Understanding Gen Z in 2020 and Beyond

Gen Z: Those born between 1995 and 2015 and so aged between 8 and 23 years old 

COVID-19 is having a huge impact on our lives, bringing people together but affecting every generation in very different ways. Here we take a look at the impact of lockdown on Gen Z, who are missing out on some of the most important milestones of their formative years.  College students won’t get to sit their exams and will be allocated grades and therefore university places, based on predictions. Some may delight in this, but others may despair. None will be able to enjoy the feeling of truly earning their place at university or a new job role and these feelings of disillusionment may be felt for years to come. Not properly completing school or college also means missing out on other important ‘coming of age’ experiences such as the last day of school, prom or a first holiday with friends, some of whom they’ll never get to see in person again. Of course they’ll stay connected via technology, but Gen Z has been deprived of some key life experiences, therefore it’s important to understand the effects of this on Gen Z as people, before we consider their behaviour as consumers or future business leaders. 

They won’t be defined. 

Whilst they’re also known as post-Millennials, Gen Z should in no way be thought of as ‘Millennials 2.0’. They’re an entirely different demographic with their own unique life experiences, values and behaviours and the aforementioned events in recent weeks has only exacerbated this further. 

Whilst many believe that culture defines us, Gen Z are less influenced by culture and are more inclined to redefine it. They won’t allow society to define them by their gender or sexual preferences, instead preferring to be recognised for who they are as people. ASOS unisex brand Collusion (launched in 2018) was the sites most successful brand to ever launch, selling 1.5m units in 6 months. Brands need to recognise that they don’t necessarily have influencing power over Gen Z, instead they must get to know young people and tailor their offering to respect their values and wants as consumers. 

A prime example of this is Greta Thunberg, perhaps the most famous Gen Zer, who has trampled over cultural and geographical barriers to unite young people around the world in a shared commitment to protect the planet. American music star Billie Eilish, is also a poster girl for Gen Z and holds the record for the youngest artist to win all top four Grammys. She’s one of the most famous 18-year olds in the world right now, yet has stated that she always wears baggy clothes so that, ‘Nobody can have an opinion because they haven’t seen what’s underneath’. This strive for non-showy individualism is becoming increasingly common amongst Gen Z and may explain the resurgence in popularity of Doc Martens, who saw an 18% increase in sales in 2018/19, fuelled by from Gen Z, who are also driving increased demand for the brand’s vegan boots. 

Many young people often look to redefine themselves and will regularly have an Instagram ‘purge’, deleting all of their previous photos and unfollowing the brands they’re bored of and the influencers who may have ‘got too big’ (i.e. less real). 

Brands must therefore seek to deliver fresh content which is relevant to Gen Z, whilst being clear about what they stand for, especially during the current situation, if they’re to maintain any semblance of loyalty from Gen Z. This is already a challenge, since many teens opt to shop by price, with few strong commitments and affiliations to particular brands. 

Gen Z is not unfamiliar with a crisis or two

Whilst we examine who Gen Z are and what they stand for, we must consider their life experiences before coronavirus too. They’ve grown up against a backdrop of 9/11, the 2008 financial crisis, the climate change crisis and for those in the US, multiple high school shootings. All of these may contribute to an underlying fear and uncertainty that Gen Z may simply recognise as being part of everyday life, yet this may have instilled in them the ability to cope better with the current situation and the effects of COVID-19. In coming years it may also mean that our future leaders are more adaptable to change and more open to driving innovation and technological change. 

But they still feel the pressure 

Also dubbed the ‘iGeneration’, many Gen Zers won’t remember a time before the internet or social media and from a young age they’ve been used to self-educating online, using tech to stay globally connected, well educated and ‘woke’ to political and social issues. This heightened awareness may also lead to more worries and fears about the future of the economy, their career prospects and whether they’ll ever own a house; in addition to those wider fears about climate change, global events and social instability. 

Tech is so entwined in their lives, there is no switching off.  This means that other pressures like online bullying, negative body image and lack of sleep are all contributing to increased rates of depression and self-harm amongst young people in the UK, despite a decrease in the abuse of substances like alcohol and drugs (Royal College of Psychiatrists). Empathy for others and awareness of global issues may lead to Gen Z making more ethical purchase choices and whilst pushing for greater collaboration, respect and inclusivity in their future places of work.  

As COVID-19 shines a spotlight on the work of the care sector and the value and importance of medics and carers, this increased respect and appreciation may see the industry become more of a target for job seekers in years to come. Whereas graduates with non-specific degrees often aim for careers in business or ‘top UK companies’, many in future may derive greater satisfaction in public sector roles, but using their innovation, entrepreneurship and technology skills to revitalise industries like health and social care. 

They’re financially sensible and will use tech to make money 

Growing up with the effects of the 2008 financial crash has made Gen Z financially savvy. Many may remember the pressure it put on family finances, instilling the need to be thrifty and highlighting the importance of saving. Whilst there is often a perception that younger people are worse with money, Gen Z is the least likely working age group to have debt (Financial Conduct Authority) and 40% believe that saving is ‘fundamental’ for their future (Zopa).  

Most millennials probably got their first debit card between the ages of 14-18. Now with tools like Go Henry, children as young as 6 are taught the importance of budgeting and giving back through it’s ‘Earn, Save, Spend and Give’ approach. This may mean that whilst Gen Z will feel empowered to innovate and drive change in their lives and workplaces, this will be done sensibly and ethically. 

Gen Z will use technology wherever possible to make money. Whether it’s creating online games like 20 year old Irish entrepreneur Jordan Casey or simply funding their fashion purchases by selling old clothes on Depop, technology and business will always go hand in hand for Gen Z. 

They’re real

Having grown up with social media, Gen Z are used to filtering their images and curating their lives for social media, but the rise in their use of apps like Tik Tok shows an urge to embrace more real, human content, perhaps with more laughs and less pouting. With 1bn downloads globally and Gen Z making up 60% of its user base, Tik Tok is fast becoming the go-to channel for brands and influencers alike. This is yet another example of the next big thing in apps and whilst brands need to adapt to new channels, they need to understand the reasons behind a migration to a new channel. 

They’ll use their power for good 

We’ve established that Gen Z know who they are and what they want but they will also use the power of their knowledge and networks to bring about changes that don’t just benefit them as individuals. 

Whereas Millennials became increasingly aware of issues and embraced more ethical brands, this is much more passive than the stance of Gen Zers, who don’t rely on brands to get things done, and aren’t afraid to stand up to them. 

Take the UK sisters Ella and Caitlin McEwan (ages 10 and 8) who successfully petitioned McDonalds and Burger King to remove plastic toys from their children’s meals in 2019. The girls became the faces of the war on plastic and this, coupled with the ‘Blue Planet’ effect has led to greater awareness of plastic use across the UK, driven by the youngest people in our households. Whereas in the past, pester power was a tool to get more in the trolley, it’s now educating older generations on key issues, as young people seek to remedy past abuses of the planet. We know brands need to define their ethics and values if they’re to properly serve Gen Z but we must remember that it’s this generation who favour actions over words every time.  

They may follow you on Instagram, but it doesn’t mean they’re your friend

Something brands must learn is that we cannot simply define Gen Z as one group. We must take the time to get to know our Gen Z shoppers and treat them as individuals and whilst we try and serve them based on what we know to be important to them, we must resign ourselves to the fact that we may never know quite who they are and what they’ll do next. One thing we do know, they’ll make for bold business leaders who aren’t afraid of change. 

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