I recently had the opportunity to speak to a group of young people. They are on verge of their future, which affects us all. As we age, these young people will come to be in charge of our communities and our world. We will be the beneficiaries of their success and their missteps. As one generation fades to retirement, another takes up the initiative of leadership, within government, business, and the community. 

In such settings, I remind young people of the shrinking world. The information superhighway, world wide web, Internet, brings us all information in increasing volume and with unfathomable speed. Certainly, the information is not all valid, verifiable, or accurate. But, there is a lot of it and it is easily obtained. Similarly robotics is marching forward, changing our world. Its progress will affect employment. Artificial intelligence will similarly affect another segment of employment. Innovation will pervade workplaces as worker tools, efficiency enhancements, and will then claim some volume of jobs. 

Prior to that conversation, I recently ran into someone at a luncheon. She celebrated having worked over thirty years in a singular career. There is perhaps no shock at that, because today we periodically encounter those who have such continuity. But, this lady worked all those years for a single employer, which is somewhat more rare. While some of today's students may in fact reach retirement after such a singular path, prognosticators find that unlikely. Increasingly, today's students need to be focused on the world that stretches before them, and the changes that will come to them as they progress toward whatever horizon they elect. 

This conversation with youth led to a question about planning, anticipating, and reacting to the changes that this "next generation" will face. Certainly, we may perceive the onset of changes as more rapid, systemic, or pervasive than what our generation faced. But, that may not be valid. There are various generations in American society today: The Silent Generation 1925-45; the Boomers born 1946-64, the Gen X born 1965-76, Gen Y 1977-95 (Millennials), Gen Z 1996-2009. Each of these has faced challenging and systemic change. Perhaps we tend to see the changes in the future with more trepidation, as we minimize those changes and challenges faced in the past? 

The Silent Generation began two years before television was invented. Also in 1927 the first movie with sound was released. This generation was born into the midst of the automobile becoming influential, effecting serious change in the rural environment and beginning the phenomenon of suburbia. The Silent Generation faced systemic and life-altering change. 

The Boomers were born into a post-World War II environment. The U.S. had just ended a conflict with nuclear weapons, and in 1949 the Soviets joined that club. The Cold War would work change and anxiety for a generation and beyond. The planet chose sides, socialism writ large and capitalism entered what would be a long and global conflict. It was a world to which suburbia had come, though more of a north American paradigm, it nonetheless was a massive societal change. 

The Gen X was born into an America that was beginning the real change in race relations. Though the Fourteenth Amendment was ratified 100 years earlier (1868), court decisions in the 1950s like Brown v. Board of Education (U.S. 1954) and evolution led to legislative change such as the Civil Rights act of 1964. Simultaneously in the 1960s and 1970s, the Women's Rights Movement was underway. Society was challenged, it was changed, and a generation faced a future that was different and perhaps at times a bit difficult to understand. 

Perhaps no generation has been more written about than Gen Y, the so-called Millenials. They were born into a world that had just witnessed the term "personal computer." Over the course of this generation, we went from that landmark in 1975 to the birth of the World Wide Web in 1990 (scientist Tim Berners-Lee claims credit for this, to the dismay of Albert Gore who has publicly claimed credit for taking "the initiative in creating the Internet."). Personal computing, access to data, and all that entails permeates the very identity of this entire generation. In the midst of this generation, socialism fell (or perhaps merely stumbled), the Berlin Wall fell, and the world economy changed fundamentally. To say it is a generation that has faced societal change is an understatement. 

Generation Z begins in 1996, and brings us to the present. These Americans matured into the "gig economy," the intersection of personal technology and work. While the roots of this date back logically to the personal computer in 1975 and the Internet in 1990, the changes in both employment opportunity and stability for Generation Z has been marked. And, their future will likely be different than our collective past; collective as in all of the generations discussed herein. In fairness, it cannot be doubted that the next generation will similarly face challenges that neither Gen Z nor the others has, nor perhaps that we can even anticipate. 

The point of all of this comes down to the inevitability of change. Our resiliency perhaps diminishes with age, and today too many of us look back in comfort forgetting the anxiety, or even memories of the anxiety, of our own generation's changes and challenges. Because ours are past, we perhaps magnify those of the next generation? 

So, in that conversation with Generation Z, the discussion turned from fear of the future to preparation for the future. What can young people do today in order to address the challenges? I advocate that their reaction be one of introspection and preparation. The first step is to perhaps to appreciate the inevitability of change, with hopefully some resulting decrease in anxiety. 

Today's "next" Generation must focus upon what skills, attributes, and abilities make them valuable. That is "valuable" in terms of creating economic advantage, and can come from work ethic, intellect, imagination, personality, and more. Part of the challenge for each is to identify what makes one able to provide progress, service, and assistance to others. We all procure services in the marketplace from others who have skills that we lack, or who are at least better or more efficient at those skills than are we. 

Having determined in what ways we can each bring value, the next step is to figure out how to deliver that value in a manner that brings benefit both to ourselves and to others in the marketplace. That fundamental has not changed. Economic exchange is the foundation upon which all employment is built, whether that means an employee/employer relationship, an independent contractor, vendor, or gig-economy relationship. The fundamental is that the exchange of goods or services for remuneration is, in each instance, a relationship. 

The key for each generation, and individual, is to determine how to bring value to the marketplace and thus participate in that economic relationship. The structure of the market may change, the skills that are most valued may change, and details of the relationship may change. But, the key point is that every person has the capacity to bring value. All each must do is identify that value, and focus on how to bring it to bear in exchange for remuneration. 

The tough news is that Generation Z faces challenges. The tough fact is that the world is continuing to evolve and change. The good news is that every generation has similarly faced change, uncertainty, doubt, and an entire panoply of challenges. The good news is that the Millennials and Gen Zs will succeed just as their forebears did, through their strengths, and the value they bring to the economic exchanges which they will undertake. 

As the other generations pass to our place in history, the best we can do is to remind the young of both the challenges and promise that they face. We can deride them, or guide them. Our job as mentors is to pass along what we can substantively, but also to encourage them to see and appreciate their strengths and value. We collectively and individually need their strengths and must support their success. Just as we need them to bring value, we are uniquely postured to reassure them, mentor them, and encourage them. Thus, in symbiosis, we bring value in helping them to grow and thus likewise bring value. 

As we step from the limelight, their strength and success will be critical for us all. What are you doing today to mentor the next generation in your profession? What are you doing today to help the next generation appreciate and apply their personal value? What are you doing today besides telling these "kids" to get off your lawn? Regardless of what you are doing, what more could you do?


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    About The Author

    • Judge David Langham

      David Langham is the Deputy Chief Judge of Compensation Claims for the Florida Office of Judges of Compensation Claims at the Division of Administrative Hearings. He has been involved in workers’ compensation for over 25 years as an attorney, an adjudicator, and administrator. He has delivered hundreds of professional lectures, published numerous articles on workers’ compensation in a variety of publications, and is a frequent blogger on Florida Workers’ Compensation Adjudication. David is a founding director of the National Association of Workers’ Compensation Judiciary and the Professional Mediation Institute, and is involved in the Southern Association of Workers’ Compensation Administrators (SAWCA) and the International Association of Industrial Accident Boards and Commissions (IAIABC). He is a vocal advocate of leveraging technology and modernizing the dispute resolution processes of workers’ compensation.

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