Much is made of the supposedly distinct generations that have existed since the Second World War. The Baby Boomers, who grew up through the swinging sixties, were studied in great detail as demographers wondered just how prosperous this post-war cohort could be. Generation X, born in the late sixties and seventies were raised amid an explosion in the mass media and thus came to be dubbed ‘the MTV generation’. Then there are the millennials, whose attitudes and desires have been the subject of many thousands of press articles, research papers and conferences over the past few years.
Much of what is said is nonsense. We’re all individuals and few people fall directly into the stereotypes associated with their generation. Many of the characteristics associated with millennials – particularly that they are workshy and ungrateful - have been ascribed to 20-somethings of every generation. But understanding what makes people of a certain age tick is valuable – both for marketers who want to sell them stuff and managers who want to hire them.
While you may still be getting to grips with millennials, soon you’ll be rubbing elbows with their successors. Generation Z are generally defined as those aged under 20ish and are sometimes referred to as ‘post-millennials’ or the ‘Homeland Generation’. Here are a few things you should know about them, mostly courtesy of a new report by M&C Saatchi.
1. They’re true digital natives
Millennials spent their formative years perfecting their MySpace page and playing Snake on their Nokia 3310, but only Gen Z can’t remember a time before the internet was ubiquitous. For them touch screens and social media are as normal as running water. 24% describe themselves as being online ‘almost constantly’, according to a report by the Pew Research Centre (then again, plenty of email-addicted execs in their 30s, 40s and 50s would probably say the same).
2. They’ve grown up among caution and turmoil
Remember the heady days of the 90s, after the fall of the Berlin Wall but before 9/11, back when Tony Blair assured us that Things Can Only Get Better? Generation Z doesn’t. For them the ‘War on Terror’ and its associated anxiety about security and the West's place in the world is the norm. They’ve grown up amid the financial crisis and the economic stagnation that has followed it. These first two factors seem to have shaped many of their more specific characteristics.
3. They’re risk-averse
Many a 90’s teenager enjoyed nothing more than necking a bottle of vodka, puffing on a few Marlboro Lights (or perhaps something more illicit) at their local park, and generally making a nuisance of themselves. Drug and alcohol consumption among today’s youths is well down on prior generations. While that might be good for their health, M&C Saatchi suggests Gen Z’s aversion to risk runs deeper than that: ‘Spontaneity, frivolity and making mistakes (the lifeblood of the young to date) has been replaced by a generation of serious-minded strivers, anxious about a challenging future.’
4. They’re sensible with money
‘This might be the area in which they differ from millennials the most,’ says Goldman Sachs analyst Christopher Wolf. ‘Millennials are often cast as the "follow your dreams at all cost" generation. Gen Z’ers are decidedly more conservative – they’re more worried about the rising cost of college and taking on debt.’ Three fifths of them believe a lot of cash is evidence of success, compared to 44% of millennials at the same age. ‘This is a generation that’s really focused on the financial consequences of their decisions.’
So perhaps it’s no surprise they, in the words of M&C Saatchi, like to ‘dream small.’ Gone are aspirations of owning a fleet of expensive sports cars and a home in Beverly Hills. Today’s young are more likely to want a solid job and a modest home. If you're selling something frivolous don't expect them to part with cash easily.
5. They’re super-competitive
Whether it’s the pursuit of wealth or just shares and likes on social media, post-millennials are keen to get ahead of their peers. That’s reflected in their attitude to work – 70% think they will have to work a lot harder than their parents to reach the same heights – and in the way they Instagram and Snapchat everything they do. ‘It’s no longer ok to be seen to be wasting the weekend in bed as teenagers have "traditionally" done,’ says the report. ‘They need to be seen to be active’; out there, having amazing experiences.’
6. They don’t have time for fluff
It’s a lot tougher to hold someone’s attention when the next piece of information is a tiny touch screen swipe away. If you’re trying to communicate with Gen Z then you should get to the point. The report suggests they’re cynical of companies with a ‘purpose’, preferring down-to-earth pragmatism to ‘high-minded moral crusading.’