Don’t Confuse Your Ys and Zs

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The marketing world has long had an obsession with Millennials (once called Gen Y) – worrying about them, over-analyzing them, complaining about them, often poking fun of them.  

As such, the world has been indoctrinated with the concept that young people are overly optimistic, trophy-getters with an unrealistic view of fame, future success and the value of their own opinion.  Problematically, many marketers have a habit of assuming that the insights about one generation of youth apply to the next…that attitudes have more to do with lifestage than anything else.  This mentality would lead many to assume that Gen Z is approaching the world with the same unabashed optimism and inflated sense of self as their older brothers and sisters.  This couldn’t be more wrong.

Sure, there are many attitudes and behaviours that do have to do with lifestage, and there are also many ways that Gen Zers act like “Millennials on steroids”, taking on certain key traits like digital nativity and diversity and even stepping them up to a whole new level.  However, there are also a multitude of ways in which Gen Z are in fact Anti-Millennials, and at the heart of these differences is a complete reversal of Millennials’ trademark optimism.  Gen Z is a generation that is not only more realistic; they are downright cynical.

It is not very surprising that Gen Z has such a cynical take on life.  A significant portion of them are being raised by Gen X parents – latch-key kids with a snarky take on society, that watched in horror as the world chose to obsess over the blue-sky youngsters behind them.  A generation who couldn’t help but chuckle when those youngsters began to realize that just believing in your own greatness would not actually result in fame and fortune. The younger set of Gen Z is coming into the world with Millennial parents – Millennials who have now realized that believing in your own greatness does not actually result in fame and fortune.  So, yeah, Gen Z’s cynicism is not that surprising.  But, surprising or not, their cynical take on life, on their potential future and on the world at large is at the heart of many of the traits that really define them as a generation.  Here are a few of the Gen Z attitudes and behaviours driven by this “glass is three-quarters-empty” POV, supported by data from Open Mind Strategy’s Youth Culture Monitor, a survey of over 1800 Gen Z and Millennial consumers, fielded in June 2017.

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They are specializing early.
Millennials, as kids, were known for their “over-scheduled” lives – they had more opportunities at their avail than any generation before them and this made them a generation that revered eclectic passions and people with a diverse portfolio of hobbies and experiences.  Gen Z is no less scheduled, in fact their days may be even more regimented, but while their extra-curricular options remain varied, many are choosing to transfer more eggs into one basket at an earlier age (or their parents are making the transfer for them). With more pragmatism seeping into activity selection, Gen Z does not see the point in spending time on something unless they are among the best at it.  Playing softball because you enjoy the game and the camaraderie?  Come on, you haven’t made the travel team yet and you are in 3rd grade!  Time to put more emphasis on lacrosse…  At very early ages, Gen Z is working hard to figure out the avenues in which they excel, and focusing their full schedules accordingly. Data from OMS’ Youth Culture Monitor shows that more than 2 in 5 (42%) Gen Zers agree that if they aren’t really good at something, they don’t waste their time pursuing it. It’s a rough world out there, don’t waste time on things that won’t give you a leg up!

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They are seeking passions that pay.
Aligned with their early specialization, is Gen Z’s increasing appreciation of the side hustle.  As youth, Millennials were a generation that was highly focused on passion simply for passion sake.  As the first generation reared on social networking, they strove to project their many interests to the world and used these passions to present their persona. Gen Zers also want to find a passion they can pursue, that they can both excel at and enjoy.  The difference is Gen Z wants to make sure this passion PAYS.   

79% of Gen Zers agree that “a successful career is one of the most important things in life” and though they are not yet at the career stage of their life, they are 20% more likely than Millennials (who are) to feel this way.  Gen Z has seen the impact that a weak economy has had on their parents.  They have watched as smart millennial relatives graduated from top universities only to move back home and remain jobless for a year or more.  They still believe in the dream of living your passion and loving what you do, but their pragmatism and cynicism remind them that this just may never happen.  As such, they are focusing very early on developing a plan A, B, even C. Nearly 6 in 10 Gen Zers say that they have many different plans for their life/career, in case one or more doesn’t work out. They don’t want to leave their future up to chance.  If their ultimate passion isn’t profitable, they know they’ll need to find a side hustle that is. On the flip side, some even acknowledge at an early age that they have skills that may support them better financially than their dream will, so they plan to take the stable route – to become an accountant – while keeping their photography app going as the side hustle, until it can really pay. Approximately 2 in 3 say that “making a lot of money” is one of the most important things in a career. It’s all about multiple streams of wealth to gain true financial freedom!

