Unlock the door to Gen Z

Marketeers’ interest in Gen Z spiked at the dawn of 2019. So let’s take a look at this emerging generation, how it differs from others, and the implications on brands, employers and possibly even parents.

For the record, I’m treating anyone born after 1995/6 as Gen Z, with the millennial (Gen Y) generation sprouting from the period 1980/81 – 1994/5. It’s also worth noting that Gen Z are mostly the children of Gen X, 1969/70- 1979/1980, while millennials are the progeny of baby boomers.

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All clear? Excellent. I also recommend taking generational research with a healthy-sized pinch of salt, partly because it’s tricky to separate period and lifecycle effects from genuine cohort effects. It’s also essentially crazy to regard an entire generation across the globe as having shared traits.

I certainly wouldn’t suggest targeting Gen Z with a single campaign – although the British Army is claiming success with its recent and controversial recruitment drive.

 

Generational insights

Arguably, the value of generational insights is in helping marketers understand how their audiences and the world are changing and will continue to change. Observations of Gen Z are building upon trends that have been bubbling for some time through Gen Y and Gen X, for example.

Here we might take identity as a paradigmatic example. The rise of so-called identity politics since the 1960s has been well documented, as we move through an era that has seen the first civil rights campaigns, anti-discrimination laws, abortion rights and the legalisation of homosexuality.

These trends appear to have peaked with a profound level of fluidity in the identity of today’s young people. They refuse to accept fixed labels, preferring to express a more experimental approach to gender and sexuality that is often baffling to older generations. In doing so they are standing on the shoulders of giants. 

For members of this particular generation, as with Gen Y, it is their relationship with technology and their online attitudes and behaviours that are most important to understand. These aspects of their experience are what differentiate them the most from previous generations.

So, while many regard millennials as digital natives, this really only applies to younger members of the generation. In fact, the majority spent their childhood in blissful ignorance of the wonderful World Wide Web.

Gen Z – most wired generation

Gen Z, however, were being born as the web was taking off and some of the most iconic names in tech were surfacing (Google, anyone?). This generation is undoubtedly digitally native, but perhaps more importantly they are also smartphone and social natives. This makes Gen Z the most wired generation in human history – lending itself to an unprecedented level of global awareness and connectivity.

I urge people to pay attention to their relationship with consumerism. If we, for arguments sake, take the mid-1980s as the birth of consumer society or late-modern capitalism, we can consider Gen Z as the first true consumer natives. This gives us a very useful frame for many of the attitudes and behaviours attributed to them.

Another dimension of difference is existential and relates to the failings of our national and global economic model, ecological crisis and the profound failings of democratic politics. In the UK you can see this passionate desire for change reflected in the rise of the grassroots political organisation Momentum, for example, which can be traced back to the Occupy movement and similar Gen Y phenomena.

There’s an emphasis on Gen Z talking responsibility, recognising what they can do as consumers, and not waiting for others to take action (as millennials did). Indeed, at the time of writing, a global wave of school strikes is turning the world’s awareness to climate change.

In Gen Z, I see the maturation of many underlying trends across society. It’s fascinating to see how they are playing out, especially around the hybrid relationship between the physical and virtual worlds. We can observe this in their social (media) sophistication, caution around sharing and relative mistrust, and most interestingly an increased appetite for real world experiences including physical retail and even print.

Digital citizens

Finally, when looking at Gen Z and consumerism or materialism, we must consider the context of their lives. Here we’ll find high expectations of transience in employment and living. Not only are Gen Z digital citizens of the world, they are more globally mobile than anyone and more likely to be mixed race. They don’t expect to be buying their own home any time soon, which shows in the vast increase in shared living and the high turnover of addresses and short-term lets.

All of this militates against owning too much stuff and supports the idea, alongside sustainability trends, that we have reached ‘peak stuff’. This is further enabled by the rise of streaming services, another defining feature of the Gen Z experience. This generation’s homes are no longer cluttered with CDs, books or DVDs. Everything is available at the click of a button, whenever and wherever you want.

Oh, and the sheen has gone off the devices themselves too. For Gen Z, it’s all about the applications and capabilities, what you can do with the tech not what the tech is. It’s quite the contrast to starry-eyed Gen Xers excitedly getting their first mobile or smartphone and racing to upgrade. Many of today’s Gen Z will have been using a smartphone for 10 years by the time they graduate from university – although these days that’s less likely to be their chosen path.

So, there you have it: an introduction to some of the thoughts and ideas surrounding Gen Z.

At Profusion we’ve been fortunate to work with a Gen Z music brand called Boiler Room, for which we’ve delivered a global survey and related insights, a robust audience segmentation and related analyses.

We look forward to sharing some of these original findings with you in due course, so watch this space.

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Michael Brennan

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