Op-Ed: The Responsibility Of Designing For The Next Generation

Op-Ed: The Responsibility Of Designing For The Next Generation
Design

Jason Brush, Global EVP of Experiences and Innovation at POSSIBLE, describes what creatives of one generation can do to help the next

PSFK Op-Eds
  • 20 march 2018

Every generation throws a hero up the pop charts.
~Paul Simon

Come on, Sir
Just give me the answer
I fear the future.
~St. Vincent

If you’re lucky enough to make a living in a creative vocation—making content or advertising, designing products or buildings—chances are you often make things for people who aren’t exactly like you: people with different backgrounds, socioeconomic statuses, genders, political perspectives, and, almost certainly, people from different generations. This is why empathy is such a key creative attribute.

However, the way in which we talk about generational differences vis-a-vis personal identity differs surprisingly from how we talk about other personal attributes. How many times have you been in a conversation where someone makes an assertion such as, “Millennials think…” or “Boomers want…” or “Gen Xers feel…”? Would we (creative practitioners) ever talk about race or gender or geography as being so broadly constraining to somebody’s identity as we do when talking about their generation?

This is especially surprising since according to all serious scientific assessment, generational theory is complete bunk. The notion that people born between certain years share unique, predictable attributes of identity is pseudo-science, popular only because it’s a convenient tool for easy, yet simplistic analysis of complex social issues.

While the idea that one’s generation is immutable and determinative of selfhood is a reductive fallacy and geographically, historically, and sociologically-ignorant, it doesn’t mean that the technological, economic, political, and cultural context in which people are born and raised does not shape how they view and interact with others and society. People with shared experiences are likely to naturally share a particular point-of-view.

Human beings, regardless of when or where they were born, share the same fundamental needs—of belonging and inclusion; of health and comfort; of the elevation of the spirit—regardless of generational label. So, when considering generational differences, it’s most useful to think about generations—or, as a sociologist might describe them, “birth cohorts”—as a lens to evaluate how the different contexts in which people come of age shape their pursuits of those needs, as opposed to being the nucleus of identity. Generational labels are convenient for the purposes of discussing differences of context, but nothing more.

I was born in 1973. Like many other Gen X-ers (not so-named until I was a senior in high school), my worldview was shaped by, among other things, the Cold War’s pervasive cloud of fear of nuclear Armageddon, Reaganism’s crass commercialization and celebration of avarice, and the resistance against those things represented by irony and punk rock. Now in my forties, working at a design and marketing agency, the majority of the lovely, creative, enthusiastic people with whom I work are Millennials. When I think about the experiences they went through coming of age, but which I experienced when already married and out of graduate school—9/11 and the subsequent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; the great recession and Obama’s hope-led restoration of our economy; the Internet’s ever-growing integration into every facet of life—their egalitarianism and optimism seem to make sense: the world has the potential to get better and improve, and personal passion can lead to great things.

My Gen X peers and my Millennial colleagues alike all want the same things for our lives—as did our parents and theirs before them. However, based on our different contexts of experience, and what we believe to be true about the world as informed by those experiences, we might go about pursuing those goals in (sometimes) differing ways. Likewise, this will be true for my daughter, 13, in eighth grade now, and part of Gen Z. The world in which she’s growing up will undoubtedly shape how she and her peers think and behave vis-a-vis their innate human needs and desires.

My father, born in 1943, made a striking observation this past year: “My parents belonged to what people like to call ‘The Greatest Generation.’ They won World War II and went to the moon. So, what does that make us? We’re leaving our grandkids the legacy of climate change and resurgent ethno-nationalism. If my parents were part of the ‘The Greatest Generation,’ what does that make us [Boomers]? The ‘Worst Generation?'” Undoubtedly this is too harsh, but it does raise a key question: What is the responsibility of one generation to help shape the worldview of the next?

Humanity is facing a future of unprecedented and terrifying challenges: rising sea levels, floods, and droughts caused by our inability to combat climate change; rising income inequality, at the same time as AI and robotization threaten to make large swathes of the workforce redundant; political polarization amplified by state-sponsored disinformation made possible by technologies that extant checks and balances are poorly equipped to neutralize. These issues, and more, are not going away. And, I’m grief-struck to say, this is the world in which my daughter is growing up.

Of course, the most important thing one generation can do to help the next is to actually fix—or, at least, mitigate—problems to leave the world better off. Whether it’s political action or technology innovation, this is something to which everybody can contribute, both personally and professionally, no matter where you live, what industry you work in, or what your job is, and no matter your station.

But it’s not enough to focus solely on fixing problems. Because, truth be told, many (if not all) of these problems are not going to be solved this year, next year, or even five or ten years from now. These are issues that we will hand down to the next generation, which they are going to have to be part of solving, with or without us. A friend once told me, “Your job as a parent is to give your kids the tools they need to live a healthy, happy, productive life without you.” This is true on an individual level as well as a generational one.

How might we equip Gen Z—and the generations that follow—with the tools to help them live healthy, happy, productive lives in the face of the climate crises, automation, and more?

When we think about the context that informs generational attitude, we too-often only look at that context retrospectively, as a fait accompli, rather than as something that can be actively shaped. This is unfortunate because it exempts earlier generations from their impact on subsequent ones, asserting that the context shaping generational attitudes is like some sort of uncontrollable environmental phenomenon. This is nonsense. Culture is created, with every single movie, song, TV show, book, and advertisement made by one generation that the next generation consumes. It doesn’t just happen on its own.

Election night 2016 will, undoubtedly, be a life-long memory for my daughter, shaping her worldview. When we saw that it wasn’t going our way, she asked to borrow my phone so that she could rewatch old episodes of Parks and Recreation, letting the goofy optimism of (Gen Xer) Amy Poehler’s Leslie Knope be a salve on the wounds of the election results.

What lessons will my daughter and her cohorts learn from the context in which they’re coming of age? If the Parkland teens’ courageous reaction to the unspeakable horror they endured, turning tragedy into action, is any indicator, we can be hopeful for the future. It’s heartening to watch this activism considering that these kids have lived most of their lives under the even-keel of the Obama presidency, which one might (mistakenly) presume not to have prepared them for today’s turmoil. But instead of passivity, we see resistance. It seems that a painful primary lesson has been learned: You can’t always get what you want. The post-Parkland activism, the #MeToo movement, and the other actions that so many, of all generations have been inspired to are shaping GenZ’s perspective of the world as much as the 2016 election results, teaching them that if you try, sometimes you just might find you get what you need.

Jason Brush is Global EVP of Experiences and Innovation at POSSIBLE, where he oversees creative and user experience design in the agency’s Los Angeles branch, and user experience design globally. In addition to his award-winning work at POSSIBLE, he teaches courses at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena and at UCLA.  @jasonbrush / Linkedin

Every generation throws a hero up the pop charts.
~Paul Simon

Come on, Sir
Just give me the answer
I fear the future.
~St. Vincent

If you’re lucky enough to make a living in a creative vocation—making content or advertising, designing products or buildings—chances are you often make things for people who aren’t exactly like you: people with different backgrounds, socioeconomic statuses, genders, political perspectives, and, almost certainly, people from different generations. This is why empathy is such a key creative attribute.

+Baby Boomers
+Brand Introduction
+children
+cities
+Design
+design thinking
+gen X
+gen Z
+generation
+Innovation
+middle east
+millennial
+Millennials
+mobile
+product experience
+Sustainability
+technology
+USA
+work

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