Online and in the workplace, over 30s are living in fear of Generation Z. Confucius says they should stop it.

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Photo by Denise Bossarte on Unsplash.

According to the New York Times, in boardrooms and break rooms around the country, Gen Xers (40-somethings) and Millennial (30-somethings) are living in occupational terror of Gen Zers (20-somethings).

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Running afoul of these strict new social gatekeepers is To Be Avoided At All Costs. The desire to be thought cool by these inspiring young sophisticates is reshaping workplace culture. And beyond.

This attitude prevails on social media, where packs of cool kids roam the virtual hallways in search of hopelessly out-of-step miscreants to report to the mob. Most people report being afraid to speak their mind in a public forum. Cancel culture is a crouching tiger, always ready to spring.

Social media is the milieu of Generation Z, more so than for any other generation. From Twitter to TikTok, Gen Z decides what’s in, what’s hopelessly out, who’s cool this week and who will never be sitting at the cool table ever again as long as they live.

Gen Zers are setting the cultural mores. They are moving the Overton Window; they are not afraid to push back- hard- and, as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi once put it, “throw a punch for the children.”

That 20-year olds have come to dominate their elders, in the workplace and online, is no surprise.

We are a nation obsessed with youth. Or more accurately, we are a society shaped, however unfortunately, by advertisers. No matter how much influence you think advertisers have had over the last five decades, it isn’t enough.

Marketers, influencers, ad men, viral marketing campaigns, product launches and entertainment media creators have a prime target audience and it isn’t Boomers, Gen Xers, Millennials or any other moniker created by advertisers and media companies for the sole purposes of advertising.

It’s 12 year olds.

Want to know what the next big social media thing is? Ask a 12-year old. They knew all about TikTok back when everyone else thought it was a kid’s toy and they wouldn’t have been caught dead on Facebook- for years.

They don’t just happen to know what’s cool because they really are that cool. Hearken back to your own coolness-level aged 12.

The reason young people are on the forefront of every trend is because of merchandizing, advertising, and trillions of dollars in unceasing marketing campaigns.

The tween scene is where its at. The tween years are a marketer’s dream. Tweens have little to no brand loyalty, unlike their older consumer counterparts, which, along with their immaturity, makes them more persuadable and susceptible to advertisers.

Tweens have no bills to pay, no kids to get through college; nothing but free time and disposable income as far as the jaundiced advertiser’s eye can see. Companies love to market to kids, which is how we got adorable cartoon characters hawking refined sugar puffs- right along with an epidemic of childhood obesity and diabetes- during Saturday morning cartoons.

In fact, that’s mostly how we got Saturday morning cartoons in first place. Some of the cartoons you may have watched as a kid were created solely as a commercial delivery system. “Hook ’em early,” is the advertisers strategy, “and you have a customer for life.”

Coincidentally, drug pushers use the same strategy.

During the tween years, well into the teenage years and early 20s- as you might remember- there is an overemphasis on “fitting in.”

Advertisers know and love this fact of life. This vulnerability, the pressures of fitting in, can turn 1,000 teenagers who want the same pair of overpriced jeans into a million teenagers who want the same pair of overpriced jeans.

In the marketing world, it’s pure magic.

So with teens calling the tune, and advertisers leading the dance, the rest of us are caught up in a whirlwind of low-self esteem, conspicuous consumerism, social pressure and marketing thumbscrews.

Teenagers and tweenagers are terrified of the disapproval of their peers. They live in near constant fear of humiliation, always on the precipice of becoming an outcast. That these new workplace and social media dynamics feature much of this old adolescent dynamic is completely unsurprising.

After school, our workplaces and online communities are two places where fitting in, getting along, being accepted and liked, even by people who aren’t close friends is vital to success.

Sometime after our middle school and high school years, perhaps even after our college years, there comes a sublime moment for most of us whereupon we realize with complete clarity that the time we spent worrying about what other people thought of us was completely wasted.

On the far side of school, it becomes clear how silly some of the old cliquey social distinctions and anxieties were. Who the cool kids were in high school matters about as much as the color of the desks you sat at and the Wednesday hot lunch menu.

Who the interns think is cool at work or who is trending on Twitter are about as important in the grand scheme of things. Yet, drawing the approval of the cool kids, and above all avoiding their ire, remains the marketer’s delight.

We can choose to buy into that- that unlike all the other generations of the past who have been equally convinced that they are the first one to have all the answers, Generation Z is right- or we can reject that mass marketing hypnosis wholesale.

In realizing, as we must, that teenagers and 20-somethings know about as much about the world as anyone that age, there is the understanding that aging can give you an unexpectedly cool advantage.

In the end, of course, your mom was right all along; knowing yourself and being yourself, and being true to yourself, is the only thing that ever really makes anyone cool.

True coolness is forging your own path, embracing your unique gifts; not succumbing to pressure from marketers- or peers influenced by marketers- to “fit in.”

“When I was 15, I set my heart on learning,” wrote the great sage Confucius on the subject of aging and the hierarchy of knowledge; “When I was 30, I made my stand. By 40, I had removed all doubt. At 50, I knew the will of heaven. At 60, my ear was finely attuned. At 70, I can obey every impulse of my heart and never break a single rule.”

This view of aging is 180 degrees from our youth-obsessed culture. True coolness isn’t being the darling of marketing and advertisers; it isn’t drugstore rebelliousness or a pretense at nihilism- it’s inner peace. It’s a good character forged over years of careful observation, self-examination, application, study, practice and testing.

The ultimate in coolness, as Confucius put it so well, comes with being able to obey every impulse of our hearts while maintaining perfect congruence between our actions and our principles. To be cool, we must learn to not betray ourselves; for approval, or advertisers, or anything else.

(contributing writer, Brooke Bell)