Are todays challenges, opportunities in disguise? A reason for optimism

Andy Gold
7 min readDec 30, 2020

“We’ve had this idea of growing up thinking, what the heck is this? What the heck is going on? This whole time we’ve been growing up thinking this isn’t right. This is crazy. We need a whole new system.” — Lily Mandel

Photo by Aslıhan Altın on Unsplash

“Alexa, stop!” “Google it.” “I got 137 likes with that post.” “I will just Uber over.” “You can Venmo me the money.” “Let’s just get an Airbnb.” All familiar terms to most, but what would it feel like to never remember a time when these types of terms were common? Say hello to Gen Z (born after 1997), and most certainly Gen Alpha (the children of Gen X and Millennials). These generations will be the first truly digital generations that will not only never be able to recall a time when these terms were a common form of communication but will, for the most part never remember not being able to access information instantaneously through the palm of their hand.

Lily Mandel, 17, is the founder of Bucks Students for Climate Action and Protection of the Environment. She has organized and participated in several marches for climate change awareness.

Another trend we are witnessing is the passionate action oriented activism of Gen Z, perhaps most famously encapsulated by the likes of Greta Thunberg, and the students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. But this spirit of social activism is extensive throughout this generation to include lesser known people like Lily Mandel and Betsy Watson.

Generational variety and the life experiences that people of varying ages go through is often brought to life in a community college classroom. A non-traditional age demographic coupled with the rich diversity, and spirit of inclusion that defines the community college ecosystem, make being a community college professor very interesting, but more importantly a lot of fun. Being able to witness students across different generations learning from one another is a profound experience for sure. I often think about the different life experiences students of various ages have had, and I share my own childhood stories to illuminate how much has changed during my life. Sometimes students find my stories interesting, most times they are politely bored, but my stories help to humanize me and through that, hopefully make me a more effective educator.

Build empathy across different generations through a simple activity

One of the ice breakers I use in my Introduction to Entrepreneurship class is to get students to think more broadly about innovation, and what that means. To accomplish that goal, I leverage a story I read several years ago. In the book the Rise of the Creative Class (2014), author Richard Florida poses an interesting thought experiment to help get the reader thinking about change and innovation over time. Florida wrote “[Imagine taking] a person on [a U.S] street in 1900 and suddenly drop [him/her] into the 1950’s. Then take someone from the 1950’s and time travel that person to the present day. Upon suddenly arriving in this new period, who would experience the greatest change?” I pose this scenario to students and allow them to have small group discussions about which person they think would have experienced the greatest changes. Students learn about pop culture over different periods, inventions from the past, and what life was generally like during different eras. This activity leads to wonderful discussions, but most importantly, it provides students with an opportunity to learn from one another while at the same time develop empathy for their classmates.

Which person do you think would have witnessed the greatest change?

Most people when asked this question, think the person from 1950 to the present day would experience the greatest change because of the internet, and other technological advances. Undoubtedly, both individuals would experience technological advances, but as Florida suggests, most people thrust ahead to 1950 from 1900 would likely witness the greatest change and feel a stronger sense of immediate disorientation from all the sounds and sites. That person would be seeing for the first-time things like, skyscrapers, hearing airplanes flying above, automobiles instead of horse drawn carriages, electric lights and appliances, supermarkets, and televisions to name a few.

On the other hand, Florida argues, the time traveler from the 1950’s to the present day would not initially notice too many physical differences from the earlier period. However, both travelers would see dramatic social changes. The 1900 to 1950’s person would see women voting for the first time while the 1950 to present day traveler would see that America had elected a black man President of the United States, and the nature of work had changed dramatically, away from manual labor (9–5 type of work) toward knowledge service-based jobs.

The impact of Millennials, Gen Z and Gen Alpha is already being felt in education, business and society, but as these generations continue to come of age, enter the workforce in larger numbers, and transform the way work gets done, what can we expect in the future?

A ray of hope — a rising tide of social entrepreneurs and cause related citizens with increased empathy for others.

Today, 53% of the American population are Millennials or younger. Millennials and Gen Z are similar, but there are several nuanced differences. Salesforce found some distinguishing characteristics between these two generations. Both generations value good customer service and are willing to pay more to get a great customer experience, but Millennials value it more. In fact, 91% of Millennials are willing to switch brands to a cause related one, even if the costs more, and 88% would cease consuming products from a company with bad business practices.

Both generations value and demand innovation from businesses, but Gen Z values this more. Gen Zers are less likely to trust a company, with 55% of millennials feeling comfortable with how companies use their personal information compared with 44% of Gen Z. The Salesforce study found that Gen Z is highly pragmatic, whereas millennials are far more idealistic. Gen Z is more focused on saving money and feels stronger about authenticity.

Economic conditions that these generations have experienced are vastly different as well. Millennials came of age during a series of financial, economic, and social crises: From 9–11 to the 2002 accounting fraud scandals of Enron, WorldCom, and Tyco, and the worst financial crisis (2008) since the great depression. Gen Z came of age during a period or relatively strong economic activity but have been upended by COVID-19. Gen Z now faces a highly uncertain future.

Nearly half of all Millennials have student loan debt, whereas it is estimated that 75% of Gen Z will graduate from college with student loan debt. One difference, however, is the pragmatic nature of Gen Z. In a recent study, it was found that in order to service this debt, 61% of Gen Zers would take a job they were not passionate about in order to begin paying off the student loans.

Both generations are more racially and ethnically diverse than previous generations, but Gen Z is the most diverse generation (25% Hispanic, 16% black, 6% Asian, and 5% two or more races). This rich diversity may have myriad long-term impacts on society that may include a society with deeper empathy, and able to solve complex problems more readily because of the diverse nature of these populations.

Gen Z may be the generation that finally takes the mantle of social entrepreneurial leadership, by taking on the many social issues we face, and allocating requisite attention and creative problem solving that these challenges deserve. This generation can imprint on the landscape of business a transformation away from the old school mindset that business can profit by causing social problems toward a more constructive future where businesses profit by solving social problems.

Do what you can’t

Casey Neistat is a millennial, YouTube star. I had never heard of him until a few days ago. Casey created an interesting video called “do what you can’t” that caught my attention. It reminded me of the famous Apple “think different” ad campaign of 1997. Both Casey’s video and the Apple ad campaign speak to society’s rebels, the people that are brave enough to give things a go, that do not fear ridicule. This in many ways describes an entrepreneur.

A Ford study captured the Gen Z mantra as “good things come to those that act.” This study also revealed that Gen Z has a 55% greater chance of starting a business and hiring others and are 54% more likely to have an impact on the world. Because of this action orientation, Gen Zers are more willing to give things a chance and consequently they are learning that failure is not bad, but rather a vehicle for learning, which in turn is causing the stigma of failure to dissipate.

As a community college entrepreneurship educator, I am very encouraged about what the future holds for our society. A recent study found that 72% of students surveyed in grades 5–12 stated that they want to run their own business some day, 61% would rather be entrepreneurs than employees after college, and 24% in that survey indicated they had already started a business. As this generation explores self-employment and brings into the fold a heightened level of empathy, diversity, and cause related focus, some of the greatest challenges we face may turn out to be a wonderful collection of opportunities for the youngest among us to take on and shape what society becomes.



Andy Gold

A social entrepreneur & community college educator. @profandygold —