In some respects, Millennials have dominated my world over the past 10 years. As a trend forecaster and journalist, I’ve written and spoken at length about the granular particularities of their behavior and wants, needs, desires for hungry brands, desperate to leverage their vast spending power. (Full disclosure: I am, depending on definition, myself a Millennial. I was born in 1981 and am in a strange hinterland of not-quite-Generation X, but neither Millennial "proper," which has lent an outlier/insider perspective to my work.)
You can imagine, after all this, that the arrival of Generation Z is something of a relief. In fact, there’s a palpable relief among brands, press, marketers, strategists — pretty much everyone, that there’s something else to talk about. Finally!
Even better. Generation Z — the group currently aged 12 to 19 (born mid 1990s to early 2000s) — are actually refreshingly different from millennials. They’re a lovely, engaged, idealistic, sophisticated and conscientious bunch who are buying into none of the things that Millennials did — in part because they’ve seen what they went through and learned from them.
Where Millennials say they’re concerned about the environment, Generation Z is doing stuff about it, already. Where Millennial celebrities came from staged reality TV shows, Generation Z is wise to this and prefers its celebrities homegrown. This generation wants to see its peers in the picture, whether that’s on gaming platforms or YouTube. Where Millennials got in to debt for their education and are now splurging all their free money on experiences, travel and food (rather than save for a mortgage), Generation Z is exploring alternatives to higher education and saving for the future.
I’m fresh from releasing our in-depth study of the group, and I am genuinely excited about what they will bring. i-D magazine’s recent "Activist Issue" looked at Generation Z: "The Internet has helped us in making the world a better place. It's our generation's ears and eyes, giving us the knowledge and tools to implement change," reads the magazine, which profiles a selection of teen activists, proactively seeking to change the world.
Nuance is the key to understanding Generation Z. They’re highly digitally connected, but that doesn’t make them cynics. In fact, our study found they’re very idealistic and, in some cases, quite earnest (Malala Yousafzai was a recurring theme in our interviews as a hero.) But that doesn’t mean naïve, either — they’re tough on brands, and the Internet is giving them means to discover anything and everything about products they consume. Brands will have nowhere to hide in future.
This progressiveness-meets-realism extends to their view on gender. They’re remarkably open-minded about sexuality. In our research, 82% of our respondents said they didn’t care about sexual orientation, and 67% had a friend of a different sexual orientation. But they are wise to the world they live in, too. Fifty-six percent thought men and women were treated equally in the workplace, and 87% said racial discrimination still exists.
They’re going to present a few challenges to brands. First, this generation doesn’t buy into the traditional idea of celebrities or airbrushed images. They want to watch their peers on YouTube, or strangers playing video games on Twitch, rather than following Kim Kardashian — they prefer the more relatable Kendall, or Cara Delevingne, gurning on Instagram telling you to "embrace your weirdness."
"The Tumblr-generation muse is no longer a flawlessly airbrushed A-lister flashing her pearly whites on the cover of the September Issue while dripping in borrowed diamonds," writes Jane Helpern, editor at Smashbox Studios and Nasty Gal, in i-D Magazine. "Today’s of-the-moment model has dark circles under her eyes; she’s makeup-free; she’s gap-toothed, gangly, and uninterested in being edited into submission."
The historic intrinsic bond between teens and fast-food giants is also shifting. This generation is more concerned about health and looking after their bodies. They check food labels and know what to look out for, especially in the United States, where 45% said they tried to only consume food with natural ingredients. 67% agreed that healthy eating was trendy. They favor quality quick-service restaurants such as Chipotle and Shake Shack, which each carry a social mission alongside offering gourmet fast food.
As for a new era of employing and managing Generation Z, I’m pretty excited. Creative, questioning, sophisticated and principled, they sound pretty fantastic. Let’s just hope a jaded, aging pseudo-Millennial can live up to their standards.
Lucie Greene is worldwide director of J. Walter Thompson's Innovation Group.