Talking about centennials is tricky. As of 2016, they are still being born, and they are still too young to have fully formed their social, economic and political perspectives. But using basic forecasting techniques, we do have an idea about the world Centennials are about to grow into.
It’s a world that will reshape history and change what it means to be human. And as you’re about to see, Centennials will become the perfect generation to lead humanity into this new age.
Centennials: The entrepreneurial generation
Born between ~2000 and 2020, and predominantly children of Gen Xers, today’s centennial teenagers will soon become the world’s largest generational cohort. They already represent 25.9 percent of the US population (2016), 1.3 billion worldwide; and by the time their cohort ends by 2020, they will represent between 1.6 to 2 billion people worldwide.
They are described as the first true digital natives since they have never known a world without the Internet. As we're about to discuss, their entire future (even their brains) is being wired to adapt to an ever more connected and complex world. This generation is smarter, more mature, more entrepreneurial, and have a heightened drive to make a positive impact on the world. But what triggered this natural disposition to become well-behaved go-getters?
The events that shaped Centennial thinking
Unlike the Gen Xers and millennials before them, centennials (as of 2016) have yet to experience a singular major event that has fundamentally changed the world, at least during their formative years between 10 to 20 years of age. Most were too young to understand or weren't even born during the events of 9/11, the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, all the way up to the 2010 Arab Spring.
However, while geopolitics may not have played much of role in their psyche, seeing the effect the 2008-9 financial crisis had on their parents was the first real shock to their system. Sharing in the hardships their family members had to go through taught them early lessons in humility, while also teaching them that traditional employment is no sure guarantee of financial security. That is why 61 percent of US centennials are motivated to become entrepreneurs rather than employees.
Meanwhile, when it comes to social issues, centennials are growing up during truly progressive times as it relates to the growing legalization of gay marriage, the rise of extreme political correctness, increasing awareness of police brutality, etc. For centennials born in North America and Europe, many are growing up with far more accepting views of LGBTQ rights, along with far more sensitivity to gender equality and race relations issues, and even a more nuanced view towards drug decriminalization. Meanwhile, 50 percent more centennials identify as multicultural than did youth in 2000.
With respect to the more obvious factor to have shaped centennial thinking—the Internet—centennials have a surprisingly lax view towards it than millennials. While the web represented a radically new and shiny toy for millennials to obsess over during their 20s, for centennials, the web is no different than the air we breathe or the water we drink, vital to surviving but not something they perceive as game-changing. In fact, centennial's access to the web has normalized to such an extent that 77 percent of 12 to 17-year-olds now own a cellphone (2015).
The Internet is so naturally a part of them that it's even shaped their thinking at a neurological level. Scientists have found the impact of growing up with the web has noticeably shrunk the attention spans of youth today to 8 seconds, compared to 12 seconds in 2000. Moreover, centennial brains are just different. Their minds are becoming less able to explore complex topics and memorize large amounts of data (i.e. traits computers are better at), whereas they are becoming far more adept at switching between many different topics and activities, and thinking non-linearly (i.e. traits related to abstract thought that computers currently struggle with).
Finally, since centennials are still being born until 2020, their current and future youth will also be impacted heavily by the upcoming release of autonomous vehicles and mass market Virtual and Augmented Reality (VR/AR) devices.
For example, thanks to autonomous vehicles, Centennials will be the first, modern generation to no longer need to learn how to drive. Moreover, these autonomous chauffeurs will represent a new level of independence and freedom, meaning Centennials will no longer be dependant on their parents or older siblings to drive them around. Learn more in our Future of Transportation series.
As for VR and AR devices, we’ll explore that near the end of this chapter.
The Centennial belief system
When it comes to values, centennials are innately liberal when it comes to social issues, as noted above. But it might surprise many to learn that in some ways this generation is also surprisingly conservative and well behaved compared to millennials and Gen Xers when they were young. The biennial Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System survey conducted on US youth by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that compared to youth in 1991, today’s teens are:
- 43 percent less likely to smoke;
- 34 percent less likely to binge drink and 19 percent less likely to have ever tried alcohol; as well as
- 45 percent less likely to have sex before the age of 13.
