecessors.
From an employer perspective, this must surely be good news. Not only is there an upcoming generation that is able to exploit the myriad of opportunities presented by the internet, but this future workforce may also be able to contextualize their activities within the global agenda.
Has multi-tasking become a reality?
It doesn’t stop there. As humans, whatever our generation, we are limited by an attentional system that can only focus on one thing at a time. So multitasking, a capability that is much debated as a requisite skill in business, is a physiological impossibility. The attention- switching, which is more commonly ascribed to females than males, is often confused with a multi-tasking ability and is argued by some scientists to be a consequence of greater bilateral communication between the two hemispheres than is possible for males, whose brains show more connectivity front-to-back.
Despite the tardy neurological evolution of the human race and the fact that we simply do not have the brainpower to cope with rapid and relentless technological advances, the brains of Generation Z’ers may represent something saviour-like to business. Their early and constant exposure to sophisticated imagery and inputs has resulted in a more highly-developed visual cortex, which means that Gen Z’ers are better able than previous generations to interpret complex visual information. Not only that – it seems that the ability to switch quickly between tasks, resulting in rapid and immediate problem-solving and a freed-up cognitive capacity that is ready for the next challenge, is no longer the domain of the female brain. This means that Generation Z has, in theory, the potential to take on a larger workload than previous incumbents and to flit smoothly and adeptly between activities, thus enjoying high productivity and achievement.
Revolutionary or evolutionary?
Because attention-shifting is not a new phenomenon, this may not represent a dramatic change, at least for approximately half the population. However, in brain evolution and epigenetic research terms, this is an exciting development. According to Randy Jirtle, director of epigenetics and imprinting Duke University: “Epigenetics is proving we have some responsibility for the integrity of our genome.” In other words, Generation Z’s brain adaptation to constant technological exposure may be laying down new neurological foundations for future generations. But what are the true implications of this neurological ability on businesses when the Baby Boomers shuffle off their employment coil and head into retirement?
It is not all good news
The adaption of the Gen Z brain to learn in short, sharp bursts and take on quick-fire problem-solving also seems to come with an inability to focus for any length of time or to apply considered analysis or evaluation to complex issues. According to Dr John Ratey, associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, the rewiring of the Gen Z brain through technology has resulted in “acquired attention deficit disorder”. The endless bombardment of digital data, he says, means a low boredom threshold. “Regardless of whether the stimulation is from the internet, TV or a cellphone, the brain is hijacked.” The Gen Z shortened attention span has significant implications for learning and development in schools, colleges and beyond. The eschewal of steady and patient extrapolation of meaning from information, together with a minimal investment in genuine, full-blooded relationships in favour of the virtual here and now comes with a set of limited and short-term horizons. As Gen Z’ers nimbly navigate the modern world of easily-accessed and freely available information, they demand immediate results or they quickly move on. Loyalty is a fragile and short-term commodity and is only as good as their last interaction.
The advent of the Generation Z brain to the business world will mean that the balance of power is irrevocably shifting away from the concrete organizational environment to a world of cloud devices, internet trade, virtual promotion and online entrepreneurship. From an education and talent-management perspective, there are serious and significant implications. Gone are the days of traditional lecture-based learning which represents, for the Z Generation, a dry, old-fashioned and “one-size-fits-all” approach to development. Instead, online gaming is one of the preferred tools of the trade as it offers clear goals, decision-making opportunities, challenges, instant rewards and continual feedback. Google and other employers with predominantly lower-than-average age workforces are already showing us the way. For them, executive education is the antithesis of time for reflection and contemplation of the world’s bigger issues, so productive for Baby Boomers. Soundbites, frenetic activity and concentrated short bursts are the education instruments of choice for enlightened organizations.
Getting the best out of Generation Z
And so it seems that, in order to make the most of this pending workforce, organizations may need to rethink their past models of success and replicate, within their corporate confines, some of the adventure and customization available in the virtual world. This may be an unrealistic expectation given that managers will not be as comfortable or familiar with the latest interactive technology as the Gen Z’ers reporting to them. Moreover, the Gen Z reliance (some may call it an overreliance) on technology may impede the fostering of long-term and business-dependent relationships, as Gen Z’ers prefer, instead, to participate in social networking sites where they can communicate across global communities with like-minded groups via a carefully crafted virtual persona. As so many images of them suggest, they prefer virtual communication even when they are standing next to one another. To older generations, including Gen Y, still reliant on a relationship based on a handshake and a shared meal, this may be problematic.
However, one important aspect of neurological function deserves a mention. The brain, with all its limitations, provides us with the ability to understand what other people are experiencing instinctively and immediately. Our complex mirror system – the subject of much research in recent years – enables the decoding of different facial expressions together with their emotional corollaries. As with everything, practice leads to proficiency, and the better we are at interpreting expressions, the more active and accurate our mirror system. The virtual world does not provide the right feeding ground for our mirror neurons to thrive. As a consequence, while the brain’s visual system is enhanced, the mirror system may be impoverished, leading, over time, to possible emotional blunting and an inability to “see” true reactions, and respond accordingly and appropriately.
It is true that speed is the hallmark of modern life and there is no doubt that the Gen Z brain appears to offer organizations an agility that is both needed and valued. Quick decision-making, for all its cognitive biases and fallacies, is considered a much-needed skill in business and what generally matters now is not that the decision is the right one, but that another decision can be made in quick succession. The problem comes with any role that requires the complex synthesis and analysis of data – or even the evaluation of the data’s reliability. This activity may not be suited to a brain that has adapted itself to seek out short-cuts by being fluid, flexible and quick-fix. And for a decision to move into action, it still needs to be sold to those who need to execute it. Like Generation Z, organizations are positioned somewhere between a world that is socially-orientated and a world of progressive technological advances. This brings with it a dichotomy of requirements that it may be impossible for any one generation of talent to meet. As new cohorts assume the corporate mantle from exiting workers, they will find themselves designed for a world that, on one level, is well matched to their brain adaptation.
On the other hand, they may also be expected to engage in cognitive processes and emotional relationships that are not straightforward or easily managed. Leaders from previous generations who understand and value the power of concentration and considered decision-making may be presented with a frustrating dilemma: namely the management of a workforce that is now neurologically incapable of meeting certain key requirements of the job.
There is no easy answer
The brain’s plasticity means it can adapt and shape itself to new challenges and demands. But the important question remains: does Generation Z sufficiently appreciate and respect the legacy left by its antecedents to overlay new skills and perspectives – such as a lengthened attention span and meaningful relationship-building – on to a brain that has seen them through life successfully to date?
The progression of generations through the years has always brought some degree of rejection of the past in order to create a different future. But in the end, it all boils down to one simple fact: emotion is a biological feature of human life and our continued existence depends on interaction with others. As Generation Z collides with extant workplace demands, this may force society to look more closely at early emotional and cognitive development in order to ensure that succeeding generations benefit from both an adaption to relentless technological advances and a more conscious investment in building an early emotional architecture. This could prove a powerful combination.
––– Helena Boschi is a psychologist who specializes in applied neuroscience at work