Media and the realities of the future generations

‘Generations are a lens through which to understand societal change, rather than a label with which to oversimplify differences between groups,’ Michael Dimock, president, Pew Research Centre.

Marshall McLuhan in his book ‘Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man’ asserts that media, beyond the message it carries, shapes society mainly by its unique characteristics. He identified anything that aids or extends human acts or abilities as media. It can therefore be inferred from Marshal’s assertion that the media began with or perhaps preceded the creation of humans.

By implication, everything originating from human creativity is an extension of the human person, and of course, a medium, or a means to another end. This includes languages, art and culture, religion, ideologies, cities and states, civilizations, wars, technologies, and soon.

Interestingly, while humans create these mediums, they are in return re-created by them. In fact, every generation of media has recreated humans and history in one form or another.

Human history has seen several civilizations, each with its unique attributes from the Pre-Neolithic to the emerging future of hyper-connectivity and singularity that is bringing an unprecedented transformation to the human race. It is therefore important we have an idea of the unique attributes of the past, and the influencing media while envisioning the yet-to-be-properly deciphered future.

This will not only aid in managing the existential threat common to media novelties but also improve intergenerational communication and positioning. It is, however, important to note that while the different attributes as identified by various scholars provide the lens for understanding generational differences, they are in no way a basis for hasty generalization. Nonetheless, the media in whatever guise remains the core of every civilization and most certainly will continue to have a huge influence on the human race.

Limiting ourselves to the 20th to early 21st-century generations, we will look at media in terms of technologies, art and culture, languages, religious beliefs, socio-political viewpoints, economic realities and peculiar events in each generation, how they are connected and have influenced, or influencing the realities of the past, present, and future.

For clarity, recent researches classify these generations as the Greatest Generation, i.e., those born between the years 1901-1924; the Silent Generation i.e., those born between the years 1925-1945; the Baby Boomers i.e., those born between the years 1946-1964; Generation X i.e., those born between the years 1965-1979; Generation Y i.e., those born between the years 1980-1996; the Generation Z i.e., those born between the years 2000-2009; and the still emerging Alpha Generation i.e., those born and still being born between the years 2010-2024.

Every generation indeed reflects the attributes of its influencing media. For instance, the World Wars and the great depression are the key influencers of the early 20th century, those who were born and survived this period (1901-1924) are regarded as the greatest generation for the same reason.

While they are generally believed to have experienced much hardship as a result of the wars, they are, however, identified as self-driven and motivated, ethical, patriotic, loyal, and team players.

They majorly pressed for social and political change and saw the rise of the communist and socialist states, and also a turning point in the development of capitalism. Their era was a period of rapid innovation in economics, medicine, global politics, and technologies like the emergence of now-traditional media of radio, television, telegraphs, and automobiles.

The print media that has become fully mature during this period played a key role, particularly in the more literate world. Literature, arts, music, and cinema culture also thrived greatly during this period. It was during this era that nations like Nigeria (in its current form) were formed.

Right behind the greatest generation was the silent generation, i.e., those born between the years 1925 and 1945. This was the generation that grew into the consciousness of freedom and eventually the civil rights and anti-colonialism movements.

While most of the civil rights and anti-colonialist movement leaders came of age in this era, it is also widely held to consist of a silent majority who believed it was unwise to speak out or be expressive due to the experience of their predecessor.

This generation like their immediate predecessor experienced a significant level of childhood hardship mostly due to the wars and economic downturn. The era witnessed the fall of Nazism and the rise to global significance of the Soviet Union and the United States.

They were greatly influenced by the innovation of the prior generation (particularly the radio), they are in fact regarded as the ‘radio babies’ having grown up in the golden age of radio. Nevertheless, they were mostly traditional and conservative in their approach to life, less risk-takers but yet loyal, patriotic, selfless, ethical, and highly productive.

The League of Nations evolved into the United Nations towards the end of this period with most colonies starting to demand self-determination and independence. The foremost Nigerian nationalists came of age during this era.

