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Generation X
Generation Y
Generation Z

The Big Global Crack Up: Generational Shift Causes Economic And Political Shake-Down

Remember when associations and other membership organizations, like Rotary and chambers of commerce, enjoyed a lock on their markets? The Baby Boomers joined associations in droves. Now, participation is changing, fueled by social changes, generational shifts, a recession-prone economy, and rapidly-changing technology.

Remember when associations and other membership organizations, like Rotary and chambers of commerce, enjoyed a lock on their markets? The Baby Boomers joined associations in droves. Now, participation is changing, fueled by social changes, generational shifts, a recession-prone economy, and rapidly-changing technology.

I just authored a book on this very conundrum —The End of Membership As We Know It.

While I’ve spent a great deal of time in recent years researching changing demographics and changing membership models and educating people on these topics, it’s important to note change is happening on substantial scale with radical proportions everywhere. Absolutely everything about the way everyone lives, works, and does business is changing. And most of that change can be attributed to one generation’s not-so-gracious fall from power.

Thomas Friedman authored a column in The New York Times on August 27 which addresses change on a global level. It states:

“The European Union is cracking up. The Arab world is cracking up. China’s growth model is under pressure and America’s credit-driven capitalist model has suffered a warning heart attack and needs a total rethink. Recasting any one of these alone would be huge. Doing all four at once — when the world has never been more interconnected — is mind-boggling.”

In Europe, large government welfare programs in some countries, without the revenue to finance them from local production, has led to a piling up of sovereign debt —mostly owed to European banks — and a lender revolt.

The old model of power based on kings and military dictators in the Middle East has been blown apart by an Arab youth bulge that is no longer ready to accept being behind, undereducated, unemployed, humiliated and powerless.

China has relied on a model built on Communism featuring a deliberately undervalued currency and export-led growth, with low domestic consumption and high savings. Persistent unemployment is making this model less sustainable and has fallen under threat.

China also has another challenge on its hands: to get rich before it gets old. It has to move from two parents saving for one kid, to one kid paying for theretirement of two parents.

As for America, we’ve thrived in recent decades with a credit-consumption-led economy. It’s put us in a deep hole, and we’re seeing the emergence of new, hybrid politics that mixes spending cuts, tax increases, tax reform and investments in education, research and production.

So what exactly is causing the global economy to ‘crack up’?

According to Mark Goulston, Vice Chairman of Steele Partners, it’s generational.

Goulston authored an opinion article for the Huffington Post in response to Friedman’s column. Gouldman takes Friedman’s economic assessment a step further to pinpoint demographic shifts as the real reason for the global economic and political shake-down:

“When you read Friedman’s column about the institutions of various countries, continents and cultures of the world, it appears that they are breaking down as the younger generations globally are seeing what others have and how others live and how they could have and live the same.

Friedman doesn’t say it explicitly, but if you read between his lines and then look around you at the different generations, you will see that a revolution is brewing. But it is not brewing between democratic and totalitarian regimes. It is between generations.”

Back in February I authored a blog about Generation Y’s global revolution—the young, unemployed, and unhappy who are revolting against governments and workplaces the world over. Goulston focused his commentary on Generation X—the adults who are currently ages 30-46 and will soon assume power.

He wrote:

“In the year 2020 the Gen X’ers will be coming into their power and judging from what I hear from them now, they are not going to be interested in or willing to give more to the Boomers who will be heading toward the final chapters in their lives, nor will they be interested in or willing to let the Millennial children of the Boomers off the hook when it comes to being accountable.

To the Gen X’ers, blaming, complaining, finger pointing, excuse making and especially feeling sorry for themselves by Boomers and Millennials are like “nails on a chalkboard” and Friedman hasn’t said it explicitly, but has implied that Boomers and spoiled Millennials are on notice because of it.”

Goulston and Friedman bring to light that nothing in this world is stable, similar, or secure right now. We’re rebuilding, reorganizing, and redesigning our governments, workplaces, and entire economies. The question is whether we will we be able to accomplish these feats by working together.

Friedman projects that a global crisis is in our midst if America doesn’t get its act together.

Goulston projects that if Baby Boomers continue to hang on to positions of power,  they will find themselves facing the same fate as the fallen and falling dictators around the world at the hands of the generations who follow them.

One thing is certain: All over the world, Generation X and Y are hungry for a chance to thrive. And our governments, economies, and workplaces need these generations to survive.

The sooner we realize that we need each other and make this more about collaboration and less about power, the sooner we all will experience civil rest and prosperity.

Zs came of age in an era of disruption

In many ways, it’s symbolic that Generation Z is named after the last letter in the alphabet because their arrival marks the end of clearly defined roles, traditions, and experiences. After all, Gen Z is coming of age on the heels of what has been referred to as the most disruptive decade of the last century. America has become an increasingly changing and complex place.

