New year new youth – ‘Gen Z’s’ coming of age

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At the beginning of a new year, we’re looking to the future and to the next generation of consumers. ‘Gen Z’, generally defined as those born after 1996, is coming of age: entering college and the world of work. Marketers would be wise to recognise that this generation is not simply an exaggerated version of the ‘Gen Y’ Millennials who precede them. Capturing their attention will require tailored approaches and an understanding of their distinctive characteristics, five of which we have identified below:

1. They have a short attention span: Recent studies suggest ‘Gen Z’ attention spans run to a grand total of eight seconds. As Fast Company points out, this short attention span is a response to the fast-paced online world they inhabit; ‘Gen Z’ have become adept at filtering through masses of information. They are highly selective about what they engage with but, far from being apathetic, will pursue the things that pique their interest with zealous intensity.

‘Gen Z’ want the best and they want it quickly. Reflective of their desire for brevity and rapidity is the popularity of short form video sources like YouTube, Instagram and Snapchat amongst this audience as well as the proliferation of on-demand services from video on demand like Netflix, to dinner-on-demand apps like UberEats.

2. They trust individuals not brands: ‘Gen Z’ distrust large corporations and by extension big brands. As The Guardian writes, only 6% of this generation trust big corporations to do the right thing, as opposed to 60% of adults.

As Forbes writes, unless brands convey what they truly stand for in their marketing and this aligns with the values of the ‘Gen-Zers’ they are attempting to target they will fail to attract them.

‘Gen-Zers’ tend to trust individuals more than big institutions and as a result many brands are turning to social media influencers in an effort to drive appeal. Companies might collaborate with an Instagram user who has a massive following (or increasingly an individual with a smaller following but with demonstrable influence over them), paying them to feature a product or service.

3. They use ‘social’ to curate their own brand: Social media has had a significant impact on the behaviours of ‘Gen Z’. As Forbes notes, unlike the Millennial mentality of broadcasting anything and everything on Facebook, ‘Gen Z’ is shifting to a more selective method of sharing specific stories to specific audiences via platforms like Instagram and Snapchat.

The emergence of ‘Rinstagram’ (“real Instagram”) and ‘Finstagram’ (“fake Instagram”) accounts, held by a single individual, demonstrates the extent to which this generation are cultivating very specific images of themselves for different audiences online. ‘Rinstagram’ is a private realm reserved exclusively for the eyes of friends and family; an escape from the modern necessity of social media performance and staged selfies on ‘Finstagram’.

The Medill News Service points out that this split representation on social media could result in a borderline personality disorder and expresses concern that this generation more than any other seems to derive self-worth through others validating a highly artificial version of themselves, disseminated through social media.

4. They are sensible and realistic but positive: Gen Z are health conscious, money conscious, and career conscious. As The Guardian puts it today’s teenagers might be “our most abstemious yet”, or as Vice sensitively describes it “they’re boring as hell”. Amongst this contingent, smoking and alcohol use is down as is drug taking according to a 2014 NHS survey.

Generation Z is coming of age in the shadow of economic decline which has opened their eyes to the challenging financial reality they face but also made them determined to fight hard to create a stable future for themselves. As a 16 year-old quoted in the Guardian puts it, “Life for us is hard. A struggle. I think we’ve got it much tougher than our parents’ generation. But we can’t give up.” According to the New York Times Gen Z are readying themselves for the difficult times ahead by saving money, ‘skilling up’ and pursuing ‘sensible’ careers.

5. They embrace difference: Having grown up seeing the election of the first African American President, with women in positions of power in the workplace and openly gay public figures, Generation Z is a very accepting and non-judgmental generation. This openness and unwillingness to stereotype translates to a preference for gender neutrality in terms of clothing style and conversation as well as a more fluid sense of sexual and gender identity, which we discussed in detail in a previous Mailer.

After focussing for so long on their ‘Gen Y’ counterparts it’s time to look to the future and ‘Gen Z’. No doubt they will continue to surprise and defy expectations.

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If you’d like to discuss the impact of these trends on marketing in more detail, please don’t hesitate to get in touch.

About Matthew Macaulay

Matthew Macaulay is a Research Manager at MTM working in the qualitative team. He is particularly interested in youth trends and the impact of changing perceptions of gender on the media landscape.