How Cancel Culture Will Change Your Organization
Given the opportunity to time travel, would you choose to visit the past or the future?
I was participating in a virtual happy hour when this question popped up. Some experienced professionals jumped in, sharing moments in history they wanted to visit. The conversation was bubbly; people were happily caught up in their imaginations of what it would be like to experience a bygone era.
Then a student from Georgetown University spoke up, and just like that, the mood shifted. “I want to visit the future”, she said. “I want to visit the future to see how much damage has been done by the actions of our society today.”
Gen Z (1996-2009) are the teens and early 20-somethings who have become largely renowned for holding up the mirror to society, forcing us all to take a closer look. Under their watch, the concept of cancel culture has been trending for most of the past year, which has become a polarizing topic of debate.
Regardless of age or experience, feeling ignored drives people to disengage, quit, protest, and cancel.
The process of ‘canceling’ usually goes like this: A public figure or organization does or says something offensive. A public backlash, often fueled by political views and social media, ensues. Then there’s call to take away their cultural cachet, whether through boycotts or disciplinary action.
Cancel culture has been referred to as a mob mentality, encouraging lawlessness, censorship, and the erasing of history.
It’s also been referred to as a long overdue way of holding people accountable for propagating racist and sexist ideas, toxic behaviors, and making unethical, immoral decisions without any regard for others.
Although it started as more of a political debate, cancel culture has now moved into the arena of generational debate.
In 2019, the OK boomer meme and videos were an attempt by Gen Z to ‘cancel’ the generations that came before them. OK boomer was meant to be cutting and dismissive; a snarky response to older generations for being condescending to younger generations.
In 2020, Gen Z started mocking Millennials, calling them out for being consumed by nostalgia, dogs, and wine rather than movements, philosophies, or ideals. More than 8 million Millennial v. Gen Z videos have been posted to TikTok. (Gen Zs are currently targeting something Millennials apparently hold close to their hearts: skinny jeans. An unfathomable number of videos and media mentions have been dedicated to this topic alone.)
In March, Fox News made headlines when it asked Gen X to stop cancel culture. The appeal backfired, resulting in a slew of tweets from Gen Xers who could care less about the Boomer obsession with cancel culture. Turns out, Xers are still bitter towards Boomers for canceling heavy metal, Dungeons and Dragons, and Pee-Wee Herman.
It’s important in moments like this one to dig deep and ask: what’s really causing the riff? Widespread controversy and debate are usually indicative of a bigger trend at play. Here are four observations I’ve made throughout this experience.
A Call for Change
There is a proverb which says: When you want the truth, ask a child. Gen Z is lashing out and ‘canceling,’ because they have seen only hate, injustice, and inequality throughout their youth. From mass shootings to climate change to the Black Lives Matter and MeToo movements, Generation Z has come of age during the most disruptive era in human history. So while older generations have a tendency to blame aspects of a broken system, Gen Z wants to tear the whole system down. They feel driven to create a better way to educate, govern, work, and treat one another.
Inclusion is everything to Gen Z. Even the push to cancel skinny jeans is rooted in their increased focus on body inclusivity in fashion.
As a demographic group, young people are more powerful and outspoken now than at any other time in history. While they lack the economic power and are smaller in size than other generations, they are more organized and connected on social media and have the potential to disrupt and change outcomes. This power should not be underestimated.
People hate feeling irrelevant. Disregarded. Overlooked. I have heard this lament over and over in my intergenerational work. Conflict emerges when people feel like no one is listening to them. Regardless of age or experience, feeling ignored drives people to disengage, quit, protest, and cancel.
For a long time I’ve predicted a youthquake would occur. Slowly but surely, power has been shifting to young people, who have been shaped by disruption and seek to raise their collective voices and efforts for change. If not given the opportunities or platforms, today’s youth will create their own.
There is room for all to contribute and belong. There is room for change. But until we can improve on the skills of listening, empathy, and inclusion, social unrest, employee turnover, conflict, disengagement, and decline will continue.
If you listen — really listen to what young people are saying, you will understand why they aren’t infatuated with the past, why they’re worried about the future, and why the time to make a change must start now.
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