With the pace of change and breakthroughs accelerating, the future in which Gen Z will navigate adulthood for the next fifty-plus years will be unlike any that previous generations experienced. Gen Z will eventually think flying cars are normal, custom-made organs are part of aging, and space travel is not science fiction but just takes financial planning.
Gen Z is growing up surrounded by breakthroughs in everything from personalized medicine and autonomous transportation to workplace automation and AI virtual assistants. Looking ahead twenty- and thirty-plus years, we can spot a number of trends, breakthroughs, challenges, and innovations that will likely influence the generation in decades to come.
#1. Car and Transportation Evolution
In fact, in the next twenty years, Gen Z may not even need a driver’s license because they won’t drive. Truly autonomous vehicles will be at the ready to drive people if they physically need to go somewhere, flying cars may finally take off (and land!), and autonomous or semiautonomous trucks will change a tremendous amount of the congestion and risk on the road. If Gen Z changes their driving behaviors, to the point where they’re not driving or driving very limited miles, that will directly transform everything from car insurance, motor vehicle accident rates, and the need for garages to overall demand for the entire auto industry. Gen Z will be in the driver’s seat for all of this automotive and transportation change, but they may actually end up in the passenger seat and let technology do all the work.
#2. Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality
The impact of virtual reality might be felt in everything from business travel, where virtual meetings could be as effective as in-person meetings, to leisure travel and education. Not to mention the impact virtual reality could have on entertainment, content creation, relationships (virtual ones that seem real!), and so much more. You could attend a concert with fifty thousand cheering people—all from the comfort of your home without the overpriced sodas.
The combination of VR and AR, along with the pathways for augmenting people with technologies, means more and deeper integration of technology into our world and how we view and experience the world. Want to walk with the dinosaurs? Done. Want to sit in the front row of a class at Harvard? Done. Want to role-play asking someone to marry you? They’ll have that, too.
Obviously, there could be downsides to this new world, too. Already Gen Z feels anxiety about not having their phone close or not getting an instant response. They also feel anxiety about having to conduct face-to-face communication, especially in the workplace. How will they feel in twenty years with a fully immersive technology experience? Gen Z will find out.
#3. Aging Population and Generational Transition
Baby Boomers are living longer than they expected, including often outliving their savings, retirement, ability to work, and government programs to provide financial and healthcare support. The aging of the Baby Boomer population will continue to be a challenge for many in the generation, and at the same time it will put pressure on governments and families around the world to work out solutions to help them age more comfortably.
The impact of an aging world brimming with generational transition will shift power from the Baby Boomers to Gen X and, ultimately, Millennials. Gen Z will see all of this happening and want to know how the change and new political vision and government regulations will affect them—and, gasp, their own kids! Initially, Gen Z will simply be along for the ride as other generations drive voter turnout, policies, and population-based decisions. However, Gen Z will eventually emerge as a force and will move conversations in a way that aligns with their social causes and generational priorities.
#4. AI, IoT, Connected Devices, and Consumer Tech
AI is already changing our world, habits, news, content, and even investing. This is only the beginning of the AI revolution that Gen Z will be affected by throughout their life. AI will likely become embedded throughout everything we do, have, and engage with—whether that is dieting and physical fitness, dating, shopping, advertising, or endless and more accurate recommendations. Adding to the power of AI is the IoT and connected devices. As more and more devices connect to the web and the cloud, more data will be collected and analyzed, and better recommendations will be made as a result.
Gen Z is the generation that will truly be at the convergence of data, algorithms, hardware, and life. This will also create new and tremendous pressures on data privacy and security—for everyone from individuals and manufacturers to tech companies and governments.
#5. Workforce Automation
Many people assume that the jobs most likely to be lost are those that are low skill and repetitive, but that is not the case. With rapidly advancing technology, white-collar jobs such as accounting and finance are also at risk. This could have a significant impact not only on careers, but on the colleges, degrees, and learning pathways that feed into those careers, or it could spur the retraining (if possible) of the people already in those accomplished fields.
Even middle managers may go the way of the dinosaur if better tracking of workforce performance, needs, and strengths leads to just-in-time training, coaching, and promotions—all unique to the employee and their individual strengths, areas for development, track record, and goals. Gen Z will likely be the first generation that is managed by software rather than people, which could be a huge breakthrough in unlocking their performance and the performance of all generations but also yield massive change to corporate structures, planning, and existing careers.
#6. Medical Breakthroughs
Gen Z will likely be the first generation to fully benefit from the rapid advancements in medical care over the last thirty years. In particular, Gen Z is young enough to benefit from recent biotechnology advancements like genome editing (commonly called CRISPR) and the extraordinary benefits of personalized medicine. This could include being able to grow organs specific to an individual, medicines designed specifically to eradicate a disease (such as cancer), and numerous forms of health, wellness, and medicine that could extend life spans significantly (which creates a whole new set of issues).
The result of these many medical breakthroughs, including designer medicine and disease eradication, could lead to much longer lives, which would put pressure on everything from healthcare and families to government structures. Gen Z is truly the beneficiary of the modern medical breakthroughs that could lead to a time in the not-too-distant future when most if not all major medical issues are treated—potentially even before their children are born.
#7. Consumer Space Travel
Yes. It’s coming. Elon Musk, Richard Branson, Jeff Bezos, and many more are working night and day to commercialize space travel so anyone can feel zero gravity. The prospect of cost-effective space travel, initially as entertainment but eventually as commerce (such as mining, etc.), creates a universe of possibilities including that Gen Z’s own children or grandchildren might be able to live on or visit another planet.
Fifty years ago people huddled around black-and-white TVs to watch a man land on the moon. For Gen Z’s kids and grandkids, they may be able to experience that firsthand.
#8. Global Challenges
Global population growth will most likely continue, putting increased pressure on governments, geographies, resources, and services—from housing and food to water and transportation. At the same time, climate change is likely to shape Gen Z more than any other current generation, as they are now the youngest generation and the one with the most time ahead. This could mean everything from changing sea levels affecting major cities to more natural disasters. Gen Z is positioned to be the generation to drive change to combat the threats to the world, as they are likely the generation to most profoundly experience many of these changes throughout their life.
Money is not cash anymore. It is not plastic anymore. Instead, for Gen Z money is a concept stored in a cloud. Money may soon be a digital signature only, a singular series of digits that unlocks value on a distributed worldwide network.
Already teens can skip the bank by using apps like Venmo and have adopted digital wallets without needing bank accounts or credit cards. Blockchain has the potential to make banks (in their current form) obsolete, because instead of having the bank handle your money, the blockchain can do it more cheaply and more securely—in a split second, anywhere on the globe.
#10. College Transformation
For over two hundred years, colleges have been the source of learning, personal development, and transition into the real world for many. With the rise of AR/VR, mobile learning, and changes in workforce skill needs, college could become much less relevant or be replaced with cloud-based learning and other measures of skill besides grades and standardized testing. The youngest members of Gen Z will see some of this change, but the children of Gen Z will be the likely group of disruptors that put pressure on higher education to rethink their offerings, education platforms, and how to deliver learning while increasing the benefit to cost ratio.
This is just the tip of the generational iceberg. COVID-19 and its aftermath could have a pronounced impact on the generation, including how they learn, work, and think about their futures.
The collisions of these trends with Gen Z will shape everything from the generation’s work pathway to life expectancy, relationships, travel, health, beliefs, and view of other generations before and after.