Over the past few weeks, we’ve talked about how generations are shaped by the big events taking place during their formative years. Today we will be looking at the generation that is going through its formative years right now.
Gen Zs are the kids of Gen Xers. They were born between 2000 and 2017, according to the 18-years-per-generation definition. They are aged between four and 21.
While everyone’s life was impacted by the pandemic, Gen Z lived through COVID in their formative years. They will be shaped more by the pandemic than the older generations. I wouldn’t be surprised if Gen Z ends up being called the COVID-generation at some stage.
The school and early university years were different for Gen Z – they didn’t expect to be home schooled, they saw their friends more on social media and on video game servers than in person.
That means they had even more screen time than previously, they spent more time with their parents (who worked from home in large numbers), they had limited contact with their teachers and other authority figures like sports coaches, their plans for a gap year were cancelled (for now), and instead of wild parties on campus they quietly followed university lectures online.
This experience of the education and early adulthood stages is unique to Gen Z and won’t be fully understood by us older generations. On top of this, Gen Z – like everyone else – had their lives shaped by government-imposed restrictions (wear a mask, don’t go there, don’t do this).
Gen Z share this unique experience of their formative years with young people all over the world. They will exchange those stories with the international students that they will soon mingle with on university campuses. Gen Z already was a very globally minded generation and a shared experience of coming of age during a pandemic will make it easy for Gen Z to relate to international friends and colleagues.
Older generations sometimes look at their iPhones and say, “I can’t imagine how I lived without this”. Guess what, Gen Z really can’t imagine live without iPhones since they always had access to them. This earned them the label of being ‘digital natives’.
Just owning a smartphone didn’t turn them into a generation of programming whizzes. Rather, it got them used to having instant access to information. Quick and convenient. Instagram. TikTok. Short and sharp. They read even fewer books than previous generations, suggesting shortening attention spans – no surprise in a smartphone world where distraction is always ready at hand. Regaining control of their own attention will remain a challenge for Gen Z.
A lot has been written about Gen Z being more risk averse than previous generations were at their age. Less drugs, less drinking, and less sex than previous generations. Are they just not as cool as their Gen-Xer parents were? While part of this might be due to helicopter parenting, meaning they spend more time under parental supervision, I think it’s mostly a sign of the times. Gen Z has more distractions ready at hand. Less sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll. More videogames, social media, and exercise.
The Millennial generation went through university as social media just got started. Facebook still stores the drunken shenanigans of 2008 that today’s professionals in their 30s put online unthinkingly as harmless fun. Gen Z is aware that their online persona is linked to their real persona and are more cautious online. This translates into simply engaging in fewer activities that could look bad online. Since we are talking about millions of people here, you can be assured that plenty of Gen Zs will engage in plenty of dumb behaviour though.
Part of the risk averseness of Gen Z has to do with their biggest asset. They are the most educated generation that ever was. When you know about risks you are somewhat less likely to engage in risky behaviour, right?
Having always had access to all the information in the world, Gen Z tend to think about big picture global issues. They think climate change first, local bike path second. When marketing to or interacting with Gen Z it can be helpful to explain how your idea or product is connected to a larger issue.
Gen Z are the kids of the practical Gen Xers. They tend to respond to a well-argued case. I think we can see this in the high vaccination rates among the 12- to 15-year-olds. They asked their parents to get vaccinated ASAP and didn’t need to be convinced.
If this article had been written before the pandemic, it would’ve made a much bigger point of Gen Z being the first highly political generation in a while. Greta Thunberg’s (born 2003) Fridays for Future movement beautifully showcases the Gen Z approach to activism. It’s a less emotionally driven and moralistic approach to climate activism than we saw in previous generations.
Fridays for Future repeats the simple message that politicians must respond to scientific knowledge. Hard to argue against this. That’s why Greta’s critics (a former US president included) tend to attack the movement’s figurehead personally instead of meeting her on the intellectual battlefield of debate.
The postmodern trend towards deconstructing every concept in sight will be embraced by Gen Z. As a result, Gen Z will clash with older generations as they bend traditional understandings of gender identity, sexuality, and social norms.
With Gen Z we have a pragmatic, highly educated generation coming of age that is open to deconstructing traditional concepts. There is quite a bit of change coming your way. Better get ready.