The boomers or the baby boomers closely followed the silent generation, this is the era of those born between the years 1946-1964 during the post-World War II baby boom. This era saw a great improvement in human capital, particularly in education and healthcare with a noticeable influence on the global birth rate.

It was an era of global ideological confrontations majorly between communism, socialism, and capitalism. It was characterized by political instability and counter-culture activities like the sexual revolution, women empowerment, and feminist movements among others that gained prominence during this period.

Those born within the era are goal-centric, self-assured, resourceful, and value relationships; they currently make up some of the most influential people in almost every aspect of life all over the world.

The era basically saw the emergence of capitalism, consumerism, democracy, and Americanism as global phenomena. They were relatively comfortable with access to opportunities and a level of social security. Most colonies gained independence and were tending towards prosperity, Nigeria for instance gained independence and discovered a huge deposit of oil with great potential for prosperity during this era.

It, however, ushered in military interference in the governance of Nigeria as in most of the former colonies. Those born in this era are perhaps the oldest digital immigrants with a significant presence on digital media platforms like Facebook and LinkedIn.

Generation X also regarded as the ‘middle child’ generation follows the baby boomer generation and precedes the millennial generation, they are those born between the years 1965-1979. The generation is also known as the “latchkey generation,” because it is widely held that they have mostly grown up with no significant adult supervision with most parents prioritizing personal rights and economic survival over familial responsibilities.

They find alternatives to traditional family time in movies, music, and other pop cultures of that time. Reproductive and abortion rights, divorce, and the decline in birth rate particularly in the West gained a level of prominence during this period. Those born within this period are believed to be generally self-confident and optimistic, entrepreneurial, and market-oriented.

The era saw the rise of individualism, globalization, Hip-hop music, high tech, the internet, and the beginning of media decentralization, democratization, and audience empowerment. It also saw the eventual fall of communism and the dissolution of the USSR.

In Nigeria, the era witnessed the civil war. Labour and students’ union struggles such as the famous ‘Ali must go’ were of this period. Indigenization, industrialization, and promotion of national unity though with little success were prioritized during this period particularly, with the creation of relevant regional research institutions, initiatives like the NYSC, Unity Schools, and the like. The era experienced three military coups and an aborted coup. Those born during this era are probably currently the most active digital migrants, particularly on Facebook.

The years 1980 to 1996 ushered in the Millennials with Generation Y or Gen Y, i.e., those who became adults at the turn of the new millennium. Their era saw a great global technological change, digital creativity, and economic and political disruption particularly, in their early years with global events like the fall of communism, the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and the global triumph of democracy. The millennials are highly globalized and hyper-connected, especially through social media platforms, mobile devices, and the internet with possibilities of access to globally relevant knowledge, skills, and markets.

They grew into the digital culture with high levels of creativity and numerous technological innovations. Although massively empowered due to their unprecedented access to information and digital savviness, they, however, prioritize immediacy over detailed scrutiny requisite for understanding, hence they are regarded as the ‘shallow generation. Unlike their predecessors, millennials are less religious and prefer to identify with physical and artificial realities than transcendental realities of faith.

They also experienced a fair share of hardship mostly due to a series of global economic instability and recessions and most recently the COVID-19 pandemic. They are majorly having a relatively late arrival to adult responsibilities and seem to prefer smaller family units. They also seem to prefer access and sharing over ownership, thereby responsible for the emergence of the sharing economy.

Millennials are also believed to be generally confident, assertive, extroverted, and highly expressive but at the same time regarded as lazy, and highly entitled with narcissistic tendencies and unrealistic life expectations thereby resulting in an unprecedented rate of suicide in their time. While they are assumed to be liberal, flexible, open-minded, and more supportive of minority rights as reflected in a series of global and local resistance to existing political orders, they have ironically displayed signs of voter apathy all around the world.

In Nigeria, the early years of this generation experienced three military coups, one attempted coup, and an eventual transition to democratic rule. They also witnessed a series of economic, political, and social instability especially due to the structural adjustment program (SAP) with its stories of hardship.

Their young adult years are, however, witnessing a bit of stability in government, the emergence of Nigerian digital tech entrepreneurs and unicorns, and the rise of the Nigerian creative industry. They were the major instigators of the popular #EndSARS movement and currently make up the largest population on social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube.

