What makes Gen Z tick? Download report

Avocado on toast, adulting, “doggos”, the crying-laughing emoji, Friends, not being able to function without coffee. 

In the past year, these have all become ammunition some Gen Zers have used to #bullymillennials online. To borrow a term fast growing in popularity, all of these millennial touchstones are, in their own way, seen by the younger crowd as a bit cheugy

These recent potshots have brought the very concept of generations to the fore. 

Generations are a key way for marketers to segment their audiences. 

But a true understanding of them (and why we should use them), backed by solid data, can be hard to find. 

In our latest research, we’ve put some hard numbers behind these cultural trends and clashes. In this blog we address the following questions:

  • What’s truly distinctive about Gen Z?
  • Are Gen Z like everyone else was at their age?
  • What do they think about other generations?
  • What’s the point of generations, anyway?

How Gen Zs differ from millennials

For all of the “ok boomer” memes in recent years, the latest frontline of the culture war is Gen Z (defined as those aged 16-24 in our research) vs. millennials (those aged 25-38). 

Online posts in summer 2020 revealed how keen some Gen Zers were to distinguish themselves from their older counterparts. During that same period, Google search volume for “Gen Z” leapt above “millennials” for the first time. 

In many ways, it felt like a changing of the guard. 

Our research highlights four distinct areas where Gen Z differ from millennials. They are: anxiety, hustle, political engagement, and visual media

These topics have been discussed elsewhere in relation to Gen Z, so it’s worth saying that not all traits commonly associated with them are backed up by our research. 

Compared to millennials, they’re less likely to describe themselves as health-conscious, or to be confident with new technology.

It’s also worth pointing out the biggest meaningful difference between the two generations is to do with life stage; 56% of millennials are married, compared to 6% of Gen Z. And twice as many Gen Zers live with their parents. But the insights below still apply when you control for those variables, showing there’s more going on beyond these characteristics than just what stage of life they’re in.

chart showing the key differences between Gen Z and millennials

Anxiety

Gen Z and millennials are equally likely to be comfortable talking about mental health, but Gen Zs are more likely to say they’re prone to anxiety. So we can assume higher incidences of anxiety are genuine, and not just a case of being more comfortable disclosing it.

Whenever we talk about Gen Z, it’s natural to reach for a phrase like “tech-fluent” or “digital natives”. It makes sense; a hallmark of their generation is not knowing a world before the internet, and this has several implications. One is that their anxiety often has a technological charge – so they’re more likely to worry about spending too much time on smartphones or social media.

Digital natives they may be, but we shouldn’t use the term lazily – it overlooks how they’re more likely to feel a kind of friction that comes with it, and how they’ve often had to develop their own structures and limits when going online. 

Hustle

In our research, Gen Z are more likely to describe themselves as adventurous, ambitious, and money-driven. Of course ambition is another quality usually linked to the simple fact of being young, and it’s easier to be all of those things while you still feel you have the time and the opportunities to pursue your goals. 

But we need to consider how technology has allowed a hustle culture to develop, thanks to a close relationship between social media and entrepreneurship that wasn’t available to previous generations.

There’s now a much shorter pathway between posting on social media and making it big. It took Charli d’Amelio, the 17-year-old “queen of TikTok” less than a year to become the first creator with 50 million followers on the platform, by far the shortest period for anyone to make that benchmark on the major social networks. And unlike others who were the first to reach that tally elsewhere (Taylor Swift on Instagram, Katy Perry on Twitter), she didn’t have pre-existing fame.

The gap between bedroom creator and celebrity is smaller than ever. Even if Gen Z’s ambitious nature is shared by generations previous, technology has made it much easier for them to act on those ambitions.

Political engagement

As with ambition, political engagement could justifiably be pointed to as something almost universal among young people in most periods of history.

But our long-running Core research, conducted since 2009, allows us to do something few researchers can. We can compare how the priorities 16-24s have with how their millennial counterparts felt when they were that age in 2012.

To control for other factors (like the addition of new markets to our ongoing research), we have focused this analysis specifically on the U.S. 

chart showing the most talked about topics by young people online

As you can see, politics and environmental issues are now a bigger part of the online conversation for young people – having been close to the bottom of the leaderboard for 16-24s back in 2012. 

Another area where Gen Z is challenging tradition is with regards to gender and sexuality. 

They’re much more likely to describe their sexual orientation as bisexual, homosexual or other, which indicates more comfort with the topic. 

The number of Gen Zers who define themselves with one of those terms in the U.S., compared to millennials, is almost double.

Visual media

TikTok has become something of a shorthand to describe where Gen Z hang out online, but it doesn’t quite tell the whole story. Based on a whole series of findings across our research, we could well call them “the Instagram generation”. 

