Why It’s Time to Start Caring About Gen Z
September 4th | 2015
by Becky Lang

For a long time, the term “millennials” has been synonymous with young people.

“What are those young millennials into, and how will that change the way we do business?” But lately when people ask this, I feel compelled to counter with, “Do you mean Gen Z?” The thing is, millennials aren’t all that young anymore. Millennials are having kids, contemplating botox and checking in on the performance of their 401ks. You know, things people do when they start to grow up and settle down.

Meanwhile, the next generation, Gen Z, are starting to hit age 19 this year, meaning they’re fully poised to completely shake up how the world works. Coupled with the fact that it takes most large companies a year or two to research, strategize and build new products and services, now is the perfect time to start paying attention to Gen Z. By the time they hit legal drinking age, youth-minded innovations should be ready to leave the pipeline and enter the real world.

So what’s up with Gen Z? They’re just millennials take two, right? Not so fast. Here are a couple preliminary observations on these ever-elusive young people:

Trading The Hippie-Dippie for the Practical

Millennials were generally raised by Baby Boomer parents, whose flower power idealism rubbed off on them. Because of that, millennials have a general sense of optimism that things will work out, your dream job will come to you eventually, and in the meantime, why not backpack across Europe and find yourself? The recession shook some of this out of millennials, but this influence is still seen in the major waves they created across industries, from demanding more eco-friendly, sustainable products to preferring individual activities like yoga over team sports, to changing the modern lifestyle by blending more home into work and more work into home.

Gen Z, on the other hand, were raised by the more discerning Generation X, who approach the world with more practicality and a healthy dose of cynicism. Because of this, Generation Z isn’t so sure that their dream job is coming, and if it is, it’s going to take a lot more ladder climbing and playing by the rules than what millennials were prepared for. This article about why millennials will end up working for Gen Z is quite eye-opening.

Gen Z Probably Won’t Live with Their Parents Quite So Long

A year ago, I interviewed a bunch of teachers about what their Gen Z students were like, and the most interesting thing every single one of them told me was that plenty of them pay for their own clothes, cell phone bills and even sometimes their own food. They’re already used to working and paying for part of their own lifestyles. In contrast, how many millennials are still on their parents’ cell phone plan? Let’s not ask.

Gen Z will likely be less content to hang at mom and dad’s house into their late twenties. (Although if another recession hits, who knows how those attitudes will change.) It could also be possible that the Boomer households millennials have lived in so long are slightly different from the Gen X households Gen Z-er’s might stick around in after college. Some millennials may have had a hard time leaving their Boomer parents’ spacious suburban McMansion for a one-room studio apartment. For more perspective on Gen Z and independence, read this piece in the New York Times.

Gen Z is Super Diverse and Tolerant

Almost a quarter of Gen Z is Hispanic, and Caucasian Gen Z-ers make up only 55%. (Note to Donald Trump: They’re starting to hit voting age…) For a generation this diverse, authenticity in the way you approach them is going to be key. For Gen Z, the meanings of comfort, family and identity are more of a tapestry than a one-size-fits-all answer. Food, clothing and media will make an even bigger shift toward serving populations the things that feel authentic, truly by them and for them; rather than taking inspiration from many cultures and then tailoring products to a primarily white audience. Expect a lot more dialog about the meaning of identity, and a lot more scrutiny in the way advertising tries to portray different kinds of people. It’s not just about ethnicity, either. Gen Z is more progressiveabout gay marriage and transgender rights than any generation before them.

Gen Z Mainlines Technology a Little Less than Millennials

When one generation invents and shapes something in culture, they usually put it front and center, sometimes overemphasizing its role in life. The next generation watches this and takes note. In this case, millennials grew up watching technology transform from Tamagotchi keychains to 3D printers, and don’t hesitate to fully immerse themselves in this world. Who needs face-to-face contact if you can all watch the Oscars together while live tweeting? Gen Z has a bit more careful and balanced approach to tech and communication, valuing time to physically be close to the people they care about. 66% prefer to interact with friends in person vs. online.

We Still Don’t Know What Will Shape Gen Z

Despite all these preliminary observations, we can’t say for sure what Gen Z will be like. They’re just growing up, after all, and it’s easy to confuse traits typical to young people with traits of a whole generation. Beyond that, big cultural events might still transpire to change the way Gen Z thinks about the world. Recessions, warfare, global warming, shortages of food supplies, the increase of globalization, who knows what it will be? Something will come along soon enough to test Gen Z. As they say in the storytelling world, conflict is the biggest revealer of character. That said, it’s time to start keeping an eye on them. They’re the newest version of our future.