Will Gen Z call for reform or revolution?

As each generation comes of age they bring their own ethos to crafting the implicit and explicit agreements that balance the competing needs of individuals, the collective and institutions in civil society. However two long-standing disruptive forces — globalization and technology — are making these agreements or social compacts unsustainable. What role will a third force, demographics, play in the search for more sustainable social compacts? More specifically, how will the digital-first generation influence the next social compact?

While Millennials have been getting a lot of attention recently, a new cohort is now coming into focus — Gen Z (born after 1995). This generation could have an outsized influence on social compacts, since it is the first generation that will come of age in the era of automation. What might Gen Z expect from governments and employers? How do they view work and citizenship? How will they redefine social compacts?

Who is Gen Z?

Gen Z is still taking shape with the oldest graduating from college and entering the workforce en masse this year; however research is starting to reveal the contours of this generation’s beliefs, values and behaviors. They are conditioned by the economic turmoil of the Great Recession, the social turmoil of terrorism and war, as well as the technology acceleration fueled by pervasive connectivity and mobile technologies.

Owing to changing social mores and advances in medicine, people are not only having children at an older age but they are also living longer. Thus Gen Z has the distinction of being brought up by multiple generations. They share and amplify many characteristics of prior generations, with some of their own unique affectations:

· Entrepreneurial & Freelancing: Compared to millennials Gen Z is 55% more likely to start a business and hire others

· Authenticity & Honesty: 77% prefer advertisements with real people in real situations; 84% prefer face-to-face communication at work

· Globally conscious: 60% of Gen Z say they want jobs with global impact compared to 39% of millennials

· Connected: Currently the average age a child receives their first smartphone is 10, and 95% of teens in the US have access to a smartphone

· Control: 55% want control over the information they share with brands and 54% want to control how brands contact them

· Privacy: 87% of Gen Z say that keeping their online information private was more important than popularity measures

As members of Gen Z enter the workforce, how will these values shape social compacts?

Education, Work and Retirement

Thanks to advances in medicine, life expectancy continues to increase and the global demographic is expected to skew older. If members of Gen Z live past 80 or 90 years of age, the traditional paradigm of education, work and retirement will need a drastic make over.

Just as Millennials’ aspirations were broadly altered by the Great Recession, similarly Gen Z’s dreams will be substantially effected by accelerating job automation. Education will become a lifelong pursuit as constant reskilling will become the norm. And rising education costs, coupled with Gen Z’s debt averse mantra may see them opt for more economical solutions like Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs) and more focused training providing specific skills needed for specific jobs.

As more jobs get automated the proportion of contingent workers is likely to increase, making Gen Z a largely freelancing generation. Indeed estimates suggest that 40% of the US workforce will be freelancers by 2020. Moreover for Gen Z starting their own business and working for themselves or having multiple employers is perceived as a safer route than putting their faith in one employer. To maintain the social compact of employment for a primarily contingent labor force, social benefits will require an overhaul. Much like the on-demand, pay-per-use digital services they are used to as consumers, Gen Z may expect portable retirement and healthcare benefits, with companies paying into a common pool depending on the hours worked.

Some have posited that among members of Gen Z is the first immortal; if this is the case then the very concept of retirement may need to be reinvented and governments will be faced with the challenge of accommodating a vastly different human lifecycle.

Government and Citizenship

Research indicates that the defining cause for Gen Z is around equality and humanity. With technological advancements portending increasing job automation, thus potentially increasing unemployment and inequality, Gen Z may be less averse to a Universal Basic Income (UBI) compared to other generations. A UBI appeals to Gen Z’s proclivity for equality and inclusiveness, however their strong work ethic might stipulate UBI on a conditional basis to mitigate exploitation. They will expect transparency and authenticity as key tenets of a UBI and may champion the use of blockchain to ensure proof and impart trust.

Although members of this generation are digital-natives, their penchant for privacy may see them lobby for ownership of their digital data and put them in control of which corporations can use their personal data. Here again, Gen Z may advocate for blockchain as an enabling technology to preserve trust.

Always-on and connected, Gen Z has a front row seat to the collective action challenges of our time. Global existential threats like climate change will only exacerbate as Gen Z matures. According to a 2016 study presented at the UN Climate Change Conference, 40% of Gen Z see climate change as their top priority and 81% think the private sector should lead the shift to clean technology.

As for their participation in the democratic process, it is worth keeping in mind that the majority of this cohort is not yet of voting age and have yet to experience the rites of passage that accompany adulthood. However with access to information at their fingertips, exposure to global issues from an early age, and platforms to voice their opinions Gen Z has developed into independent critical thinkers. Sensitized to the advent of fake news, Gen Z will question everything and critically examine policy proposals and political platforms before arriving at the ballot box.

Business implications

What will these trends mean for businesses and governments? Here are a few imperatives:

· Life-long learning. As the first generation coming of age in the era of automation, Gen Z will need life-long learning. Moreover as technology evolves exponentially it will accelerate the need for constant reskilling. Businesses will need to adopt MOOCs, on-the-job training, personalized learning and more.

· Mobile benefits for a mobile generation. As workers in an increasingly contingent and fluid labor market, Gen Z will expect benefits to be built like the mobile platforms on which they grew up: user-friendly and portable.

· Transparency and security. For a generation that values authenticity, privacy and control, companies will need to operate in ways that are transparent and secure, e.g., in use of personal digital data and authentic communication — potentially through use of blockchain technology.

· Socially active and globally connected. Above all, companies will need to demonstrate that they are good global citizens. This is a generation that cares passionately about social justice and global impact. In this respect, Gen Z might play an even larger role in reshaping social compacts — by catalyzing employers to move on global collective action challenges.

Accelerating and unprecedented social, technological, political and economic change has created a generation like no other. Gen Z’s beliefs, attitudes, and expectations present businesses, educators and governments with a set of entirely new challenges — or opportunities, given proper knowledge and context.

Members of this cohort are eager to take control — not asking for permission or waiting to pass the traditional rites of passage into adulthood. Will Gen Z take us toward reform or revolution? The verdict is still out. However, it is clear that the pace of change will continue to accelerate and Gen Z will be at the wheel, playing a pivotal role in driving the transformative age for us all.

This article was co-written with my colleague Marcie Merriman, EY’s Cultural Insights and Consumer Strategy Leader. The views in this article are ours and do not necessarily reflect the views of the global EY organization or its member firms.

I lead technology insights and thought leadership at EYQ, EY’s global think-tank that convenes and curates diverse perspectives from across business and academia. The better question which drives our research, informs our analysis and inspires us is: What’s after what’s next?