In this book, Born Digital: The Story of a Distracted Generation, the author Robert Wigley tackles the thorny issue of the generation that has has grown up surrounded by electronic devices with access to the internet at their fingertips.
But while mainstream discussions around Gen-Z focus on the negative aspects of these constantcommunicators, driven by shares and likes, Wigley shines light on just why there is such a generational divide and how it could affect the workplace. It leads you to a place of understanding more than questioning and could even drive workforce change in digital policies if it was more widely read.
Wigley himself has had a celebrated career that has been at the forefront of technical adoption. He has spent three decades in finance rising to be EMEA chairman of Merrill Lynch and a member of the board of the Bank of England during the 2008 financial crisis. What’s more, he was chairman of the Green Investment Bank Commission and wrote the seminal report Winning in the Decade Ahead on the future of London as a global financial centre. This was under Boris Johnson when he was Mayor of London. It has been issues such as using technology for financial good alongside climate change and green finance that stimulated Wigley to write this book – well that and his three sons, who each fall into the Gen-Z category.
Each chapter is peppered with a reference as to how technology has shaped his relationship with them, whether it’s phones at the dinner table (and the adults are just as guilty) or the family WhatsApp group, Wigley portrays a new family dynamic which is now replicated in millions of houses across the country. But by delving into the psychology of a Gen-Z, he also does a great job of explaining to parents just why they might have a bit of trouble getting through to their child. It’s not just technological distractions that Gen-Z children have to deal with after all.
As Wigley suggests, they might not remember 9/11, but they feel the impact in the constant news cycle. The war on terror, followed by shocks in the job market and widescale unemployment coupled with rising house prices mean that the sheer environment surrounding young people feels a lot more negative when you’re surrounded with device overload. And while young people feel that they are now more financially savvy than their parents, this comes with an increased level of anxiety and a wish to ‘do better.
Wigley spends a lot of time comparing the altruistic and green-friendly nature of Gen-Z, mainly because they feel that it is something they can change as a generation, if they each lend their voice to the cause (although as individuals they are much less driven). A large salary, home ownership and the traditional nuclear family are becoming distant dreams, and so job satisfaction and mental wellbeing are becoming much more of a priority for this generation.
That means aligning themselves with employers who have the same viewpoints. Interestingly, Wigley finds that this generation is much more at ease with the thought of entrepreneurship than any other, although perhaps for different reasons. They believe that they may have to sustain themselves in their career somewhat. Other thought-provoking chapters highlight the need for wellbeing that this generation has fully welcomed, whether it’s 10 or 20 minutes a day without a device, or a whole detox.
The need to go ‘device free’ is recognised and often acted upon. Many of Wigley’s insights come from the 200 Gen-Z entrepreneurs he has made time to sit down with while writing this book, and interestingly, most of them have created their companies to solve a problem. So intrinsically, while the work ethic might be more mobile-centric and their screen time is much higher than any previous generation, Gen-Z are also trying to effect change much more than any other, even Millennials.
And while the introduction of the book is bold on its purpose – ‘our attention has been hijacked by the tsunami of devices, games and social media which now dominate our lives. This new technology brings efficiency, cost-savings and instantaneous information. But when our attention is the currency being traded by big tech firms, what price are we willing to pay for convenience’ – I’m not sure that Wigley necessarily has all the answers for some of the dystopian scenarios he paints.
He calls for stricter regulation of the internet and offers resources at the end for better internet governance alongside tips for parents. But it all feels like it could be too little too late. He mentions the big corporations who are exploiting the generations who let’s face it, are addicted to their technology – whether for work, social or connection. But even the strictest methods of regulation, such as those seen in China, have not had much success with tackling the inherent anxiety and need for communication that Gen-Z shows a propensity for. Wigley even goes against the ‘little and often’ rule that most parents would advocate for.
He calls for total blanket bans to focus attention spans in crucial times, and wants young children to be kept away from the small screen full stop – these tactics might work for future generations but he has already previously explained how the dopamine hit of a mobile phone notification stimulates the Gen-Z mind, so from this I question what is next for those born digital?
Are are we just to leave them behind like some sort of social experiment? While Wigley’s book is fascinating on how someone in the Gen-Z generation actually thinks – the book is full of analysis on the chemical changes in our brain which dictate our emotional needs – overall the discussion of how Gen-Z needs to be catered for, both in fintech right now as the driving adopters and in the future, needs more consideration from the public as a whole.
But if you’re looking for something thought-provoking or just want to understand Gen-Z a little more, then this is it. The book itself is light and easy to read, handily condensed into specific chapters which make it easy to dip in and out – especially with the resources at the back of the book, where there is also a raft of references to take the reading material further. Perhaps if more people in fintech were to give this book a read, there would be a greater understanding of how we could serve this next customer base, especially as together, they have more combined purchasing power than older generations.
Something which tech companies seem to understand much more than any bank.