Recently, two of my friends sent me two radically different articles on the MZ generations. A Korean friend of mine sent me an interesting piece of writing that presumably someone had posted on the internet. The title was “An Era of Super-reversal and Reverse Mentoring.” An American friend of mine sent me an article titled, “Gen Z Is Apparently Baffled by Basic Technology” by Victor Tangermann.
The article on reverse mentoring solemnly announces, “We are now living in an era of super-reversal. Children are smarter than parents, juniors are smarter than seniors, young employees are smarter than executives, and army privates are smarter than officers.”
According to the writer, this strange phenomenon is occurring because the interval between newer civilizations has become radically shorter than that between older civilizations. He wrote, “The agricultural civilization era lasted thousands of years. The industrialization era lasted 300 years. However, the electronic era has changed the world completely in 30 years.”
Indeed, we have witnessed dazzling, Copernican changes over the past three decades. Personal computers opened a new world of virtual reality, followed by the internet, the World Wide Web, Google and cellphones. Then came social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Using social media, young people can now communicate with one another freely in the global village, and information can spread all over the world instantly. Smartphones represent the culmination of the digital era; now, young people do everything with their smartphone, which is, in fact, a palm computer. Indeed, today smartphones have become young people’s digital alter egos. Older people cannot possibly catch up with these giddy changes.
The writer went on, “In the agricultural or industrial era when things rarely changed, experienced older people were naturally smarter than inexperienced younger people.” However, today when everything is changing radically and rapidly, older people should learn from the younger people about the dazzling digital changes. In the eyes of younger generations, the older generation that belongs to the analog era looks hopelessly incompetent and pathetic. Suddenly, older people find that they are rapidly losing respect and authority before the younger generation because of their ineptness in omnipresent electronic devices.
I could not agree with the writer more. It is true that the older generation should learn from the younger generation, not only their electronic skills, but also their digital perceptions. For example, unlike the older generation, who is stubbornly chained to a dogmatic ideology, the younger generation is free from the narrow confines of ideology. Thus, they do not have the grudges, resentments, or political vendettas that the older generation is hopelessly stuck on. Instead, the MZ generations value fairness, social justice, rationality, the climate and human rights. They also try to find truth amidst rampant fake news.
They detest communism or totalitarianism and boldly challenge leftwing politicians or labor union leaders, by protesting, “Why don’t you mention the North Korea-related Yeonpyeong Battle or the ROK’s Cheonan sinking, while you frequently bring up the two Korean girls killed by a US military armored vehicle to instigate anti-American sentiment?” In the eyes of the MZ generations, it is not fair at all, indeed. Thus, they can make South Korea politically healthy and balanced.
Another article on Generation Z points out that even though Generation Z is very good at “technological know-how, from navigating the depths of the internet and using apps to editing photos on their smartphones,” they find it difficult to use “a scanner or printer, or even a file system on a computer.” According to Tangermann, young people in their 20s find it challenging to use a copy machine, too, and therefore, they need to learn such basic technologies from the older generation. Workplaces still depend on such technologies that existed already long before Generation Z was born.
Indeed, the transition from one generation to another proceeds slowly. It is not something that happens overnight. If so, learning should be reciprocal. From the younger generation, older people can learn electronic skills and digital sensibility. From the older generation, young people should learn the existing technologies, the virtues of analogic mindsets, and the past that they do not know. The older generation’s memories and experiences are still valid and helpful for the younger generation.
When Jack Welch, Chairman of GE, called for “Reverse mentoring” at a company workshop in 1999, he meant that even company executives should learn electronic technology and digital perspective from younger staff members. However, life is not made of electronics and digital devices only. In fact, our bodies are not digital, but analog.
Digital and analog are like the two sides of a coin. Although they are different and far apart, it takes two sides to become a coin. Therefore, the reconciliation of the digital and the analog is indispensable to human existence. Indeed, we need to strive for accomplishing the harmony between digital and analog that the late insightful culture critic Yi O-young called, “Digilog.”
Kim Seong-kon is a professor emeritus of English at Seoul National University and a visiting scholar at Dartmouth College. The views expressed here are his own. -- Ed.