Gen Z turns to socialismto change the world


Good life: A file picture showing students riding bicycles at a campus in Zhengzhou, China. Spoiled by parents and grandparents for being the only child in their families, these youngsters are living it up compared with their cautious, conservative peers in the West. — Reuters

AS we move deeper into the 21st century, a new generation has emerged today to take over. It’s Generation Z, which includes persons born between 1995 and 2002 – also termed iGen by US psychologist Jean Marie Twenge, author of the bestselling: “iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy – and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood – and What That Means for the Rest of Us.”

iGen is so named after the ubiquitous smart i-phones this generation grew up with. The new batch of Gen Zers is touted to be easier to manage than the Gen Yers (or Millennials) before them, as well as the Gen Xers earlier on.

New socialism

Today, 30 years on, socialism is back in fashion. In US, many Democratic presidential hopefuls for 2020 have veered left. UK’s Labour leader, Corbyn – a hard-line socialist, could yet win the keys to Downing Street. But many of the new socialists are millennials & Gen Zers.

“New” because the force is not really radical, being focused more on inequality, climate change, and how to vest power in citizens rather than elites. This group on the left is a broad, fluid coalition, as movements with a ferment of ideas usually are. According to Gallup, 51% of US citizens aged 18 to 24 have a positive view on the “Green New Deal” socialism.

About one-third of French voters under 24 chose left-leaning candidates in 2017. New socialists need not be young – they include Bernie Sanders & his followers as well as Corbyn’s keenest fans who are as old as he is. Nevertheless, they all share common concerns, including a belief (especially among Gen Z, as demonstrated recently in Algeria and Sudan) that the hierarchies which govern society and the economy regulators, bureaucracies and companies – no longer serve the interests of ordinary folk, and must be “democratised.”

Furthermore, when it comes to upward social mobility, US truly performs exceptionally badly. Americans, whose parents have low incomes, are more likely to have low incomes themselves; and less likely to make it into the middle or upper class, than their counterparts in other advanced countries. And those who are born affluent are, correspondingly, more likely to keep their status. In any case, America’s exceptionally low social mobility is distinct from its exceptionally high-income inequality, although these are almost surely related. Among advanced countries, there is the “Great Gatsby curve,” the strong negative correlation between inequality and mobility. This does make sense. Afterall, huge disparities in parents’ income tend to translate into large disparities in children’s opportunities. That’s where Gen Z chooses to fight to restore the American dream – creating a society in which ambitious young people who are willing to work hard have a good chance of transcending their background.

Policy aims

The rise of “Millennial-Gen Z socialism” is now having something of a cultural moment, moving beyond the recent West’s Blair/Clinton/Schroder’s “third way” of market friendly redistribution. They feel economic growth has mainly benefitted the rich and that ideologically driven spending cuts have been aimed at the poor. They are angered by a global elite they see flitting from business to politics and back again; accountable to no-one, as economic inequality yawns ever wider. The Trump presidency underlines their discontent – as does indelibly, the unchecked rise of greenhouse-gas emissions alongside global GDP growth, endangering their very future.

Reflecting this mood on the left, Millennial/Gen Z socialists do have their own ideas about freedom. They are not satisfied with the protection of existing freedoms; indeed, they want to expand and fulfil freedoms yet to be obtained. Spreading economic power more widely, they believe, will allow more people to make choices about what they want in their lives. For them, freedom without such capabilities is at best incomplete. Using an analogy on India: what is the point of an ostensibly free press if a large part of the population is unable to read? As I see it, the broad swathe of left-wing opinion is increasingly sceptical about free trade; averse to foreign wars and distrustful of public-private partnerships. What they still like is the income redistribution that came with those policies.

At the same time, they also want higher minimum wages, lots more spending on public services and, of late, the promise of free university tuition. As well as promising emissions-reduction efforts on a scale beyond Hercules at a cost beyond Croesus. In framing global warming as a matter of justice, it promises all sorts of ancillary goodies, including robust economic growth and guaranteed employment. Furthermore, Millennial & iGener socialists want to do more than boost the incomes of the poor, create better public services, and slash emissions. Keynesianism is not enough. It is also necessary to “democratise” the economy by redistributing wealth as well as income. But the argument for redistribution goes beyond economics – and its roots spread far beyond the socialist canon. Globalisation, in their eyes, is less an engine for prosperity and more a generator of insecurity, un-freedom and unfairness.

Innovation will be the leading driving force behind the Fourth Industrial Revolution. The nation’s move up the value chain will drastically change the job landscape. With the new wave of Gen Z workers arriving, employers now need to re-evaluate how best to deal with them. So far, managers have found Gen Z workers to have a positive outlook on their work-life, because: they are more practical & work-focused than Millennials – more willing to work overtime, since they regard work to be a central part of their lives; iGen workers are eager to prove themselves & may not need as many enticements as Millennials demand; and they are focused on doing a good job & do not have sky-high expectations as Millennials do.

Still, employers need to exercise greater sensibility when dealing with Gen Z, since they grew up with greater awareness of the social dimensions of mobility through social media – which for some, had even guided them along. In this regard, they are expected to be far more socially responsible than any other generation before. Further, they also value safety – of workers & of their health, including emotional safety.

