Four years ago, I made a New Year’s Resolution to meet a new Gen Z entrepreneur every weekday for an hour. Pre-Covid, I met over 200 to listen to business idea elevator pitches. Unlike most New Year’s resolutions, I was so bowled over by the insights, enthusiasm and ambition of the entrepreneurs I met, that I have kept to it and, post lockdowns ending, continued it.
These daily Gen Z ‘snacks’, my version of grazing on social media, gave me a real understanding of how differently Gen Z is living its life, how differently it sees the world from previous generations, and how it consumes technology and social media.
Society’s relationship with technology has far reaching consequences for all of us, but for Gen Z, it is even more profoundly life-changing.
I believe it represents a new ‘distraction’ crisis. Our attention has been hijacked by the tsunami of smart devices that provide us with free services in return for delivering, they say, what we want. While arguably delivering what the big tech platforms who control them want us to want.
Surveillance capitalism, as it has become known, takes on darker and darker shades as algorithms, ‘weapons of maths destruction’, give platforms the ability to change mood, nudge buying and voting habits and even create ‘truths’.
The device designed to enable us to communicate with each other on the move, has resulted in the near eradication of conversation as my generation knew it. Gen Z prefers to message not talk and given the choice of removing one feature from a smartphone, most would remove the ability to voice call.
I learned that we should be wary of criticising Gen Z for device devotion, since they have never known a time when Google and Facebook didn’t exist, money wasn’t in a digital wallet, and in some cases, it wasn’t even necessary to type to get access to whatever information they wanted - simply speak aloud at your digital concierge.
Nor should we call them the snowflake generation. Given the hand of cards my generation is leaving them, with a damaged planet, hangover from austerity, global war on terror and now Covid debt, no wonder many think businesses should have a purpose which goes beyond stakeholder capitalism to one of social enterprise.
From my meetings with Gen Z, I wrote a book with suggestions on how society should wrestle back control of our collective attention and the wellbeing of our adolescents in particular.
These include reducing the number of apps you are on and moving anything which isn’t working to the second page of your smartphone so you have to think to go there. Turn off notifications. Use an app to monitor your screentime and what you are doing. Do not take the phone into the bedroom. And if a parent, engage with your child on what they do online, not just their offline life.
Robert Wigley is Chairman of UK Finance and the author of Born Digital: The Story of a Distracted Generation available on Amazon, Kindle and Audible and in all good book shops.
Image credit: We Are via Getty Images