Every generation thinks the challenges it faces are more important than what has gone before. American journalist Tom Brokaw bestowed the name “the greatest generation” on the people who grew up in the Great Depression and went on to fight in the Second World War. As a late “baby boomer” myself, I certainly take my hat off to that generation.
The Boomers were named for demography: they were a bulge in the population (“the pig in the python”) caused by soldiers returning from the war. They saw themselves as special, and maybe they were. They invented sex in the 1960s, apparently, along with rock and roll, the counter-culture, the civil rights movement and the second wave of feminism.
Generation X was the first to take a letter as its title, although that happened late in their history, with the publication in 1991 of Canadian author Douglas Coupland’s novel, “Generation X: tales for an accelerated culture”. Cynical Boomers said Generation X got its name because its members were cyphers: their role in the world was less clear, their contribution to it was doubtful. Early on they were accused of being lazy and disaffected: they were the MTV generation, and their musical styles were grunge and hip hop. But these are accusations that most parents hurl at their successors. Later on, Generation X showed high levels of entrepreneurship, and appeared to be above averagely happy, with a good work-life balance. Their profile may be lower because there are fewer of them: they were the first generation whose parents had access to the contraceptive pill.
Generation X was followed, naturally enough, by Generation Y, also known as the Millennials, since they were born between the early 1981 and 2000. (There are no generally agreed dates for the generations; I like 1941-60 for Boomers, 1961-80 for Generation X, and 1981-2000 for Millennials.) Following Generation X, and still being born, is Generation Z. Whatever their predecessors may think, it is these two generations which will face the biggest challenges yet presented to humanity.
Speaking at the United Nations in 1963, John F Kennedy said something which would not be out of place today: “Never before has man had such capacity to control his own environment, to end thirst and hunger, to conquer poverty and disease, to banish illiteracy and massive human misery. We have the power to make this the best generation of mankind in the history of the world – or make it the last.”i
The members of Generation Y and Z have been born at the best time ever to be a human, in terms of life expectancy, health, wealth, access to education, information, and entertainment. They have also been born at the most interesting time, and the most important. Whether they like it or not, they have the task of navigating us through the economic singularity of mass unemployment, and then the technological singularity of super-intelligence.
The economic singularity will arrive when Generation Y is running the show, which makes their name apposite, since one of the challenges the economic singularity will raise is to ensure that everyone finds meaning in a life without jobs. Generation Y will have to come up with a great new answer to the question of “why” we are here.
Generation Z is, if anything, even better named, although again, entirely by accident. One way or another, they are likely to be the last generation of humans to reach old age in a form their ancestors would recognise. These timings are of course uncertain and tendentious, but Generation Z is likely to be the dominant force in politics and business when the first superintelligence appears, and humanity becomes the second-smartest species on the planet. The consequences for humans will be staggering. If things go well, and the superintelligence really likes us, then at a minimum, humans will quickly be augmented to dispense with many of the limitations and frailties which have afflicted us since life on earth began: ageing, vulnerability, and probably even death. These augmentations will render us barely recognisable, and hard to continue to classify as human. If things go very well, perhaps we will merge with the machines we have created, and travel the universe together to wonder at its marvels, immune to the ravages of vacuum and radiation. If things go less well, generation Z could be the last generation of humans for less cheerful reasons.
Generations Y and Z are destined to be our greatest generations. If either of them fails in their respective tasks, humanity’s future could be bleak. But if they succeed, it could be almost incredibly good. They must succeed.