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The Generation Z effect is reshaping the business world, says new title by Boston consultants

Published on Saturday, 09 May 2015

An ageing editor at the Morning Post Centre in Tai Po still bashes his keyboard with two fingers, often to the distraction and amusement of his younger colleagues. Such baby boomers have staunch allies in Boston-based management consultant Thomas Koulopoulos and business strategist Dan Keldsen, however. In their readable 256-page collaboration, The Gen Z Effect, the authors acknowledge that people born between 1946 and 1964 have struggled to adapt to changing technology over the past 40 years, but those who still embrace it - and endure the sniggers of their touchtyping colleagues - are thinking like “Generation Z” in an increasingly interconnected world.

Koulopoulos and Keldsen define “Generation Z” as people born between 1995 and 2005. They are more connected than their “Generation Y” or “Millennial” siblings born between 1985 to the early 2000s, because many have had an instinctive use of tablets or smartphones since they were tiny. However, “Gen Z is not a birthright but a conscious choice that you make” and one that is based on the increasing ease, affordability and practicality of technology, the authors say. This hyperconnected mindset, or Generation Z “effect”, empowers technology users of all generations to break geographical, social and commercial barriers, Koulopoulos and Keldsen say.

It is also changing the world, the authors explain, citing a boomer funding a startup on Kickstarter, and an impoverished Kenyan attending online classes at MIT.

The Generation Z effect will gather pace in six ways, they claim. The increasing use of common technology will blur traditional generational divides, particularly as people are living and working longer, they add. In 1950, there were 10 toddlers to every 65 year old in the population “pyramid”. Now there are just three in a “dome”-shaped distribution of age groups, and by 2100, the authors say, there will be just one toddler to every 65 year old in a more even “skyscraper” proportioning. So companies must be prepared for more generations working together, Koulopoulos and Keldsen say, citing Cisco’s reverse-mentoring and age-group integration initiatives. Second, Generation Zers see the change of “affluence to influence” where technology gives every user a voice, from “likes” to online news, to shopping and debate. Such theories suggest corporations, vested interests and governments could be challenged by such “democratization”. Third, the Generation Z effect opens education, and fourth, there will be 100 times as many computers by 2100, the authors say. This proliferation will alter attitudes to research and innovation, and, fifth, lead to the “slingshotting” that makes formerly expensive knowhow more available. Sixth, the development of “lifehacking” will enable entrepreneurs to be increasingly creative through 3D printing, relax attitudes to intellectual property, and shortcut finance via crowdfunding, Koulopoulos and Keldsen say.

These theories are hardly new in Hong Kong, however. The Gen Z Effect holds its audience with friendly anecdotes, and detailed references to the evolution of phone, computer and music technology, but Koulopoulos and Keldsen also labour their points with overly long case studies that basically say General Electric’s boomers seek young people’s input on things, and Hyatt Hotels acknowledges that their staff are people. The authors repackage and present these old, obvious management issues convincingly, but also pepper their talk-circuit zeal with imperatives, such as: “Don’t underestimate the tremendous power in embracing this shift”. Patronising asides such as: “You get the picture, right?” might also grate the very boomer corporate chiefs they seek to evangelise.

Koulopoulos and Keldsen close their well-publicised chapters with checklist questions headed: “Are You Ready for Gen Z?”, backed by a slick website. However their breathless audits sound naively confident in job-hopping Hong Kong, where companies may find more important uses for prime-rent meeting room space than internal debates on “How would your business need to change to handle 15 simultaneous generations by 2080?”

Besides, multi-generational workforces are already common in wired-up Hong Kong. The city’s strong Chinese family traditions are hardly blurred but arguably bonded by rising property prices and education expenses that force Millennials to live or brunch longer with their parents and grandparents. A count of smartphones in the MTR also reveals how Hong Kong’s young and old have long embraced Koulopoulos and Keldsen’s “tide of hyperconnectivity”. So much so that Hong Kong business leaders have repeatedly urged high-flying, tech-minded Classified Post readers to look beyond their screens and develop the “soft” interpersonal skills that enable them to talk to customers; differentiate one CPA firm from another; and justify the high overheads of the city’s service sector.

Koulopoulos and Keldsen highlight Gen Z technology’s ability to disrupt vested interests and challenge intellectual property in the West, but ignore how Hong Kong continues to thrive on the business, law and governance checks and balances that secure our city for international business.

The authors entertain, but their ivory tower seems a long way from Tai Po, where that clattering editor also helps his mockers with their stories. Hyperconnectivity makes Hong Kong’s youngsters look smart, but the boomer’s “si foo” experience, adaptability and team spirit keep him working.

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