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They do NOT agree that everyone is cool.
Young Millennials were known for their all-accepting, “shades of grey” mentality.  As teens they scoffed at Gen X’s cliquish approach to growing up and led the charge on “geek chic” and an “everyone is welcome” point of view.  They were pro-soldier, anti-war and passionately proclaimed their personal beliefs while simultaneously believing that those of a differing inclination were absolutely “right” as well.  Gen Z, not so much.  While they do embrace the belief that everyone should strive to be an individual and, like Millennials, their digital lifestyle offers access to the pursuit of a broad array of interests and perspectives – they don’t actually believe that everyone is cool.  They are more siloed in their take on social interaction, while simultaneously having a diverse array of tribes.  They certainly don’t proscribe to the dated Gen X concept that one clique is “the cool clique” and that everyone else should die trying to get into it, but they also don’t believe that everyone should be invited to everything. You can have a wide array of friendship groups – 63% of Gen Zers say they have different friend groups – just don’t expect all your groups to get along, or to even notice the others exist.  Gen Z is ushering in the return of cool and totally uncool…it’s just a more eclectic version.  Unlike Millennials, Gen Z does believe that “this” is cool and “that” isn’t.  They also believe that “this” is right and “that” is wrong – they live in a political world that makes it nearly impossible not to feel this way.

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They don’t assume you want the key to their diary, and they aren’t gonna give it to you anyway.
Gen Z is pretty grossed-out by the approach that Millennials took when it came to social networking.  They’ve not only heard the war-stories of college acceptances and job offers rescinded due to inappropriate online behaviour, they also don’t support the idea that every detail of one’s life is worth sharing.  They acknowledge that both their mom and their grandmother are online (and they sometimes wish they’d shut up on there!), so they aren’t exactly dying to showcase their wildest nights for all to see. Additionally, their cool/uncool take on social dynamics means that they don’t think their every idea needs to be broadcast for the world to see – they just want the RIGHT people to see them.  Gen Z proscribes to a significantly more curated and “walls up” approach to social networking. 82% say they are very careful with what they post on social media. This doesn’t mean they are shrinking violets.  In fact they are really happy to share raw, unfiltered details publicly.  They just prefer channels like Snapchat that allow them to broadcast certain ideas to certain people only. Maintaining your reputation is important and it is stressful.  Approximately half of Gen Zers admit that they care “too much” about what other people think of them.  Additionally, they are so concerned that the version of themselves that they project to the world is a cool one, that they reserve only the “best” images/videos on channels like Instagram and keep the fun, stupid, “I look like a total wreck” moments to channels like Snapchat where they’ll disappear promptly. Why on earth would you want that horrific post-party image of yourself preserved for all posterity?  If it’s funny, send it…but make sure that thing vanishes quickly. In some ways, Gen Z’s digital stories are more reminiscent of Gen X’s high school tales – there was one Polaroid, but I ripped it up, so maybe it happened, maybe it didn’t.  With Snapchat best at fueling their more-directed, shorter-lived self-expression, it’s not surprising that 83% of Gen Zers say they are checking it every day, and approximately half say they are checking it CONSTANTLY.  

They are more tempered in their expectations of Happily Ever After.
As seen in the examples above, Gen Z’s cynicism runs deep.  They do not believe that everything will definitely work out, though they are more apt than Millennials to believe that their own generation will solve many of the world’s problems.  They believe you need to work extremely hard and they’ve got their guard up and are ready for a fight.  This more guarded perspective extends to their feelings about true love.  Gen Zers are significantly less apt to believe in true love than Millennials.  They have grown up in a world where divorce is a common reality, as is the increasing number of couples opting out of “the marriage thing” altogether.  Compared to Millennials, Gen Z is far less likely to agree that relationships should be monogamous (46% vs 75%). Most Gen Zers still want to find that perfect partner, but they don’t assume it will just happen, or happen in a conventional way. Once again, they have hope, but they aren’t counting on it.  

Gen Z is still young.  While much of the above would lead one to believe they are a somber, serious bunch, they are actually still fun-loving, crazy kids.  They are just kids who have witnessed a lot of hard, even scary, times in the world at large and they have had to cope with a healthy dose of “real” at a young age.  As such, they are snarkier, more sceptical and a bit less accepting.  Hey Gen X, sound familiar?  

Imagine that, a generation of youth that it won’t be so easy to hate.

Allison O’Keefe Wright, EVP, Managing Director, Research and Strategy at Open Mind Strategy, LLC

Allison O’Keefe Wright will be speaking at YMS NYC this October, sharing more insights into the new consumer wave.