What’s with Gen Z Anyway?

Millennials have been a center of gravity for marketers for some time now, but as the next generation of youth culture emerges, it’s time to have a look at Generation Z.  Who are they? What makes them tick? And how are they different?

The Next Generation of True Digital Natives. And Digital Sceptics?

While Millennials may have been characterized as having an overabundance of optimism, never-can-fail view of the world and pioneering social-digital enthusiasm, their younger counterparts appear to have an evolved, perhaps more clear view of living in a digital world.  This generation (which Pew characterizes as being born between 1997-2012) shares enthusiastic use of digital devices and social platforms.  However they also recognize the opportunities and consequences of media and technology on their lives and in their greater world.  In reality it’s difficult to tag American youth then as “Digital Natives”, as their lives have always been connected.  GenZ have been born into a world of connectivity, fast moving social interaction and ubiquitous content.  Digital isn’t a “thing”, it’s the norm, much like the oxygen they breathe.

So what is different about GenZ, their mindset, behaviours and their life experience?

Generation Z and their relationship with media technologies has happened in time of accelerated change and drives a more nuanced, questioning view of living in a connected world.

  • Twitter-centered politics
  • Social media driven activism in parallel with digitally sparked societal polarization and instability
  • A stock market driven by consumer technology brands
  • The rise of fake news and social media deception
  • Well publicized culture of “internet stranger danger” and the risks of rideshare for people young and old
  • Societal, Reddit-like “trolling” and extreme polarization of social issues and politics
  • The consequence of online and real life bullying and how digital channels create a certain unhealthy stress response of unbridled negativity (sometimes with deadly consequence)
  • Family and societal struggles caused by internet-based business innovations and the economy
  • The rise of youth activism and high-profile young voices speaking out on the topics of human rights, gun control and political change

Selfless vs The Selfie.  More than Instagrammers and Mobile Addicts.

Early research on Generation Z has focused much on their life and their relationship with media technologies, particularly mobile content, Instagramming and other youth driven social media pursuits. However, our research suggests there’s more to Generation Z than just their media habits.

True, the majority of this generation has never known life without the internet:

  • Have in many cases moved on from, or de-emphasize “old” technology brands like Google, Facebook
  • Aren’t bound by the old rules of schedule-based broadcast tv viewing and seamlessly flow from pervasive choices across cable tv, internet video, video game, mobile live streamed content and long form streaming service providers
  • Have gravitated towards creative, visual mediums like Instagram
  • Share their lives continuously with friends and family via video, photos and text messages
  • This life between in-person, digital and virtual self is blurred and “real” takes new meaning

However, if Millennials had been characterized by being a bit self-focused and digital obsessed, Generation Z is more pragmatic, if not neurotic.  Not surprising when you think about the world around them as they’ve grown up.  Given the societal, political and economic disruptions within their formative youth, Generation Z share a healthy scepticism, if not worrisome anxiety about the state of the world. In some ways they might share a less direct, but equally activist-oriented trait of desiring change that stereotyped their Generation X parents.

  • Are questioning the world around them and how to better live within it
  • Far from the dug-in, polarized views they see in the world, most of GenZ is far more open, accepting and embracing of new ideas, cultures, sexual preferences and live truly in a more non-binary, grey area in terms of self-identity than previous generations.  
  • This shouldn’t be surprising, given their ability to “be anything” in a virtual world. They shape and shift their identity via social media, and communicate and traverse different interests and cultural tribes as they navigate towards young adulthood
  • All is not rosy however, and there is a palpable neuroticism, uncertainty and unease of this youth. Though not necessarily brooding, there seems to be a more self-aware knowledge that the world around them is in flux and they are trying to break through to a better place
  • They are as likely to question their screen time and devices as they are likely to feel naked without it

Happily Creative.  Accessibly Curious.  Industriously Nerdy.

Despite discomfort or neuroticism, GenZ have grown up with some of the most accessible and easy to use creative tools.   This may well explain their seemingly dichotomous open and optimistic nature while also having a depth of understanding of the world that may have not been accessible to previous generations.  Creativity, entrepreneurial interests, science and technology is more of a badge of honor.  The once “nerdy” escapism of fantasy, sci fi and action comic worlds is embraced by many.  In school, via video games, and on YouTube they are surrounded by creativity, boundless knowledge and participative exploration and learning.

Being a geek isn’t what it used to be.  In fact, these nerdy pursuits may very well be the new cool.

Don’t Box Them In.  Help them take action.

So marketers, time to keep tabs on how this youth generation evolves.  And as we do it, think less in stereotypes and mass generational proclamations and dig deeper to understand what and how they are different for your business your brand.  Whatever you do, don’t box them in to an age-based persona.  They’d rather you understand, help them and let them help you figure out your world and theirs to a make their worlds a better place.

Andy Hunter is a researcher, brand strategist, digital journey specialist for Tapestry Research with a love for getting more insight into the human condition. He often finds himself both utterly confused and often inspired by his Millennial colleagues and Generation Z family and their extended community.  While he finds himself increasingly losing to them in his favorite games and bar sports, he thoroughly enjoys mocking their own stereotypes and pleading with them to listen to punk rock while he does.  His opinions are not necessarily those of Tapestry Research and those he works with, which not only amuses him, but also makes going to work a lot more fun.