Children of the Digital Dawn: How Gen Z May Finally Harmonize America’s Geographic & Cognitive Divides
PLUS... an original Culture Futurist folkstory inspired by Dr. Seuss about the power of people who live authentically, choose love, and lean into the power of an artful life.
All Rights Reserved. Please credit the author when using. © 2024 Theo Edmonds. The views expressed below are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of any organization with which the author is affiliated.
Whirlwind in the Thorn Tree
The COVID-19 pandemic and our increasing political gridlock have underscored the urgent need to get creative in how we have traditionally thought about urban-rural collaboration. As communities across the US grapple with the profound impacts of the past two decades, the potential for collective solutions lies in our ability to find fresh takes on cooperative strategies that help us work together across differences.
Enabled by wild jumps forward in communication technologies and digital infrastructure over the past few years, the rise of remote work, profound culture shifts in generational values, the emergence of a national rethink on the role of educational systems, and the somewhat elusive promise of social mobility that has long characterized the American Dream — we see a cultural Venn diagram of epic proportions taking shape. Americans are experiencing a cultural shift in our traditional identity boundaries that helped us navigate our lives in the past.
Identity transitions are hard! They are not about facts. They are about emotions.
Identity transitions and the emotions around them remind me of an old Johnny Cash song When the Man Comes Around. One lyric in it — “like a whirlwind in the thorn tree” — seems to pretty accurately capture what it feels like when a person or a nation is experiencing the kinds of identity transitions that are happening as we enter 2024.
Before we get to the good stuff found in our better angels, I suspect that we face more of an uphill climb than not as a nation. All of the things listed above and so many more are currently conspiring to shape acrimony. But there are always opportunities of paradox — hidden chances for positive outcomes— if we know where to look.
For example, while the divide between urban and rural areas seems to be growing, at the same time, we all are awakening to the awareness that talent, creativity, and innovation can thrive anywhere, breaking free from geographic constraints. To find the way forward, I see a light emerging in Generation Z.
Merging Creativity & Social Change
Generation Z, 41 million of whom will be eligible to vote in 2024, emerges as a unique weave in the American enterprise, demonstrating remarkable cultural shifts in cognition and societal engagement. Their upbringing in a world immersed in technology has influenced how they behave. Anecdotally, the shift I’ve witnessed in Gen Z over the past few years appears to be some type of 'cognitive offloading' strategy involving the creation of mental 'maps' that point to information stored externally, typically on digital devices, ready to be accessed when needed.
While there doesn't yet seem to be conclusive, direct evidence that Gen Z's brains process information differently than other generations, Deloitte reported in 2023 that their technology use is changing the way they interact with most all American systems, from education and work to consumer and media behaviors. They view the physical and digital worlds as a seamless experience, effortlessly mixing offline and online activities, creating a unique and interconnected world where there are no boundaries.
Generation Z stands out for more than just their unique behavior adaptations. They are a generation with a powerful bend toward creativity and a burning desire to effect social change. By 2025, Generation Z, the most entrepreneurial and neurodiverse generation in the workforce, will comprise 27% of the total.
Combined with today’s prevailing cultural workforce trends, their growing influence will undoubtedly reshape many traditional norms, particularly in work arrangements. Their proficiency with digital technology enables them to work remotely and flexibly, thereby challenging long-established concepts of fixed office hours and physical workspaces. Their intertwining of creativity and social consciousness, bolstered by digital aptitude, has enabled Gen Z with the potential to redefine other traditional dialogues, too.
Empowered by the ability to connect, collaborate, and create without geographical limitations, Gen Z may likely be the generation that will bridge America’s urban-rural divide in ways never before possible. In essence, Generation Z heralds a new chapter of urban-rural collaboration marked by creativity, social fairness, and digital interconnectedness.
Pairing Art & Technology
In the hands of Gen Z, the dynamic duo of arts and technology presents an unprecedented opportunity to usher in a new era of urban-rural collaboration within the United States.
The art's capacity to express, connect, and inspire serves as a powerful medium for dialogue and understanding. They act as a mirror to our shared human experiences, reflecting the intricacies of both the bustling cities and vibrant rural landscapes.
Technology, the backbone of our contemporary society, is erasing geographical boundaries and bringing about new expectations of how and where things get done.
The convergence of arts and technology increasingly serves as a potent bridge between diverse ideas, experiences, and perspectives. Catalyzing the transcendence of cultural boundaries, this creative fusion may lead Gen Z to find more innovative and sustainable solutions to our shared human challenges.
Reframing Time & Distance
Innovation, at its core, is not just about novel ideas or groundbreaking technology. It's about reshaping our perception of reality, bending the conventional dimensions of time and distance that bind our human experience. Take, for instance, the invention of the telegraph or the airplane. Both shrunk the world, reducing physical distances and enabling instantaneous communication across vast expanses. Similarly, digital technology—particularly the internet, now coupled with a growing interest in the application of artificial intelligence and quantum computing—is condensing time and space even further. This is where we find another incredible asset that Gen Z possesses — their perspective.
