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Gen C: the forgotten generation?

Education By Andrew Parkin, Partner, Acoustics – 28 May 2024

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Andy Parkin with acoustics feature background

Andrew Parkin

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We can learn a lot about people, and their attitudes towards life and work, from when they were born. As a consultancy whose sole asset is our staff, it is important to appreciate what this means for our industry and the people we deal with on a daily basis.

The concept of Generational Cohorts defines a group of people born within a certain timeframe and provides a (sweeping) generalisation of their attitudes towards life and other people. These can be summarised as follows:

  • The Silent Generation: those born between 1926 and 1945; lived through World War 2 and officially old school; less inclined to use technology but preferring direct communication.
  • Baby Boomers: those born between 1946 and 1964; part of a huge birth rate spike following WW2; committed, self-sufficient, competitive; likely to have amassed wealth and property.
  • Generation X: those born between 1965 and 1980; straddling the digital and analogue worlds as they experienced the massive surge in computing and technology; resourceful, logical and good problem-solvers.
  • Millennials / Generation Y: those born between 1980 and 1995; the first digital native generation, who have not known life without computing and the internet; allegedly lazy, self-sufficient, curious, ready to question authority.
  • Generation Z: those born after 1996; still young, ambitious, digital natives, confident.

I am a Gen X. I can remember my first computer (and how useless it was, in hindsight), when TV only had four channels, and when mobile phones first became mainstream. Email started to emerge when I was at university albeit if confined to text and on campus machines only. The internet started to emerge in the 1990s and search engines became a new a curious way of finding things out. Consequently I can work in both analogue and digital ways, but do prefer digital and I am an early adopter of new technologies.

But, what next after Z? There is now talk of Generation α, but I prefer to call them Generation C: the COVID Generation.

Just as the Silent Generation were impacted in their formative years by World War 2, so Gen C had their early lives shaped, and development stunted, by COVID-19. I can see this in my own children as well as in children of friends and early career professionals coming into the workplace.

My eldest son had his GCSEs cancelled in 2020; within the space of two weeks he found out that not only would exams be cancelled, but that there would be no prom, no music tour around Europe and that he would never be going back to school. When asked what his memories were of March 2020 and 2021, they are at best hazy, at worst blank. All those life experiences, all the formative memories, never happened. Zoom, Teams, Skype etc. are all fantastic, but were no substitute for lived, in-person experiences. Communication was confined to phones, social media and Xbox, before they could be replaced by a bizarre, seemingly post-apocalyptic mask-wearing with no physical contact and manic application of hand sanitiser. The first proper exams he had to sit were A Levels at 17, making it difficult for him to relate the emotional turmoil of his younger brothers who have to sit their GCSE exams aged 15.

My youngest sons started senior school in September 2019, but a significant proportion of the rest of that year and the next were spent ‘learning’ from home. In reality, this meant them sprawled across chairs in rooms with myself and my wife, while we both worked from home; they had Teams on one half of the screen, YouTube on the other and TikTok on their phones, all whilst ‘learning’. This was not quality learning and this is now showing through in their preparedness for GCSE exams; there was so much ‘lost learning’, the true effect of which we are now only beginning to see.

Then what about the teenagers who spent years looking forward to leaving home (some for the first time on their own) and going to university, only to be confined to their bedrooms and trying to learn online with a group of strangers who they never got chance to meet in person? Or those graduates whose first jobs were either started remotely without meeting their new colleagues, were deferred by six months or more, were furloughed or had their job offers rescinded altogether?

Covid-19 affected so many people in so many ways. Thousands tragically lost their lives, but Gen C is an enduring legacy that we as employers will need to be mindful of, as these young people develop through their careers. We get exasperated when they send messages instead of speaking to someone face-to-face (sometimes sat only a couple of chairs away), use text speak rather than proper use of language and seem incapable of putting their phones down for one second. But can we blame them? Is it fair to expect otherwise, when that is how they had to live their lives in their formative years and the only way of communication was via social media?

Gen C are not just our children and staff, but they will also become our clients, our emergency services, our political leaders etc. Will they need to re-learn key life skills to be like Gen Z, or will us Gen X, Millennials and Gen Z have to adapt to work with the most digitally-dependant generation yet. Despite the obvious and awful tragedies of COVID, some good things did come out of it, and we have been catapulted forward by at least five years in the way that we work and rely on technology. Maybe Gen C have it right and the rest will need to learn from them? Whatever the situation, time will tell…

Acknowledgment to BBC Bitesize article on ‘Millennials, baby boomers or Gen Z: which one are you and what does it mean?’