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Generational Generalisation does not work in SA!

Updated: Nov 3, 2023

Generational theory whilst useful, is powerless without context.

The very university that I was fortunate enough to have attended, towers in the distance over people so close in proximity yet at the same time, so far out of reach. Captured 14 September 2022.

More than three decades ago, my parents took the risk and made the sacrifices needed to move our family from the predominantly 'Indian community' of Phoenix in Durban, to The Bluff. It was a scary time too, 1991. Still three years away from the first democratic election in South Africa, we relocated under written permit to what was at the time a predominantly 'White area'. Or at least I am told, and can only imagine being just 2 years old and barely able to remember the world of the time. Under the roof of our residence at the time were my mother, father, both dad's parents and my mother's father, and so it would be so long as the elders lived or I was old enough to move out. My sister would not be born for another three years.

My mother worked at Mondi in Merebank, and my father in Prospecton, a good 40km and 50km from Woodview, Phoenix respectively. They just managed to afford a single car, so they would leave under the cover of darkness to make it to their respective places of work and would arrive back home under similar conditions. The time spent with their young son, painfully against their core values. So they made the sacrifices that they did, to create a better life for me, and later my sister, by relocating us to an area that presented an opportunity for us to attend schools that people of our race typically did not previously get to attend, especially those in my family's socio-economic class at that time.

By that time, my mum and dad's income provided for our entire family, grandparents included. The pressure was on them to make ends meet and keep the house running. Generation-X they were, in age and only in some of their thinking, but progressive in many ways beyond their years in their views toward work and priorities.

Having been born a millennial, I was brought up in the millennial society but with many Gen-X values instilled in me by my parents, but this is actually not a story about me, it is about someone that I met recently.

The point of telling you the story above is to start chipping away at the idea of generational generalisation. Just recently I had a retiree tell me that millennials and Gen-Z's all seem to be suffering from mental health issues. That it is not uncommon. That they (the retiree) did not know why, and perhaps it was because social media, and seeming to take no accountability for having played some part in it. Hmm, yes, social media did play a part, but there is so much more to it I believe, that has affected those generations' mental states, which perhaps is not considered as much. The pressure to live up to the INTRINSIC expectations that we created as a result of knowing the hardships that our families went through to give us the opportunities we have. The fear of the risk associated with making the wrong decision. After all we were handed every opportunity on a silver platter right? If we mess that up now, it's just another weakness of our generation. What about the fact that whilst the American kids or even some other kids in our own classrooms, of the same generation as us, were the children of second or third generation tertiary graduates, where as we would be the first in our families to be so fortunate.

Again, this story is not about me, but I am a part of that 'millennial' group, so cannot exclude myself from this narrative. I was fortunate in the opportunities and support that my parents gave me, and I believe that they did the best that they possibly could have with what they had. This is about the fact that even today you may meet a 22-year old Gen-Z graduate, who has just started their career at your place of work, bright eyed and bushy tailed, eager to learn but who is also the first person to have gone to university in their family. A person upon whose shoulders rests the weight of the world in their family's hope of them becoming the sole breadwinner for their elders. That person grew up in the same world as all the other millennials or Gen-Z's, and generalisation assumes that first world generational view tells us that they are entitled youngsters who job hop every few minutes.

In a recent article by FANews, a well-known financial institution in South Africa said, "Millennials want instant gratification; Baby Boomers want security and ownership in the form of shares and retirement funding and Gen-Z’s want a trip to save the planet. We need to consistently ask ourselves what the middle ground is to creating mutually-beneficial relationships, and solve for different generational needs," [1] with regards to their approach to the development of working models and employee retentions that speaks to multiple generations. When I began my work on the Neo-Mentorship model early this year, I based it on the notion that generational theory is important, yes, but the systems thinking and problem solving nature of the engineering mindset told me that that there must be more interconnectivity than just that, for creating environments that foster growth. At that point I had started working on the concept of synergy between generational theory and social sciences in that especially in a country such as South Africa, our political history, people's socio-economic status, and cultural and gender divides needed to be bridged in order to facilitate growth. To my excitement, I recently came across an article [2] that was written over a year ago, which supports this very notion. The article is linked below. Full credit to the author. I hope that I get a chance to reach out to him and chat further some day.

Here is what concerns me. I recently met a young graduate about to start their career who has the weight of the world on their shoulders in the form of their family to support. I don't mean a family that they irresponsibly started as a teenager, rather their own parents and grandparents, whose roles should be reversed. They come from a financially strained background and they them self suffer from a chronic illness that was no fault of their own, affecting their energy levels daily. Yet even despite all those challenges, this person is enthusiastic about their future. They have shown me perseverance and strength beyond measure. This Gen-Z about to enter the workplace however, may face an employer and peers that see the first-world notion of a Gen-Z, wanting a trip to save the planet. No. This individual only wants the opportunity to save their family, and every assumption made, every interaction with that person potentially detrimental to their state of mind could ultimately be detrimental to their ability to support their family. We cannot take a blanket approach to growth and development.

I was taught by my own mentor, that mentorship is a two way street. Wow, did I learn a lot from my interaction with this graduate who is 12 years my junior. Only about to enter the working world, and as much as I was able to (hopefully) impart some wisdom to them, they not only taught me things that I had not known, but also opened my eyes to realities that I had naively ignored, (to be discussed in a future article) which significantly impact the tertiary education space, and is further heightened by the move to online study as result of the COVID-19 pandemic as well as the emergence of the technologies of 4IR.

I know that there are too many people in the world to help everyone. Even in one country for that matter, but I do believe that those of us that were given opportunity, have the duty to pay it forward. If not for duty sake, for humanities sake, for what is the point of Industry 4.0 and beyond if not to serve humanity?

I was so moved in my interaction with that person. I hope that they read this, and when they do, they take with them, as they go forth into the working world, that people will have pre-dispositions about your generation, prove them wrong, but not with brute force...with empathy and appreciation for their story. If you ever meet such challenges and find yourself in need, Evolve; The Neo-Mentorship Space will be here to support you.


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