How contradictions define Generation Z

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. 

Marcie Merriman discusses EY’s new research findings on Gen Z with Bloomberg News:

To read the full report, download here

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 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.

2. “Big Plans, Low Energy”

Of all the Gen Z segments, “Big Plans, Low Energy” Gen Z most resemble the stereotypical millennial. They are emblematic of the type of millennial who likely represented a smaller proportion than generally perceived but casted an outsized shadow on the entire millennial generation.

Representing 18% of Gen Z, those falling in the Big Plans, Low Energy segment have many desires. They are dreamers, value lifestyle and live in the moment. They want to make a lot of money and become rich in a job they enjoy, but they struggle to follow through on the activities needed to get them to their goal. They also prioritize spending time on things they enjoy now rather than on things that will help them in the future.

3. “Authentic Activists”

When we think of “Authentic Activists” within Gen Z, we think of Greta Thunberg and the students who stood up after the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Authentic Activists are determined, passionate and open-minded. They hope to make a difference in the world and solve some of the greatest problems facing society. They are more interested then other Gen Z segments in environmental concerns and place higher importance on being authentic and true to themselves.

Although Authentic Activists represent only 16% of the Gen Z demographic, they are a vocal minority who will have an outsized influence on the generation and society because of their outspokenness and mastery of social media and other digital tools available to them.

4. “Carefree Constituents”

“Carefree Constituents” have the same slice of the demographic pie as Authentic Activists (16%). However, because Carefree Constituents float with the wind, they will not typically be the trend-setters or influencers of their generation. Nevertheless, they are an important component, as the followers of attitudes and behaviors set forth by more dominant Gen Z segments.

Gen Z in this category are easygoing, open-minded and live in the moment. Their priority is on spending time on things they enjoy now vs. on things that will help them in the future. Carefree Constituents don’t worry about grades the way Stressed Strivers do. They place less importance on independence in making their way in the world and earning what they receive

5. “Secluded Perfectionists”

Representing 15% of all Gen Z, “Secluded Perfectionists” are ambitious, driven and intrinsically motivated. Kyle Gierdorf, better known as Bugha, his gamer tag, could be a great example of a Secluded Perfectionist. Members of this Gen Z  segment want to enjoy their jobs and to be the best they can be at whatever it is they are passionate about. They care more about how they feel in their endeavors than becoming rich and famous.

Whether it’s video games, math or the arts, Secluded Perfectionists will seek to dominate whatever they pursue. They also want to be true to themselves, letting their unique identity shine through. They are most interested in associating with people, brands and products that are honest and transparent.

“Stressed Strivers,” Gen Z’s largest cohort, are a contradiction within themselves

Characterizing 35% of Gen Z, “Stressed Strivers” want to be the best version of themselves to the point they get burnt out. Apart from their focus on leading their own path and taking advantage of every opportunity to achieve a successful future, their personal contradictions make Stressed Strivers unique within their generation.

While Stressed Strivers seek independence, proactively plan for the future and always strive to learn, do and achieve more, they also want to stay connected, live in the moment and place an emphasis on authenticity. They are part-time activists who aim to make a difference in the world. They also want to be true to themselves and their unique identity and are most interested in associating with people, brands and products that are honest and transparent.

Plan Z: 4 takeaways for organizations

Given the contradictions that define Gen Z, companies will need a Plan Z that considers these four takeaways.

1. Gen Z is driven by individualization. Gen Z comprises a diverse, independent and proactive generation. As customers, Gen Z has strong heads and strong values, making them hard to pin down from a marketing perspective and even harder to gain loyalty from. To reach this new generation, winning companies will work to understand it through two-way communication, use data and technology to individualize products and services, and respect members by adapting to meet their needs and wants rather than requiring them to change.

2. Gen Z love technology but also crave human interaction. As employers, companies need to recognize that individuals within Gen Z are used to instant access and are motivated by efficiency. Companies will need to provide tools that promote ease and simplicity and tasks that are intuitive and not process-heavy. Additionally, despite their technology affinity, Gen Z crave human interaction, openness and collaboration. Managers will need to balance the potential of advancing technologies, including 5G, to enable a more virtual workforce, with Gen Z’ desire to have a relationship and “know” the people they work with beyond their work persona.

3. Transparency and trust are key. Transparency is the first step in establishing strong bonds with Gen Z, regardless of segment. Being transparent about motivation and purpose will help companies gain their trust and provide them with a platform to remain authentic, connected and fulfilled. Generally, they are more inclined to share information, such as financial information, than past generations. This type of transparency creates the potential for greater equality.

4. Diversity and inclusiveness come in many forms. Gen Z reflects the change, diversity and contradictions that exist in our society today. Companies need to understand this diversity — what drives and motivates each individual person — and create an environment that embraces collaboration and inclusiveness beyond how it is understood today. Companies that target the generation without segmentation, or that continue to cater to personalization rather than individualization, will fail to attract or retain the customers and employees who are most likely to influence future change.

Throughout time, it has always been the youth in societies who have been the drivers of change. While Gen Z may not have yet reached critical mass as customers or employees, as representatives of today’s youth culture Gen Z is already disproportionately driving changes the rest of us feel. Additionally, Gen Z’s ability to connect instantly and disseminate information globally is impacting us all at an accelerating rate. Understanding who they are and what they want now gives businesses the ability to predict what people of all ages will expect in the coming years. Being successful will require a nimbleness, flexibility and adaptability to keep up and deliver on the needs of this generation of contradictions.   

The views reflected in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Ernst & Young LLP or other members of the global EY organization.


Gen Z’s influence in the workplace, economy and society will be increasingly felt in the coming years. Understanding the contradictions between the generations and the unique characteristics within it will continue to be critical for employers, marketers, technologists, business leaders and more.

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