Chinese Gen Z

In Asia, China’s Gen Z is huge & increasingly influential. There are today some 250 million of them – 10x the population of Australia. They have become China’s innovation powerhouse. So, dealing with them has its challenges. First, they are accustomed to doing things digitally. Second, they get impatient with systems that are not fully digitalised.

Their impatience extends further: a survey by Accenture indicated that more than one-third of Gen Z consumers want (and expect) same day delivery of orders; 27% expects half-day delivery. They expect the same when it comes to communicating – instant response to texted messages. Third, this has led to iGens’ inability to develop stronger social skills. Indeed, they tend not to look into the eyes of those they speak to.

Hence, the young Gen Z is encouraged to make time for face-to-face social interactions, to help build social skills so necessary in the work-place. It has been observed that actual time spent at social gathering has plummeted. Gen Z needs to be alerted that time spent with friends in a real-world setting is not a waste of time. Fourth, Gen Z workers are increasingly choosing non-traditional ways of working that are better suited to their desired life-style, than a traditional 9 to 5 job. They seek work they are passionate about, that also affords them freedom & flexibility.

A recent survey concluded that nearly 50% of Gen Z had freelanced in the prior 12-months. Indeed, 73% of them started freelancing by choice, rather than out of necessity.

This reflects very much China’s gig economy, which is becoming increasingly entrenched. Already, 22% of Chinese Internet users in 2017 is “self-employed;” next to 25% being “students;” and ahead of “common corporate staff” (12%). This freelance model also fits many employers as well. Talent managers cite lower labour costs, improvements in solution offerings, and extension of reach, as motivations to use gig talent. Fifth, Gen Zers expect tedious processes to be automated with latest technology that they cut their teeth on. For them, automation & augmentation simultaneously should enable firms to capture the workflows best suited for Gen Z workers. For them, the future of work requires bringing together the toolset & the mindset and on a large-scale, since the 1.9 billion strong worldwide group of Gen Zers makes up 25% of the world’s population.

As consumers, their peers in the US and Europe (who witnessed the brutal aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis) had graduated with high student debt; and hence, may not earn enough to afford a roof over their heads and are seemingly more politically conscious. In contrast, China’s Gen Z landed in an unusually sweet spot. Products of the country’s one-child policy and its Astronomic economic growth in the 1990s and 2000s, these children didn’t have to share while growing up, and saw only ever-rising wealth creation.

This is a generation that has never known worry, so they spend more and save less. Spoiled by parents and grandparents for being the only child in their families, these youngsters are living it up compared with their cautious, conservative peers in the West. They are pumped-up about the future and not worried about their career prospects or international politics, notwithstanding a trade war at their doorsteps. Chinese Gen Z accounts for 15% of total household’s spending, compared with 4% in US and UK.

Although the vast majority is not yet drawing a salary, they are big on consumption. Besides a monthly allowance they have from her parents, free use of the bank card, and the so-called “red packets” (cash gifts) from grandparents on either side, it’s harder for families in the West because university fees are so expensive and they usually have more than one kid. A survey last year found that over one-half of Chinese Gen Z shoppers each spent more than 50,000 yuan (US$7,500) on luxury goods last year, compared with their stingier elders. Only 32% of Millennials spent that much, compared to 34% of Gen X. China’s slowdown is weighing on everyone from American farmers to Apple Inc to Macau’s casino, as GDP growth slows to the lowest level in a decade. But that hasn’t dented Gen Z’s desire to seek Yeesys (a limited-edition line from Adidas) and cult skincare brands so far.

What then are we to do?

iGeners live in a culture of having the world at their fingertips; where trends are continuously emerging and evolving at online speed. They want to be different, act differently & remain steadfast in driving change. Indeed, things are changing. As I see it, today, for many iGeners – less is more, seeking to rid their minds and homes of clutter to counter frenzied consumerism. So, many are turning minimalist as a lifestyle choice. Classic is their changed attitude towards the girl’s best friend: diamonds, are not forever.

Statistics from London suggest that increasing numbers are favouring gemstones, eccentric cuts and colours that show off their personalities. Some 58% of women aged 23 to 38 surveyed opted for independently designed one-off pieces. Meanwhile, 32% chose their birth-stone to mark an occasion. Forbes reported that 66% of Millennials, and just as many Gen Zers, would now consider a lab-grown gemstone.

In US, Millennials & iGeners are the main driving force seeking a minimalist lifestyle. But in China, it’s driven by the rise of a counterculture dubbed wenqing, or “cultured youth.” They all reject materialism and move towards a life centred on culture. They spend their leisure reading poetry, visiting art galleries, looking after pets, and drinking less. In Japan, its most prominent minimalist is Marie Kondo, whose 2014 book on decluttering: “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up” had struck a chord with middle-class readers and fuelled their enthusiasm for minimalist lifestyles. This has also caught on in China’s first-tier cities, because: consumers who spend more and more on products, now regard them as junk; increased consumer power, coupled with convenience of online shopping, has driven this trend of accumulating material possessions to saturation point; & educated, middle-class Chinese are increasingly uninspired by blind materialism. Growing minimalism has now led iGens to increasingly declutter their “emotional waste.” Make no mistake, this move towards minimalism is surely spreading throughout the world.

Former banker, Harvard educated economist and British Chartered Scientist, Prof Lin of Sunway University is the author of “The Global Economy in Turbulent Times” (Wiley, 2015) & “Turbulence in Trying Times” (Pearson, 2017). Feedback is most welcome.

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