Karl Mannheim on Generation Z

by Chris Scholz on November 8, 2018

Karl Mannheim did not write this little essay.

But he might have done so.

And he would have loved it.

Please read it, enjoy it, give feedback.

The article will be part of an upcoming book “Generation Z in Europe”.


Christian Scholz[1]

How Karl Mannheim[2] would have talked to us about Generation Z

That’s exciting. In 1946 I had been designated chairman of the European Section of the newly founded UNESCO, but since I died in 1947 this chance has passed me by. But writing a little article for this book gives me another chance to say something about educational, scientific, and cultural issues – the real mission of UNESCO. And it all has much to do with young people. But we have to understand these generations; if not, we would simply use old logic on new people.

What are generations?

For this question I have already given in 1923 a very clear answer. Young people who are young at the same time experience when they are young the same concrete historical problems. Well, problems seem to be misleading, since they refer only to negative aspects. Actuality might be better, because it describes a group of individuals seeing themselves with a specific set of experiences at a given moment of time.

Generations, therefore, are derived from a biological standpoint, since they originate in the period of youth, when people can get shaped best. And they are derived from a historical standpoint, since they experience the same actuality of time. All this leads to a joint feeling of collective location and identity.

Since members of a generation are always similarly located, this limits them to a small set of potential stimuli, leading to a small set of characteristic experiences, thoughts, and reflections. This leads to a clear-cut set of typical actions.

To make it perfectly clear: for me, “generation” is much more than just a “cohort” or any other simple statistical term. Behind my concept of generation lies an implicit but well-formulated theory.

Even though I love writing long articles, which are hard to write and even harder to understand, in this small text I will keep it short. And even though I love complex sentences and paragraphs, I will move into short speech using bullet points almost in the style of what today you would call PowerPoint (even though I see no power in that tool to make any point). But let me continue and go into some detail about the young people between – let’s say – 1995 and 2015. They are called “Generation Z” and nobody really knows how to deal with them. For that reason, we learn most when we concentrate on what not to do.

Mistakes in dealing with generation Z

Yes, everyone is shaped during childhood by their father and mother. This is not new. What is new is that we are all also shaped later during our youth by what happens to us when we are – let’s say – 17 years old or a bit younger. And these characteristics stay to some degree constant over the whole life span. Therefore, when talking about the characteristics of Generation Z we must not use characteristics derived from age. We have to focus on characteristics from their shaping epoch.

Lesson #1: Don’t mix up “Generation Z” with “being young”!

By the way. It is also totally wrong to see baby boomers (born between 1950 and 1965) basically as old people unable to walk, or type on a smartphone.

Yes, every generation has a common “location”. In German I call this “Lagerung”. But this does not mean that we have a community of Z-people. “Community” translated into German brings us to “Gemeinschaft”. Even though they have similar characteristics they are not a group formed on the basis of a specific goal, a specific mission, or a specific joint pattern of behaviour.

Lesson #2: Don’t see Generation Z as “Gemeinschaft”!

By the way, we could think of Generation Z as a “Gesellschaft“ (society) – or better a society in miniature. This is a fascinating thought with many fascinating implications, which I might develop further in my next life.

Yes, in much of my work, I talk about how generations develop and what then makes a generation. And then we spend years discussing how to find descriptions everyone agrees upon – a mission impossible. Therefore, much of the discourse dealing with Generation Z is basically descriptive and brings us to some shots from the hip on how to manage this strange Generation Z.

Lesson #3: Don’t deal with Generation Z just in a descriptive mode!

We need ideas on how to deal with Generation Z. And Generation Z needs ideas on how to position itself in this world. Therefore, what we need are solid arguments grounded in sociological and psychological theory, as well as in all the great works on organizational behaviour and human resource management.

Suggestions for dealing with Generation Z

Let’s close with some ideas for the future of Generation Z research, which are all laid out in principle in my works, that are deep enough for many generations of researchers.

Suggestion #1: Use stratification!

Moving back to experience we come to what I call “stratification of experience” (In German: “Erlebnisschichtung”). Even if people are born at the same time, this does not always lead to complete identity of location. They might share many important experiences. But they might also have other factors (background, country, social level) leading to a “stratified” consciousness. It is not difficult to see why mere chronological contemporaneity cannot produce a common generation location on its own..

Therefore: Yes, Generation Z is a unique and very different generation, but we must observe and understand slight differences, leading maybe to different types of Generation Z. But let’s not forget: It is indisputable that all this still produces a common generation location.

Suggestion #2: Search for first impressions and constructions!

Forming the all-important joint consciousness starts with first impressions. These childhood experiences (or better “youth experiences”) trigger those processes that mould one’s very own views of the world. Since the triggers are similar, the views are similar. We are still on an individual level. The next step is social construction. Young people talk with each other (WhatsApp is good too). These formative and interpretative activities lead to a shared perception. This leads in the end to a joint and consistent picture.

Therefore: find the triggers and understand the “gestalt” they lead to.

Suggestion # 3: Go for culture, not for mechanics!

Some stupid literature written on Generation Z focuses on digitalization and on smartphones. This is nonsense. Every generation has had new information technologies. Just look at Wikipedia and you can find the first automatic punch card systems (“by definition: digital”) in the year 1725.

Therefore: Generation Z is not a technology, it is a culture based on values interacting with behaviour.

A final word on Generation Z

Generations form themselves as a reaction to problems. Therefore, Generation Z is not a problem. Generation Z is a sensor for social, economic, and political problems, our world has to solve immediately. Media, industry leaders, and politicians have failed terribly. We need the ideas and the visions of young people – and therefore I wish I could have joined UNESCO 70 years ago.

[1] Christian Scholz (scholz@1v.com), Professor for Organizational Behaviour, Human Resource Management and Information Management, author of the book Generation Z (Wiley 2014).

[2] Karl Mannheim, born 1893 in Budapest (at that time Austria-Hungary), died January 1947 in London, England. He has been a sociologist, well known for his Sociology of Knowledge and for his work consensus in modern societies. In the posthumously published Freedom, Power, and Democratic Planning (1950), Karl Mannheim expressed his dislike of totalitarianism.



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