An extract from Debashish Sengupta’s book – The Life of Z: Understanding the Digital Pre-teen and Adolescent Generation – which was released on January 15, 2020 by SAGE publications.
A radio buzzing in a corner, the transmission is unclear, the signal seems to be wavering. I adjust the antennae that we have fixed near the roof of the room. The voice on the side becomes better. By this time, I had repeated this ritual several times. However, the crackling commentary of the cricket match on the other side made up for all the hard work and irritation.
Both me and my younger brother are stuck with the radio for the whole day. Our parents are not at home. My mother wanted to call our grandma and therefore she went to the post office to book a trunk call. It would take few hours of waiting before her turn comes and she can speak over the government run public land phone, before returning home. We had the whole day to ourselves.
It took longer than expected for our parents to come back home. They could not find a taxi near the post office and had to walk for nearly a kilometer before they found a transport. Poor mom, she had to cook the dinner after a long day.
Meanwhile, India had lost the match. We spent the whole evening helping our mom in the kitchen. Another uneventful day had come to an end. But we had some excitement coming-up.
Sunday was just a day away when we will catch another episode of Star Trek and by that time we should also be getting letter from my cousin brother who was sharing our secret encryption code, as he had promised in his last letter. This was to prevent elders from finding out the contents of our letter. And yes, he was also sending some photos from his recent vacation.
When I tell this childhood story of mine to my son, after listening to me with rapt attention, he tells me that there are technical flaws in my story. What? Technical flaws… I find his expression amusing, he finds it even more.
He asks me – “Why were you listening to the radio and not streaming live cricket over internet?; Why did your parents go to the post office to make a call and not use their mobile to make a video call?; Why did your parents not call an Uber instead of walking a long distance?; Why didn’t you order food over an app instead of letting your tired mom cook the dinner?; Why did you wait for Sunday to watch your favourite show and not stream it over Netflix?; And why were you waiting for days for a letter instead of using WhatsApp or Instagram?”
Also read: Is India’s Gen-Z Asking the Right Questions?
Not his fault, how will his generation that has been born in the cradle of technology and rocked by social media handles understand the times when we were children. They were born in a transformed world where on one hand rapid advancements in technology have opened the realm of possibilities, including space tourism, whereas on other hand the same technology threatens our very existence.
On one hand the world has been brought closer than ever before with networks that defy limits of distance, on the other hand it has been fragmented by economic, political and religious conflicts. Everyone has more friends than before, yet there is dearth of human to human connection. Today they take more photos than Kodak films would ever allow, share them over Instagram, yet they will never know the nostalgia of opening an old dusted photo album.
The first of the Generation Z natives or Zeners (as I call them) were born in the year 2000, the first year of the new millennium. It has been nineteen years since then and today they make up largest percentage of world population, slightly more than the number of total number of millennials.
A generational cohort that is biggest chunk of world population and the one that has lived a very different time than ours during their formative years deserves both attention and exploration. They evoke great degree of curiosity not only because they depict a completely different mindset and attitude, but also because after millennials they hold the key to the future of this planet. Not to forget that zeners and millennials make up more than two-third of the total number of people whom you can count on earth.
This book brought me closer to this generation and as I understood them and their life better, I saw how homes, societies and institutions had become mostly defunct for them that were not ready to accept, manage or engage this generation. The ironies in their life made them confront with bane too wherever they searched for boon. They were powerful yet vulnerable. They can become the most influential generation that the world has ever seen yet could be lost in a waft of smoke, flamed by ignorance and arrogance.
We cannot afford this, and we know that.
The only way out seems to understand this generation up, close and personal and base our decisions of what we want to offer them on the foundation of real empathy. The findings of my research and my countless conversations with zeners, parents, teachers, private tutors, pediatricians, child counsellors, child psychologists, entrepreneurs have at times shocked me, surprised me and amazed me – all at the same time. I invite you in this roller-coaster journey and I am sure by the end of it you will know and see things very differently.
Only then our zeners can be real winners.