It’s their most-used social platform, the one they use most during the day, and the one they’re most likely to call their favorite. And the distance between it and the second-favorite platform is bigger than any other generation. 

What makes this particularly interesting is how it impacts their view of the world, their interests, and their beliefs. It’s another example of how changing technology and media can leave a distinct impression on generational thinking. 

A recent article in The Walrus talked about how the “richness” (think video over text) of Gen Z’s favorite social media platforms impacts their identity. It was focused on TikTok specifically, but in combination with other visual-friendly apps like Instagram and Snapchat, it underlines just what an impact these “richer” platforms have. 

The personal interests most distinctive to Gen Z are almost all the product of them using more image-based forms of social media, which means an above-average interest in music, dance, and all kinds of visual media – even something like fine art.

You might think this is down to an age-based preference for cultural activities, but that’s unlikely – they’re less likely than average to be interested in museums/galleries. 

The other aspect of visual media that defines Gen Z is memes. 

Memes are one of the most common types of content they consume and post on social media, and meme accounts are second only to people they know in the list of accounts they follow the most. 

Memes underscore the particular challenge in communicating with Gen Z online. So much of their communication style is dictated by cultural references and certain visual cues; if you want to meet them on their level, you have to do your homework and learn the lingo. 

What’s the point of generations, anyway?

The term “generation”, and different generational labels, can be used so liberally in marketing that we can sometimes forget it’s based on theory and not a fact of life in the way age is.

Our Core research gives us insights into Gen Z, and suggests why certain things are particularly relevant for this group of young people at this time. But with our recent research from GWI Zeitgeist, we wanted to tackle the concept of generations head-on, simply by asking consumers how they felt about other generations, and what shared traits made them identify most with other people. 

The results were eye-opening. If Gen Z do share traits with young people at all times in history, only a minority of the older generations see those similarities. 

Only 23% of their age neighbors, millennials, think they were similar to Gen Z at the same age. 

What’s especially interesting about these results is they’re virtually the same as when you ask people how close they feel to Gen Z at their current age. In other words, to older generations, a Gen Zer looks as alien to them now as they do when they try to imagine their younger selves at that stage of life.

Gen Z actually see more parallels between themselves and older generations than vice versa – 34% see themselves as similar to millennials. But that’s still a minority. The bulk of Gen Zers see themselves as a distinct group from older generations. 

All told, it shows how different generations feel from one another, and how important understanding their distinct worldviews is. 

Not just a new generation, but a new type of generation

Definitions of what exactly a “generation” represents can vary. But broadly speaking, most agree that a generation is a cohort of people whose attitudes and beliefs are inspired by events of significance that occur in time as they are developing. The 2008 financial crisis is usually cited in that vein for millennials, whereas for Gen Z it’s likely to be COVID-19. 

This works for the most part, but an overlooked aspect of how generations form is the influence of technology and new media. 

Online media has created new social networks and strengthened age-based ties within each generation. 

It gives people more freedom to feel part of a generation than perhaps was the case before. 

Because Gen Z are digital natives, they have been free to socialize with other people their age in a way previous generations would have found more difficult. 

Older generations relied more on social networks that were physically close to them, which would have meant a smaller pool of people to choose from, and a wider distribution of ages. Gen Zers on the other hand, can talk freely with each other across borders on social media and, as we’ve mentioned, in more visually rich ways. 

Particularly in recent months, we’ve seen the cultural aspect of being part of a generation, of being a label that people willingly apply to themselves, not something instituted by sociologists, come to the fore. Even if “Gen Z” and “millennials” started out as labels created by others, younger generations are more likely to hold onto them as a badge of pride. 

chart showing Gen Z identify more with those their age than those they share a language with

This is borne out in our research. Gen Z are more likely to say they share an identity with people their age (32%) than with people who speak their language (27%). This is an indication of just how much the internet has flattened geography for them, and enabled them to form social networks based on age and that sense of being part of a generation.

Some feel the concept of generations is essentially meaningless. But it begs the question; if generations don’t exist, why do so many people of one generation care if they’re roasted by another? 

Social media has made it easier for consumers to define themselves by seeking out like-minded tribes. It may well be that generations are, are or becoming, one of those tribes.  

Generational targeting is more more relevant than ever

Not only do Gen Zers have characteristic traits separating them from other generations, these are a step beyond how other cohorts of young people thought and felt. 

Being connected through social media has also allowed Gen Z to carve out more of a group identity for themselves than previous generations could. 

Generations will always be an imperfect shorthand in marketing, and one that has to be considered alongside other aspects of identity, like race, sex, and nationality. It should be stressed that no generation is uniform, and there are as many differences within generations as between them. 

But in trying to understand how consumers tick, it’s a good place to start. And generational targeting will be even more relevant for the next generation of consumers than it ever was. 

Connect with consumers: a picture of devices and consumers in 2021

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