Understanding Gen Z: Defining Moments for a Generation

May 20, 2020

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While news surrounding millennials and their choices continues to appear in headlines, the generation that follows — Generation Z — is also trending as its members grow older, begin entering the workforce and continue increasing their buying power. Now, as COVID-19 decisively alters this generation’s future, it’s more important than ever to understand the moments in recent history that have made Gen Z who it is today.

1. 9/11

While most of Gen Z (born ~1995-2005) was not old enough to remember the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks — or even born when they occurred — researchers have argued 9/11 should be considered the defining event that caused this group to experience a different world than other generations.

Growing up in the shadow of a major turning point in modern U.S. history meant Gen Z’s upbringing was drastically different compared to millennials. In the aftermath of 9/11, Gen Z’s parents became cautious about the threat of terrorism, seen most visibly in the adoption of increased security measures for travel that are now the norm.

Due to this environment, members of Gen Z are slightly more conservative than millennials. In fact, Gen Z has been compared to the Silent Generation (born 1928-1945), which expressed a preference to “work within the system” after experiencing two World Wars. Similarly, 69% of Gen Z continues to respect authority and recognize the value of structure and experience.

According to FleishmanHillard Fishburn’s Project Z study, as Gen Z shapes the future of the workforce it is notable that only 11% strive to be their own boss despite an increase of entrepreneurial content online, with the majority preferring traditional career paths.

Marketers should understand that although Gen Z is young, its members are extremely pragmatic and prefer to update “the system” rather than overhaul it completely.

2. Polarizing Politics

Gen Z has also been acknowledged for voicing political opinions with friends more than any previous generation. While open to political discussion both in the classroom and the workplace, Gen Z’s members are hyper-aware of partisan efforts to shift their political opinions. And as distrust in the media increases, Gen Z is also wary of political messaging from individuals or brands that appears insincere.

Further, this generation views social justice not as “activism,” but as a basic human right because its U.S. members grew up in a country with a black president and the legalization of same-sex marriage. Brands should be mindful of messaging that frames these initiatives as radical.

Being accepting of Gen Z’s political preferences will prove most effective when trying to reach this group. This can be seen in the recent success of nonpartisan campaigns encouraging an increase in young voter turnout ahead of the 2020 U.S. election.

3. COVID-19

As the COVID-19 pandemic alters our perception of the world, experts agree this shift in our economic, political and social landscape will impact Gen Z most heavily. Before the spread of COVID-19, Gen Z was expected to enter the workforce during a time of economic prosperity — unlike millennials, who largely graduated college during the Recession.

This is no longer the case. Recent college graduates have been forced to navigate canceled job offers or now-virtual internships, while high school and college students face a completely different learning experience.

A March 2020 Pew Research survey found that “half of older Gen Zers (around 18 to 23) reported that they or someone in their household had lost a job or taken a cut in pay because of the outbreak, significantly higher than the shares of Millennials (40%), Gen Xers (36%) and Baby Boomers (25%) who said the same.”

As brands and companies communicate with Gen Z in the wake of the pandemic, it is important to understand that the generation’s tendency to feel cynical and distrustful of corporations is only growing. While Gen Z “value entities with a purpose (1 in 4 rank this as a top priority), interactions must feel genuine and relevant, rather than an obvious commercial ploy or a desperate attempt to connect.”

Today, Gen Z holds $200 billion of direct buying power and $1 trillion of indirect buying power through their parents. When it comes to spending, its members value brands that are affordable (57%) and trustworthy (55%).

In a post-pandemic world, marketers should prioritize building trust with Gen Z as its members determine which brands to remain loyal to and which products are most meaningful to them. Because the experiences Gen Z lives for are no longer available in the format its members were once familiar with, brands will have to adopt evolving strategies to successfully connect with them during this shift, and now more than ever, transparency will be crucial.

As marketers, it is imperative that we understand the social context and values that drive consumer choice to authentically connect with various groups. That said, broadly analyzing a generation is only the beginning, and we’re committed to using this information to inform tailored audience insights that allow us to communicate with consumers in a way that is emotionally and institutionally impactful.