For example:

  • ‍Zs were born into a “modern family era” in which highly involved dads help out at home, and the nuclear family model (two parents, married, with children) represent only 46% of American households.
  • ‍Zs are the first generation to be born into a world where everything physical, from people to places to pennies, has a digital equivalent.
  • From the time they were infants, Zs had access to mobile technology. As a result, their brains have been trained to absorb large amounts of information, and Zs are especially adept at shifting between skills and subject matter.
  • Zs tend to have crystal-clear memories of sitting up for the first time at six months old because they can easily and quickly reference the photos and videos their parents shared on social media or saved in the “cloud”. 

Members of this generation have undoubtedly been shaped by crisis and disruption. This generation will largely be responsible for confronting the aftermath of the Great Recession, high youth unemployment, the effects of climate change, terrorism, energy sustainability, and more. These dark events have undoubtedly made this generation more cautious and pragmatic, but they have also provided this generation with the inspiration to change the world – and their grit will likely allow them to do it.

Coming of age during disruption means that most Zs will be comfortable being the disruptors. While Millennials tend to be collaborative and innovative, this generation tends to be sincere, reflective, thick-skinned, and self-directed, and will likely approach work in much the same way.

Zs were raised to be competitive

In the era following World War II, Boomers (1946-1964) were born and eventually became the wealthiest, most prosperous generation in history. Raised to aspire for the American Dream, this very large generation moved into positions of power and influence, and served as the workforce majority for 34 years.

With the American Dream alive and well, Boomers had no reason to teach their children, mostly Millennials, about competition. Instead, they taught them to focus on academic achievement and to be team players because if everyone works hard, everyone can win.

Enter Generation X (1965-1981). In contrast Boomers, Xers came of age during a time when change and economic and political uncertainty began to take root. They have lived through four recessions, struggled with debt and economic decline most of their lives, and watched the best educated and accomplished generation of all time (Millennials) graduate during the Great Recession and become the most debt-ridden generation in history.

Gen Xers can be defined by their independence and anti-status quo approach to life, and they have taught their Gen Z children to be competitive, believing only the best can win. They have encouraged their children to be realists, finding something they are good at and aggressively pursuing it.

Xers have raised their Zs with an intense focus on competitiveness -- in academics, sports, and other activities. This approach to parenting has many implications, but one stands out in terms of business: Gen Z is likely to lead.

Millennials in the workplace created and aggressively advocated for collaborative work environments. In fact, their aversion to leadership has been so strong, some Millennials sought out companies that boasted boss-free or team-managed workplaces.

In contrast, Zs have been raised with an individualistic, realistic, and competitive nature. They have been taught the skills to successfully defy the norm. This means we’re going to see the pendulum shift away from collaborative workplaces towards a widespread demand for, and pursuit of, leadership development.

Zs are career-focused.

While Millennials have been criticized for their “delayed adulthood”, Gen Z is showing signs of “early adulthood”. Educators and parents often describe this generation as being more serious and contemplative about the world. Zs are thinking about their career paths and exposing themselves to career training at an earlier age than Millennials. It’s probable that some of this early onset of adulthood is caused by parents, who are pressuring their children to be competitive and successful and to avoid the debt that plagued both the Gen Xers and Millennials.

The numbers from our global research found 46% of Gen Z said they know what career to pursue and 51% have taken a class at school focused on their career interests. Forty percent joined an extracurricular program (team, club) based on their career interests.

Zs are seeking financial security. 

Zs have been shaped by the aftermath of the Great Recession. They watched Millennials become debt-ridden and are concerned about falling into the same trap. XYZ University’s survey results show 66% of Zs said financial stability is more important than doing work they enjoy, which is the exact opposite of Millennial survey results.  Also, 71% of survey-takers have a paying job.

Zs value leaders who are positive and trustworthy.

When presented a list of leadership traits, Zs ranked positive and trustworthy the highest. While Millennials and Gen Zs both value trust in a leader, Millennials usually cite collaboration and vision as most important. In other words, Millennials focus on the outcomes leaders inspire, whereas Zs are more likely to consider leaders’ attitudes and personalities. To Z, what leaders encourage others to do isn’t as valuable as how they make them feel.


Zs want to be challenged.

Both Millennials and Gen Zs place a very high value on feeling challenged and appreciated in the workplace. However, according to our survey results Millennials rank appreciation slightly higher than challenge, whereas Zs rank feeling challenged slightly higher than appreciation.

Time will tell how Zs go down in history, but we know this generation’s influence on history will be unlike any other.


Does your organization have what it takes to engage the next generation? Take this quiz to find out.


Sarah Sladek is CEO of XYZ University. Our generational intelligence can assist you with engaging and retaining young talent and members.

Sarah Sladek

Concerned about declining engagement in our nation’s membership associations, non-profits, and workplaces, Sarah Sladek founded XYZ University, the nation’s first and only generations-focused training and engagement strategy company, in 2002.

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