Closely behind Gen Y, are Generation Z or Gen Zers those who were born between the years 1997-2010, they are mostly parented by Gen Xers. They are generally believed to be the most ethnically diverse, and digitally savvy having grown up not knowing the world without social media and related technologies; they are in fact, the real mobile and digital natives. They are more pragmatic than idealistic, smart but restless having grown up in an era of speedy access to information, constant updates, and multitasking.

Gen Zers have an uncommon ability to process information faster than any other generation before them, they, however, have a lower attention span of 8 seconds down from 12 seconds as with the Millennials. Unlike the previous generations, Gen Zers don’t understand lasting loyalty, especially to the workplace and brands. They are very competitive, trendy, and momentary and have also been classified as group thinkers.

Even though they grew up during an economic recession, Gen Zers are far more optimistic about the future than millennials. They are, however, showing signs of anxiety and radical disposition towards ethnic, racial, climate, gender, alternative energy, and other contemporary issues. Although majorly born into a democratic Nigeria, they have also witnessed an unprecedented rate of corruption, terrorism, massacre, kidnapping, epidemic and pandemic outbreaks, flooding, and other climatic issues. They are mostly present on social media platforms like Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, Tiktok, and Snapchat.

The Alpha is the youngest and the emerging generation of those born and still being born between the years 2010 and 2024, they are mostly the children of Gen Y (millennials) and younger Gen X. They are the typical 21st-century babies with countries like India, China, and Nigeria at the top of their birthplace. The greatest impacts on their childhood are probably the COVID-19 pandemic which was described by UNICEF as the greatest threat to children in seventy-five years, and the rapid evolution of digital media and technologies.

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Having been born to parents who spent most of their time and exposed to every event of their lives on social media, they might end up not having a contrary sense of privacy. While the actual picture of Generation Alpha is still very blurry because they are still emerging, it is predicted that they will be vastly educated, ever learning mostly through screens, live streaming, and various immersive technologies like the virtual, artificial, and other extended realities. They have also been described as the Metaverse babies, digital citizens that see little or no distinction between entertainment, information, and education.

They will find more relevance in the knowledge of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), social and emotional competencies, and entrepreneurial skills. Others include strength and coordination skills, financial and digital literacy, innovation, creativity, and resourcefulness. The currently emerging sharing economy will likely evolve into a sense of collective ownership in their time. The main challenging issue of this era will be energy, climate, and environment-related. It has, in fact, been said that they will likely experience 2–7 times as many extreme weather events as ever before, particularly heat waves, flooding, drought, and deforestation among others.

Others will be economic, socio, and techno-political unrest. Alpha generation will by 2030 grow into a workforce that is highly inclusive, digitalized, data-oriented, diverse, decentralized, collaborative, flexible, and technically immersive. Their digital media platforms of interest include TikTok, WeChat, Roblox, Minecraft, and the emerging Metaverse media.

In essence, the emerging future, although certainly with its unique challenges, affords unimaginable possibilities for nations, groups, and individuals especially those who are adequately prepared and well-positioned for it.

Big data that is massively being generated on social media (the internet of human and social interactions), and the internet of things (IoT) will allow highly volatile, flexible, decentralized, and automated creativity like never before. Virtual existence will, in fact, be as real as the physical world with businesses, sports and entertainment, education, medicine, and almost every human activity including crimes, insecurity, and war being conducted digitally.

Nations in their attempts to tackle insecurity and defend their virtual territorial integrity are in fact setting up the fifth domain of warfare after land, sea, air, and space in cyberspace known as the cyber command. Nigeria, for instance, has taken a lead in Africa by launching its cyber command in the year 2019.

There is no doubt that the dynamism of digital media and technologies is at the core of emerging civilization. With the few attributes and available facts, imagining the possibilities and positioning for the emerging world of overall connectivity and singularity has become very essential for individuals, groups, and nations. The possibilities are indeed vast but in two directions: good and evil alike.

Olagunju is of the School of Media and Communication, Pan-Atlantic University, Lagos