EY research uncovers five distinct Gen Z segments that employers and business leaders need to know.
Generation Z (Gen Z), typically representing those born in 1997 and after, is a diverse group that defies categorization. Its members contradict the previous generation. They contradict typical stereotypes of attitudes and behaviors of teens and young adults. They are even a contradiction among and within themselves. These contradictions have vast implications for companies, from both an employee and a customer perspective. Society has long created blanket definitions of generations, but we can’t simply put Gen Z in a box. To unlock their full potential, we must first understand the environment that created them and how they emerged, fully distinct, from the generation that preceded them.
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The Gen Z – millennial dichotomy
Millennials, first born in 1981, came of age along with the mass introduction of personal computers, the global adoption of the internet, and possibly more importantly, the 24/7 news cycles driven by the explosive growth of cable television. The world suddenly felt like a much scarier place for parents. With heightened coverage of child abduction, the war on drugs and the AIDS epidemic, the parents of this era got the message loud and clear: “The world is dangerous and protecting your children from the prevalent evils equates to being a 'good parent'”.
New social norms were put in place with laws created to drive conformity. A kid riding his bike without a helmet or playing in the yard without parental supervision was suddenly stigmatized. Inappropriate television content and song lyrics became so controversial that the U.S. Senate weighed in during formal hearings. Parents were also taught that kids should only use the internet with great caution and oversight. Prevailing wisdom was that computers should be kept in the family room or kitchen, somewhere where usage could be closely monitored. As the Columbine mass shooting and the 9/11 attacks streamed into our homes, the parents of millennials, the youngest of whom were entering middle school, continued their crusade to protect and shelter their children. They turned off the TV and unplugged the family computer and attempted to shield their kids from the atrocities of the world. This was the accepted norm for millennials’ parents throughout their lives: shield them from any harm that could come their way, emotional or physical.
For Gen Z, it was a bit of a different story.
- The oldest among Gen Z were 2 years old when Columbine happened. School was never a safe haven; it became a place of metal detectors and lockdown drills.
- Many had started kindergarten just days before 9/11. Terrorism and war haven’t been just threats, as they were for children throughout the Cold War, they are real, and the fear is embedded in their psyche.
- Most of Gen Z hadn’t even made it out of grade school before they experienced the Great Recession and the highest unemployment since the Great Depression. Gen Z saw their families or their friends lose their jobs, homes and livelihoods.
On top of all this, we had the introduction of a product that changed life as we know if for all of us — the connected, modern-day smartphone — bringing the realities of this new world to the palm of our hands. The smartphone has had an even greater impact on Gen Z than the internet had on millennials. A key difference between the two was millennial parents’ ability to control their children’s access to the internet. Gen Z parents have had to accept that they cannot not control or shield their children’s access to this world of information. With this, Gen Z parents have taken a new path: using open communication and setting the expectation that Gen Z must learn how to protect themselves from terrorists, cyberbullies and predators while preparing for a challenging future ahead, including getting a job and making an independent living.
These new social norms have produced a generation that is more independent than the generation it follows, and endlessly empowered. At the same time, its members are negotiating life without the guard rails past generations have known. Through it all, they are changing society, redefining cultural norms established by their predecessors. Understanding who Gen Z is, how their values and priorities differ from millennials’, and identifying the dynamics creating unique segments within Gen Z is key to unlocking the full potential for all of us.
Social media contradiction: just another communication tool
Millennials are known for using social media to share their world with the world, often an idealized version of their actual life, choosing their real-life experiences based on social share-worthiness. The popular millennial catchphrase "Insta or it didn’t happen” illustrates the importance placed on sharing through social media. As teens and young adults, millennials drove this attitude, and others adopted it, including Gen Xers and baby boomers. Millennials set the standard for what was acceptable, expected and cool and the rest of us followed.
Our research suggests that Gen Z is establishing a new norm for social media use right under our noses, resetting the standard all generations will adopt. Increasingly, Gen Z is using social media as a communication tool — a way to stay connected with the people and things that are important to them. Our research shows that the vast majority of Gen Z (80%) use social media to connect with friends and family, while only 22% use it to share their opinions or influence broader audiences.
Social media is becoming to Gen Z what email, phones, fax, “snail mail” or even telegrams were to prior generations: the way to stay in touch and build connections. With Gen Z’s changing behavior, we can expect to see changes in others — and ourselves — to come.
Political contradiction: defying expectations of “typical” youth
In terms of politics, Gen Z is interested in the bigger picture and where they fit in it. Politically, Gen Z, even in their youth, more typically reflect broader America in their views than previous generations. Our research revealed that they actually span the range of the political spectrum, with 39% identifying as moderate, 28% as liberal or very liberal, 25% identifying as conservative or very conservative, and 8% identifying as other. Politics isn’t top of mind though: only 20% indicated that they were “very or extremely interested” in political issues, vs. 39% being “very or extremely interested” in environmental issues. For Gen Z, social causes and political affiliations don’t align as neatly as they have with past generation. And while Gen Z may have little interest in political issues, the majority indicated that they intend to vote in the next election (74% of 17- to-22-year-olds and 81% of 12- to-16-year-olds intend to vote in first election after turning 18). Gen Z’s views on how to solve the world’s problems also conflicts with millennials.
Values contradiction: balancing global hopes for a better world with personal goals and achievements
While Gen Z take a broad view of the world and seriously consider their role in making it a better place, they have to balance that with their own pragmatic concerns about the ability to get a good job and support themselves. While they are often thought of as idealists or dreamers about what can be, our research revealed that their top concerns and priorities are both global and “local” in nature. When asked what caused them stress, a majority of Gen Z felt “very or extremely” worried about the future — specifically their own, including having enough money (67%), getting a good or better job (64%) and paying for college or university (59%), as well as citing global worries like gun violence (62%) and climate change (61%). However, when global concerns conflict with preparing for their future, most of Gen Z pragmatically prioritizes the latter.
This further conflicts with millennials. Millennials really ramped up the discussion about sustainability, social responsibility and purpose — but often looked to brands and companies for the solutions. While “buy one, give one” models and sustainable products were enough to meet millennials’ expectations, Gen Z is calling out companies on specific business policies and practices. Gen Z’s expectation is that companies and brands will go beyond marketing to truly measurable differences. This pragmatic approach comes through in their own personal concerns as well.
Gen Z is diverse and contradictory as the society in which they’ve been raised
More than any other generation in modern history, Gen Z has come of age in a time of increasing polarization and fragmentation, and the diversity of their generation reflects this. As a result, it is impossible to apply a single label to them. In fact, we have identified five different lenses through which Gen Z should be viewed and understood:
- “Stressed Strivers”
- “Big Plans, Low Energy”
- “Authentic Activists”
- “Carefree Constituents”
- “Secluded Perfectionists”
1. “Stressed Strivers”
As the largest cohort, “Stressed Strivers” represent 35% of all of Gen Z. Stressed Strivers are entrepreneurial, independent and future-focused, sometimes to the point of causing them stress. Stress Strivers live among the Fortune’s 18 Under 18 and are well-represented by YouTube Entrepreneurs , as well as your “average” high school valedictorian.
Stressed Strivers care less about wanting to enjoy their work and more about achieving success and feeling respected. They place importance on spending time on things that will help them in the future, believe in being independent and figuring things out on their own and favor earning what they get rather than having it handed to them. They are also keenly interested in environmental issues.
Stressed Strivers tend to have higher-income parents, with half saying they have “helicopter parents” who are constantly hovering over them and pushing them to be their best.