One of the fastest growing industries in the U.S. is the business of decoding Generation Z, the 12 to 20-year-old cohort following fast on the heels of Millennials. Although the exact dividing line is hazy, the term, “Generation Z,” is generally attached to the group of young people born between 1996 and 2015. Hardly a week goes by without some group or another declaring that it has “cracked the code” of what makes Gen Z tick.
Advertisers, marketers, and multi-national corporations recognize the immense purchasing power and burgeoning influence of Gen Z and are desperate to stake their claims. Pundits and bloviators, often proud Millennials, have generalized and categorized an entire generation, defining it in ways that suit their magazine or blog site’s purposes.
In many cases these definitions of Gen Z seem to paint a picture of nothing more than a tech absorbed, narcissistic, depressed generation, unable to distinguish themselves from vibrant Millennials or their baby boomer parents. With so many people trying to define what Gen Z means and stands for, a consideration of these characterizations and their veracity from the individuals who make-up Gen Z, has never seemed more necessary.
A recent report conducted by Businessinsider dubbed Gen Z “anti-books, stubborn, absorbed in technology, impatient, lacking skill for meaningful social interaction, scattered.” Time magazine called Gen Z narcissistic and lazy, solely interested in consumption of everything around them in ways that benefit them.
The New York Times reiterated the notion that Gen Z has an aggressively short attention span stating, “we tell our advertising partners that if they don’t communicate in five words and a big picture, they will not reach this generation,” said Dan Schawbel, the managing partner of Millennial Branding, a New York consultancy.”
Yet, these characterizations do not paint the full picture of Generation Z. In many respects Gen Z has taken the tumultuous and violent world into which they were born and the immense opportunity proffered by the technology that surrounds them and used it to bring about positive change. Brand solutions firm Wildness, which was born out of AwesomenessTV, conducted a study that surveyed 3,000 youth and interviewed teens in eight U.S. cities.
The most significant finding was that Gen Z kids are “Culture Creators” and catalysts of a cultural revolution. In the words of Wildness, Gen Z is “redefining entertainment, consumption, the workplace and marketing.” Wildness nailed it. Growing up with the Internet has freed Gen Z from the confines of traditional cultural expression has fomented a renaissance of collaborative creativity unencumbered by adult supervision or arbitrary limits.
According to the Wildness report, 20 percent of Gen Z members regularly post original writing online and 27 percent make videos. As Catlin Gabel Junior Sydney Palmer puts it, “Our collective lack of memory of a time before the Internet, makes us the first generation with an seemingly innate comfort in the connected world, and allows for an intuitive integration of technology in our daily lives.”
Gen Z has something to say and they want their voices heard. Gen Z is alway in a rush, thriving when multi-tasking, aiming to make the world around them fit their needs instead of fitting within the dictates of the world, looking for products and projects to help them do just that. Unlike the Millennials that came before them, Gen Z is not a mere passive consumer of technology, instead Gen Z is using the opportunity that technology offers to build connections, explore new cultures, and launch their ideas.
“With technology and social media everyone is a journalist, and a reporter just by using just our phones, we can write op eds in 140 characters,” says Catlin Gabel student, Grace Wong ‘17. She continues, “This allows us to be much more involved with the world around us and it expands our local communities globally.”
Also, because of the desire to leave a mark, Gen Z is America’s first entrepreneurial generation. Businessinsider reported that 72 percent of Gen Z members aspire to run their own company one day. In short, Gen Z is harnessing their stubborn independence and pragmatism, utilizing technology as a means of self-education, and defining their own place in the job market instead of placing their futures in someone else’s hands.
As Catlin Gabel student Sahil Neurekar ’17 puts it, entrepreneurship, “…allows you to create, express yourself, advocate, and give back to the community, all with the intellectual autonomy that people our age value so intensely.”
Marriage equality, gender-neutral bathrooms, and Caitlyn Jenner have become the norm, not the exception. Institutional racism, sexism, and religion-fueled, narrow-minded thinking about gender continue to plague our country, yet Gen Z is more interested in putting aside unfair and discriminatory classifications and is more comfortable judging people on their ideas, aspirations, and accomplishments. Although an excess of political correctness has the potential to be their downfall, if Gen Z maintains a value system of equality and inclusion, they have the potential to build a more harmonious, inclusive society as they progress to adulthood.
In addition to being “culture creators,” Gen Z are culture consumers. Another insight from the Wildness study is that teens consume media in an entirely new way, with 70 percent preferring streaming over television and 0 percent choosing TV if they could only keep one device. Some surveyed acknowledged that they did not even know how to turn on their TV at home and instead elected to consume all of their television on a laptop.
Gen Z defines the way that they consume the culture around them. The majority of Gen Z web content comes via social media from our peers, with each teen curating a unique flow of news from Twitter and Snapchat, videos from Vine, experiences on Instagram, recipes on Pinterest, and clothes on Wanelo.
Finally, Gen Z is positioned to be America’s greatest giving generation, having grown up as the first generation for which schooling was twinned with community service. Far from being narcissistic, Gen Z is hardworking, self-conscious, and thoughtful. Working for the public good is at the core of the Gen Z ethos.
Malala Yousafzai is another Gen Z idol, combining courage and social entrepreneurship. Although Gen Z may seem superficial when slavishly following certain fashion and social media trends, commitment to community is a common denominator across Gen Z, with community outreach being something not that “has” to be done but that young people “want” to do.
It is becoming increasingly common for members of Gen Z to start non-profits or speak out in support of causes in which they believe.“Our generation is learning that the expanding privilege imbalances in our world are unacceptable, and strives to live with more gratitude for the opportunities and support that they are provided with,” says Catlin Gabel Student and founder of nonprofit Camions of Care, Nadya Okamoto ’16. Okamoto continues, “This gratitude and motivation to create equity and allow freedom of creativity for all catalyzes a growing commitment to making sustainable social change.”
Whether they “feel the Bern” or are excited by the prospect of electing America’s first female president, the majority of Gen Z cohorts who will vote this fall agree that government can and should play a role in addressing America’s challenges.
That said, Gen Z is still looking to define its place and leave it’s mark. “Our generation is very focused on making a change but we haven’t quite figured out how to yet,” states Catlin Gabel student, Emma Hayward ’17. She continues, “We have a lot of great ideas and are striving to improve our society but we don’t have access to all of the change we want to.”
As society starts to identify this generation of tremendous power and potential, even the name “Gen Z” has been challenged. TeenVogue used the descriptive “Katniss Generation” for a generation that is defying the odds to fight for what they believe in. MTV dubbed the group “Founders” in deference to the pioneering spirit of the generation. The LA Times coined the classification “Gen Edge,” paying homage to the role of a generation living on the verge of giant social and technological change.
In the end, “Gen Z” is a more than appropriate name, giving the generation status as the heirs to Gen X and Gen Y and the last in the line of alphabet-inspired generations. Name aside, it is essential that members of Gen Z take charge of how it is defined instead of letting advertisers and marketers arbitrarily make those definitions. This will ensure it is defined as something different and significant, characterized by optimism about the future, possessing a belief in the possible and a commitment to the ideals of leaving its community and the planet better places in the future.