The global events that unfolded during Gen Z’s formative years - economic crises, climate change, social justice movements, pandemics, artificial intelligence - have imprinted on their minds the importance of alternative viewpoints. The need to question established norms, challenge the status quo, and consider new perspectives often marginalized or overlooked has become an integral part of their value system.
Born in the embrace of technology and global connectivity, they have spent years as observers perched on the threshold of a new era. Unencumbered by allegiance to many of the institutions that defined America over the last century, they have the freedom to think differently. Today, as the oldest GenZer turns 27, they increasingly have access to growing resources for fueling their motivations to take action
With each tweet, meme, or viral challenge, they craft narratives that savor the wisdom of a fresh gaze, a gaze not bound by the familiar or the traditional but eager to explore, question, and understand.
Many of us who have navigated systems not designed for us will recognize this skill set — it is that of an outsider's perspective.
Mountain We Must Climb
For those paying attention, Gen Z is unveiling hidden pathways, shimmering with potential for the future of work and the quest for a fair society. Arts and technology increasingly work together in their hands to illuminate the contours of our shared human experience.
The children of the digital dawn weave a narrative rich in the wisdom of nature and collective intelligence. They build bridges between the energized heartbeat of the metropolis and the ancient song of America’s rural mountains, plains, and coasts. Their fusion of cognitive and geographic landscapes pushes forward questions that can help us all transcend boundaries, amplify voices often silenced, and, with stark clarity, bring forward a generative challenge to engrained status quo conditions that have outlived their purpose.
In the midst of the bluster and fury of another presidential election year, let's not lose sight of emerging opportunities to invest in the strides Gen Z is already making toward harnessing the power of arts and technology. Importantly, investing in their brain capital and mental wellbeing must be a significant part of all such investments.
It's important to acknowledge that many individuals from other generations also bring valuable experience and wisdom to the table. Therefore, fostering a strong intergenerational framework is not just beneficial, but necessary. This is a call to action for transformational creativity, an imperative for building a resilient and prosperous future.
But first, there is a mountain that we must climb…
“Miss Myrtle and the Razzle Dazzle Belle Bang Bluegrass Band”
A story about the power of people who make music… together. Dedicate to ALL the people in America who live authentically, choose love, and lean into the power of an artful life. We are our greatest hope for the future.
Bedazzled, befuddled or haloed, The world holds so many different kinds of people You pass by so many, each day on the street. There are all kinds of people, Who in your life you will meet But of all the people you’ve ever met Of all the folks I bet you can name There is not a one, quite like Miss Myrtle The singing saint of the town of Belle Bang Belle Bang is a fine mountain town With miles of smiles and a swell Bluegrass band And every day at noon Myrtle’s up there singing on stage Always wearing blue flowers in an old worn out hat Smiling and singing and waving big hands Miss Myrtle is the Razzle Dazzle In our Belle Bang Bluegrass Band Myrtle is the champion of Belle’s Everyday People The keeper of songs that rise up from our land Myrtle’s music whispers to giants, asleep in mountains Our town was even saved one time, by Miss Myrtle and the Belle band. The story begins just over Mongerdoodle Mountain, Beyond the edge of Belle In a big place called Slick City. Where some people known as Falootans live It’s where the Slick City Falootans do dwell The Slick City Falootans… that is the name by which they are known And when our story begins, Slick City was growing too fast. Slick City was nearly outgrown. Senator Shriek, their slick ole leader had decided That he would take over Belle Bang He’d replace the town with factories, To support his Falootan gang. The Falootans wanted more business for business sake. They wanted more money They wanted more and more of all that greed-driven stuff. But for those Falootans you see, such a sad strange thing, Enough was never enough. They thought the most valuable things, were what money could buy High Falootan desire, driven by High Falootan greed. That’s what Falootans thought everyone should want, That’s what they thought everyone should need. So led by Senator Shriek and Governor Greed The Slick City Falootans, began setting their trap Belle Bang soon would be just one more pinpoint On the growing SlickCity map Belle’s teachers and schools were the first thing that, Slick City promptly shut down Governor Greed said, “The only learning that’s needed is to teach kids to work – They must earn their way in this town!” But even to the workers of Belle, The Governor gave stern warning “You’re only as good as your contribution today You’re only as good as the place you are earning.” “We have Slick City goals, we must always keep growing Value is measured in money. It is the best way of knowing Knowing who is valuable, and truly worth keeping We need less goats, and more people who’re sheeping. “ The Falootans stormed the BelleTower. Destroyed Belle Town Hall. And, though they had been there for a thousand years, They cut and buzzed them right down to the ground – The lovely and green, town square Belle Oaks Everywhere they turned, Falootans shouted and yelled They snorted and snarled at all the Belle Bang sweet folks “Get out of this