That last point has also contributed to the 56 percent drop in teen pregnancies recorded today compared to 1991. Other findings revealed that centennials are less likely to get into fights at school, more likely to wear seat belts (92 percent), and are very concerned about our collective environmental impact (76 percent). The downside of this generation is that they are increasingly prone to obesity.
Overall, this risk-averse tendency has led to a new realization about this generation: Where Millennials are often perceived as optimists, centennials are realists. As mentioned earlier, they grew up seeing their families struggle to recover from the 2008-9 financial crisis. Partially as a result, centennials have far less faith in the American Dream (and the like) than preceding generations. Out of this realism, centennials are driven by a greater sense of independence and self-direction, traits that play into their tendency towards entrepreneurialism.
Another centennial value that might come off as refreshing to some readers is their preference for in-person interaction over digital communication. Again, since they are growing up so immersed in a digital world, it’s real life that feels refreshingly novel to them (again, a reversal of the millennial perspective). Given this preference, it’s interesting to see that early surveys of this generation show that:
- 66 percent say they prefer to connect with friends in person;
- 43 percent prefer shopping at traditional brick-and-mortar shops; compared to
- 38 percent prefer to make their purchases online.
A relatively recent centennial development is their growing awareness of their digital footprint. Possibly in response to the Snowden revelations, centennials have shown a distinct adoption and preference for anonymous and ephemeral communication services, like Snapchat, as well as an aversion to being photographed in compromising situations. It appears privacy and anonymity are becoming core values of this ‘digital generation' as they mature into young adults.
Centennials' financial future and their economic impact
Since the bulk of centennials are still too young to even enter the labor market, their full impact on the world economy is difficult to predict. That said, we can infer the following:
First, centennials will start entering the labor market in sizeable numbers during the mid-2020s and will enter their prime income-generating years by the 2030s. This means that centennials' consumption-based contribution to the economy will only become significant after 2025. Until then, their value will largely be limited to retailers of cheap consumer goods, and they only possess indirect influence on total household spending by influencing the buying decisions of their Gen X parents.
That said, even after 2025, centennials economic impact may continue to be stunted for quite some time. As discussed in our Future of Work series, 47 percent of today's jobs are vulnerable to machine/computer automation within the next few decades. That means that as the world's total population increases, the total number of jobs available is set to shrink. And with the millennial generation being of equal size and relatively equal digital fluency to centennials, tomorrow's remaining jobs will likely be consumed by millennials with their decades longer stretch of active employment years and experience.
The last factor we’ll mention is that centennials have a strong tendency to be frugal with their money. 57 percent would rather save than spend. Should this trait carry over into centennial adulthood, it could have a dampening (albeit stabilizing) impact on the economy between 2030 to 2050.
Given all these factors, it may be easy to write off centennials entirely, but as you’ll see below, they could hold the key to saving our future economy.
When Centennials takes over politics
Similar to the millennials before them, the size of the centennial cohort as a loosely defined voting block (up to two billion strong by 2020) means that they will have enormous influence over future elections and politics in general. Their strong socially liberal tendencies will also see them heavily supporting equal rights for all minorities, as well as liberal policies toward immigration laws and universal healthcare.
Unfortunately, this outsized political influence won’t be felt until ~2038 when all centennials will become old enough to vote. And even then, this influence won’t be taken seriously until the 2050s, when the majority of centennials mature enough to vote regularly and intelligently. Until then, the world will be run by the grand partnership of Gen Xers and millennials.
Future challenges where Centennials will show leadership
As hinted at earlier, centennials will increasingly find themselves at the forefront of a massive restructuring of the world economy. This will represent a truly historic challenge that centennials will be uniquely suited to address.
That challenge will be the mass automation of jobs. As explained fully in our Future of Work series, it's important to understand that robots aren't coming to take our jobs, they are coming to take over (automate) routine tasks. Switchboard operators, file clerks, typists, ticket agents—whenever we introduce a new technology, monotonous, repetitive tasks that involve basic logic and hand-eye coordination fall by the wayside.
