Generation Z and the Alphabet

I teach generation Z, people who are now in their early twenties.

Generation Z follows Generation Y, which follows Generation X.

What will we call the next generation? We’ve run out of letters! “Generation [”?

Well, it doesn’t matter. Read on…

I was reviewing old exam questions in my introductory algorithms and data structures class. Here’s the question:

This looks innocent enough. However, several students were openly annoyed by this question.

What’s the problem? It has nothing to do with priority queues or heap order or anything else algorithmic. If you aren’t generation Z, you’ll never guess.

They asked me to please use numbers instead of letters. Why? I turns out that comparison between letters is no longer constant time! As one student put it, with a straight face, it’s really hard to determine if, say, Q is higher or lower than some other letter. Helpful students sagely suggested to their fellow students to just start by making a list of the alphabet on a separate piece of paper for this type of exercise. This was met with earnest nodding.

It was quite clear that I had made this question needlessly difficult by making it about letters.

This is a sterling example of a skill that is utterly natural to my generation, who has looked things up alphabetically countless times. I have no harder time comparing M and S than I have comparing 5 and 13. But, of course, Generation Z has never looked anything up alphabetically. It‘s an utterly useless skill honed in the olden days of outdated information technology, like knowing how a slide rule works or typing on a T9 mobile phone keypad. Generation Z finds this as hard (and as useless) as I find it comparing Ψ and Φ. I can do it, because I memorised the Greek alphabet with I was eight or so, and can still rattle it off in the right order. But it takes linear time in the size of the alphabet.

So, from now on, I guess I use plain old numbers in this type of exam questions.

Also, the generations following Generation Z can be safely called Generation W, V, U, etc. Nobody will notice.

Also, I feel old.

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