place, you should no longer be here!” “We claim the town of Belle for Slick City!” Grumbled Senator Shriek, the Highest-Falootan leader. “And those of you who do stay “ he grimaced and frowned. “Those of you who don’t have any where else to move your homes to, Those of you too... who just choose not to go, You will be put to work in our factories. You’ll do just as we say. You’ll produce Slick City Steam, more and more every day That’s what we need to make SlickCity grow! The Belle folks began to feel defeated, Slick City seemed just too strong Even Myrtle and the band had started to think That hope was all nearly gone. Music and happiness would soon, it seemed Be a forgotten thing of the past Belle Bang had nearly stopped dreaming Belle Dreams were fading fast. Then Senator Shriek said something that made Miss Myrtle remember The power of song and rhyme, Shriek declared: “Music makers are foolish and useless! Making music is just a waste, of MY PRECIOUS money-making time!” Well right then, Miss Myrtle decided. That enough was more than enough! Myrtle began singing real loud to remind Belle’s Everyday People That nice folks could also be tough. “Papaws reach back in your memory,” Myrtle sang, “To those times where we stood proud and strong Grannies reach up to the ancestors They’ve been here all along Young folks know that within you Flickers flames of centuries with dreams. Let people and music become your guide It aint as hard as it seems Those who are hurting take hope Liberation is within our reach We are worthy, each and every This is the message we’ll preach Let us sing real loud and speak our truth To push out Shriek and Greed Us mountain folks stand On the shoulders of giants WE are the answer we need.” The young folks were first to join in singing Miss Myrtle’ sweet song of wonder out loud Then hearing this, the older folks too Stepped up to claim it proud Through fibers and satellites, a digital symphony arose, Echoing Myrtle's song through cyberspace, Media, reposts and digital flows, Calling in people to one embrace. From screens and speakers, the song took flight, Bridging hearts across the virtual divide, In pixels and waves, the Belle folks claimed their light, Miss Myrtle their singing guide. Then all of a sudden it happened, Just over the mountain from Belle The Everyday People who lived in Slick City, heard Belle's song of freedom. Then started singing their own! It was a song of freedom as well ! From both sides of Mongerdoodle Mountain All the Everyday People joined in singing A song to push out Shriek and Greed. All the Everyday People sang together “Each other is what we need.” As sunrise came up over the mountain The Falootans found themselves trapped Shriek and Greed had forgotten that Everyday People… need people… everyday. People are more than a map. The victory theirs, Myrtle led everyone atop Mongerdoodle mountain, To sing and to dance and rejoice! Music had brought together people from everywhere! ALL singing in one, Everyday People voice. When Everyday People, together all sang, “Truth to Power!” All the Everyday People of BOTH Slick City and Belle, All discovered that working together Caused everyday hope to swell. As their togetherness grew, “United We Stand!” Became their way of living each day. Everyday People, everywhere, learned to lean on each other In that special everyday way. But had it not been for Myrtle The keeper of our hopes in a song The stories of everyday folks today, might have turned out real different, Hallelujah! The arc of justice bends long. As the years went by, the legend grew Myrtle’s name was often spoke, always with great love and caring Miss Myrtle became a legend for bringing Everyday hope, in a everyday song, meant for everyday sharing. Then one day, as all folks do, Miss Myrtle passed away. Everyday people from both sides of the mountain sang to remember, The one whose music flowed like honey, all throughout the land They told the stories of Razzle Dazzle When Myrtle took to stage with the Band All the everyday people sang to honor the memory, Of the happy little man who liked wearing a dress The one always seen wearing a worn-out, blue-flowered hat Smiling and singing and waving big hands The one who never lost faith, in the power of people with dreams Yes when our story began, Miss Myrtle was not exactly who you pictured, I bet! Myrtle was more than he seemed. If Miss Myrtle were still here today, I’m sure we would be reminded, To move on through every day of our lives, And to one thing -- never forget or be blinded… …Some folks are here, to teach us all lessons Some are here to help save our lives There are bullies and meanies, who live up in green, pampered places And secret angels living down in hollers and dives Secret angels are all around us If we just look to see them there They don’t usually have wings… They don’t need lots of money just to buy things They are wonderful secret angels, pretending to be music-making people Teaching us all how to be kind and show love Things every one of us, need every day, Like a cold hand needs a glove. So next time you pass by, someone on street Be sure you see them for who they are Someone who needs you, like you need them That’s the way Everyday People are. Some folks may start as a stranger, somewhere over a mountain Only to become a trusted, everyday friend And that is why you, should be a friend too Because when a story begins, you never really know How things will turn out in the end.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Theo Edmonds is a Culture Futurist™ & Analytics Innovator | Bridging Creative Industries, Social Brain Capital, and the Future of Wonder. A lifelong artist and poet, they are the Co-Founder of Imaginator Academy, IDEAS xLab, and lead the global Creativity Infrastructure Working Group for the Brain Capital Alliance.
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