Getting to grips with Gen Z

Can initiatives aimed at diversifying staffing and output be effective if the dominant ideologies that underpin book businesses aren’t challenged?

Four years ago, Generation Z surpassed Millennials and Baby Boomers in terms of world population and, being the generation born from the mid-1990s to the early 2000s, they are now entering the workforce. But is the publishing industry ready for them? If, as an industry, we are only just catching up with the fact that it is greater meaning—not bean bags or ping-pong tables—that drives Millennials at work and in their professional choices, how can publishing move creatively and meaningfully engage with the times now that we have the Gen Z worker, the actual digital native, to incorporate?

Gen Z are self-learners and entrepreneurs, the generation for whom there was no time before smartphones. Gen Z have never known a way of being where they couldn’t instantaneously connect, or look up any question that entered their minds, nor a time before Google search, Amazon product search, before the 50,000 adverts they see a day, before McDonald’s self-order. They don’t remember a time when there hadn’t been a black US president, nor a time when same-sex couples couldn’t marry. Gen Z carry a subjectivity and culture that interrogates its own mindset, that speaks its mind and can hone-in on both like-minded and alternative viewpoints in an instant. Gen Z is highly sceptical of the idea of single sources of truth or authority, it lives for and values ephemeral content and moves fluidly from subculture to subculture, from one identity to another.

Yet publishing’s response has been to invest in the art of persuasion. We believe we can make our industry quicker, smarter, bigger, more meaningful politically. We pat ourselves on the back for agreeing that technological innovation is crucial, or for agreeing that build-measure-learn cycles might be a good way of reinterpreting more traditional linear models of product development, and hold up initiatives such as Hachette’s Changing the Story as examples of explicit and considerable change. While simultaneously breathing a collective sigh of relief when Plan S is delayed a year, so we don’t have to face the prospect of reinventing the wheel over this summer’s break in Roussillon.

But if that’s all we’re delivering—a projection of what our industry could be like, a five-year transformation plan around what are essentially still completely siloed business functions—there will be fewer and fewer creative minds interested in joining the ranks. The cultural capital associated with “working in publishing” that sustained our industry, and its overwhelming middle-class whiteness for generations, has lost its economic value. A manager who doesn’t know basic code, who isn’t grounded in a test-and-learn mindset, or who isn’t continuously looking for ways to evolve workplace culture, methodologies and processes, is a joke to Gen Z. The very idea of a workplace diversity programme, let alone sensitivity reading, is offensive.

That’s not to say that diversity programmes aren’t necessary. Initiatives such as the Publishers Association’s Spare Room Project offers practical help that makes a material difference for many individuals, as does the rise in awards such as the Jhalak Prize. We must see, though, that these initiatives can be constitutive of the very siloed thinking that they are fighting. Projects like these are not a substitute for actually achieving better workforce diversity stats, nor are they a substitute for politically responsible publishing. Our current industry diversity stats are not inevitable, they are the result of choices.

Gates thrown open
For centuries, the industry has existed on the knowledge and connections of editors and publishers whose raison d’être was to figure which idea, writer or manuscript would be a bestseller. Today’s economy and culture constitute a direct threat to the existence of that kind of gatekeeping. The exclusive owning of the space where cultural and economic capital come together is not only unfashionable, it’s completely unnecessary. While behavioural analytics are changing everything around us, and data defines what the next big-budget, 10-part story we want to see is, you’re signing another six-figure book deal on the basis of inevitability, hoping that the resourcing of a new audio team, or the hiring of a new diversity professional, will catapult the industry into the 21st century.

The workplace and the workforce is changing dramatically, as is the supply chain and the skill-set required of a publisher. The industry needs bigger thinking: thinking that acknowledges a population spread across more generations and cultures; thinking that holds technological and cultural change at its heart, not as a collection
of lines under new headings in the budget. For me, that means a full-on re-conception of how publishers create value and, in all likelihood goodbye to "top-down, linear-life-of-a-book, get that cis guy to write one about the trans experience" thinking; and hello to "flatter, less-centralised organisational models and more authentic connections within the workplace and with our customers".

At any juncture, there’s always the lure of imagining that all our problems would be solved if we could just push back on some of the changes. That kind of thinking, the idealising of a mode that went before, is dangerous. What’s more, gone are the days when there even was such a thing as linear history.