Over time, this process will eliminate entire professions or will just reduce the total number of workers needed to execute a project. And while this disruptive process of machines replacing human labor has existed since the dawn of the industrial revolution, what's different this time is the pace and scale of this disruption, especially by the mid-2030s. Whether it's blue collar or white collar, almost all jobs are on the chopping block.
Early on, the automation trend will represent a boon for executives, businesses, and capital owners, as their share of company profits will grow thanks to their mechanized labor force (you know, instead of sharing said profits as wages to human employees). But as more and more industries and businesses make this transition, an unsettling reality will start to bubble up from under the surface: Who exactly is going to pay for the products and services these companies produce when most of the population is forced into unemployment? Hint: It ain’t the robots.
This scenario is one that centennials will actively work against. Given their natural comfort with technology, high rates of education (similar to millennials), their overwhelming propensity toward entrepreneurship, and their inhibited entry into the traditional labor market due to the shrinking labor demand, centennials will have no choice but to start their own businesses en masse.
This explosion in creative, entrepreneurial activity (likely supported/financed by future governments) will no doubt result in a range of new technological and scientific innovations, new professions, even entirely new industries. But it remains unclear whether this centennial startup wave will end up generating hundreds of millions of new jobs needed in the profit and not-for-profit sectors to support all those pushed into unemployment.
The success (or lack of) of this centennial startup wave will in part determine when/if world governments start instituting a pioneering economic policy: the Universal Basic Income (UBI). Explained in great detail in our Future of Work series, the UBI is an income granted to all citizens (rich and poor) individually and unconditionally, i.e. without a means test or work requirement. It’s the government giving you free money every month, like the old age pension but for everyone.
The UBI will solve the problem of people not having enough money to live due to a lack of jobs, and it will also solve the larger economic problem by giving people enough money to buy things and keep the consumer-based economy humming. And as you guessed, centennials will be the first generation to grow up under a UBI supported economic system. Whether this will affect them in a positive or negative manner, we will have to wait and see.
There are two other big innovations/trends that centennials will show leadership in.
First is VR and AR. Explained in greater detail in our Future of the Internet series, VR uses technology to replace the real world with a simulated world (click to video example), whereas AR digitally modifies or enhances your perception of the real world (click to video example). Simply put, VR and AR will be to centennials, what the Internet was to millennials. And while millennials may be the ones to invent these technologies initially, it will be centennials that make it their own and develop them to their fullest potential.
Finally, the last point we’ll touch upon is human genetic engineering and augmentation. By the time centennials enter their late 30s and 40s, the healthcare industry will be able to cure any genetic disease (before and after birth) and heal most any physical injury. (Learn more in our Future of Health series.) But the technology we'll use to heal the human body will also be used to enhance it, whether it's through tweaking your genes or installing a computer inside your brain. (Learn more in our Future of Human Evolution series.)
How will centennials decide to use this quantum leap in healthcare and biological mastery? Can we honestly expect them to use it just to stay healthy? Wouldn’t most of them use it to live extended lifespans? Wouldn’t some decide to become superhuman? And if they take these leaps forward, wouldn’t they want to provide the same benefits to their future children, i.e. designer babies?
The Centennial worldview
Centennials will be the first generation to know more about a fundamentally new technology—the Internet—than their parents (Gen Xers). But they will also be the first generation born into:
- A world that might not need all of them (re: fewer jobs in the future);
- A world of abundance where they could work less to survive than any generation has in centuries;
- A world where the real and the digital are merged to form an entirely new reality; and
- A world where the limits of the human body will for the first time become modifiable thanks to the mastery of science.
Overall, centennials weren't born into any old period of time; they will come of age into a time that will redefine human history. But as of 2016, they are still young, and they still have no clue what kind of world is waiting for them. … Now that I'm thinking about it, maybe we should wait a decade or two before we let them read this.