Sick of hearing about Millennials? Good news: there’s a new generation just starting to come of age, with new attitudes and new priorities. Known as Generation Z or Centennials, this generation includes kids born from approximately 1996 to 2009, making them 5 to 19 or so. They make up a quarter of the American population, a much larger slice than their parents, who are mostly Generation X or Millennials (42 percent each). Gen Zers are technology whizzes, outspoken individuals, and pragmatic realists, and their consumption habits reflect this. Let’s take a deeper look at who they are and what they want.
Surrounding Environment and Seminal Experiences
Members of each generation are shaped by the major events that occur in their youth, and Generation Z has lived through some difficult events. Having grown up through 9/11, the War on Terror, and the Great Recession, these youngsters are more risk-averse than the entrepreneurial Millennials but more engaged than the “slacker” Gen Xers.
According to an analysis by Sparks & Honey, members of Generation Z are “mature and in control.” They are less likely to drink alcohol, smoke, or use illicit drugs than preceding generations. Their teen pregnancy rate is much lower, and they report getting in fewer fights. They are eager to get their careers going, but they aren’t shooting for the stars: they want steady, meaningful work.
“Since Centennials are being born in a time of trials and traumas, their parents have begun to shift from the Millennial-era emphasis on self-esteem and self-expression to a focus on resilience and integrity. Centennials are being taught to plan for the future and tend to avoid frivolity and unnecessary risk,” notes an infographic by the Futures Company.
“Social listening reveals that Gen Z are determined to ‘make a difference’ and ‘make an impact,’” notes the Sparks & Honey report. “Social entrepreneurship is one of the most popular career choices.”
This is not to say that their caution makes them miserly. Gen Z members have substantial allowances ($14.90 per week) and enjoy shopping, particularly online.
Brands looking to reach this generation must take them seriously, reflect their desire to change the world, and have a robust mobile commerce platform.
Speaking of online, Gen Zers almost always are. Members of Generation Z have never known a world without the Internet, and most of them don’t remember a time before social media or widespread mobile phones.
“We are the first true digital natives,” 18-year-old U.C.L.A. student and lifestyle blogger Hannah Payne told the New York Times. “I can almost simultaneously create a document, edit it, post a photo on Instagram and talk on the phone, all from the user-friendly interface of my iPhone.”
They appear to have short attention spans, but that’s more of a filtering technique than a rule; they will go deep on topics they care about.
“They’ve grown up in a world where their options are limitless but their time is not. As such, Gen Z have adapted to quickly sorting through and assessing enormous amounts of information,” explains Fast Company. “Once something has demonstrated attention-worthiness, Gen Z can become intensely committed and focused.”
They carefully manage their online personalities, filtering what they share to create a personal brand. Although they’re constantly connected, Gen Zers have learned from the mistakes of Millennials who came to regret posting drunken selfies and impulsive rants. The younger generation favors social media that won’t haunt them forever—Whisper and Snapchat, not Facebook.
The trick for brands is to provide content that quickly cuts through the noise, but is also backed up by an in-depth experience. A six-second Vine video is perfect for capturing attention, but if it doesn’t lead to anything else, it will be quickly forgotten.
Kinds are growing up in a more diverse and more integrated America than ever before. While the white population of children 6 to 17 is expected to decrease 1.5 percent by 2018, the percentage of Hispanic teens is expected to grow 7.6 percent over the next five years, according to Sparks & Honey. Interracial marriage and procreation are on the rise, with a 50 percent increase in multiracial children since 2000. For this generation, having a mixed-race president is more a fact of life than an unbelievable achievement. With greater exposure to other cultures through the Internet, pop culture, and classrooms, Generation Z members are interested by and accepting of difference.
Generation Z has also grown up in a time of expanding rights for sexual minorities, with the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and the successful fight for gay marriage. They take a more fluid approach to gender and sexuality than older generations.
Savvy brands have already noticed these cultural shifts and have begun featuring ads with that appeal to multiple races and sexual identities. There has been backlash—a Cheerios ad with a mixed-race family drew nasty Internet comments a few years ago, and a recent Progresso Soup ad with two dads caused an outcry—but most of the objections come from older generations.
Considering its diverse population and DIY attitude, it’s no surprise that Generation Z is about individual style, not fitting in. In a recent survey, only 47 percent of youths 12 to 17 said they “care a lot about whether their clothes are in style,” down from 69 percent in 1999.
For the new generation, fashion is less a way to fit in with the crowd and more a way to cultivate their personal brand.
“Young people feel much more emboldened to express their own sense of style rather than mimicking a peer-accepted uniform or dress code compared to previous generations,” Rob Callender, the director of youth insights for the Futures Company told the Times. “In short, there’s a strong ‘you do you’ ethos among teens today.”
Brands seeking to appeal to Generation Z need to position products as a way to stand out, not a way to fit in. Being able to customize their purchases is a big plus for these young people.
“To win the hearts and minds of this unique generation, retailers need to offer cool tools that put Gen Z in charge of the development process,” suggests Marcie Merriman, the executive director of growth strategy and retail innovation for Ernst and Young. “They’ll need to accommodate Gen Z’s impatient tendencies by providing an easy and seamless creation and buying process, that gets products into their hands quickly and free of delivery charge.”
Marketing to the Next Generation
As Generation Z becomes the dominant force for consumption, brands need to evaluate their marketing and product strategies to make sure they’ll stay relevant in the future. Appealing to Generation Z will require adapting to what they care about and how they like to shop. They are practical and pragmatic, easily bored and endlessly curious. They expect interactive technology and quick gratification. They are diverse and accepting. They are outspoken individuals who love collaborating with others. They are ready to engage when you find the right approach.