Insights from Pi Volume 01, Issue 02: "Gen Z Matters More than Millennials"
Like all generations before them, the youth of Gen Z are figuring out who they are, navigating and developing relationships, seeking information about their world, and trying to have fun. In that way, they are like all of us who at one point in our lives were moving from childhood to adulthood through the bumpy and often tumultuous time known as the teenage years.
So, what makes them different, and why do their behaviors at times seem so foreign and frightening to us?
Maybe we should start at the beginning, sometime between 1995 and 1997, when the babies who would one day be Gen Z first arrived on the scene. During their early years, the US economy was on the rise with the lowest unemployment rates since 1973. As they reached school age and headed off to kindergarten, the world around them became less stable. Many of their families began to feel the effects of rising unemployment rates, followed by the housing bubble burst.
Natural disasters were becoming more commonplace as hurricanes hit in the South, with Hurricane Katrina being the worst of all. Then 9/11 happened—one of the most significant, unthinkable, and frightening events in recent history. In the years that followed, they saw a rise in shootings at the schools where they should feel safe, such that active shooter drills became as common as fire drills.
While many generations have experienced their share of life-changing events, this generation is the first to have such widespread access to the pictures and stories that changed the facts into an experience that reached into their homes in ways never-seen-before. Their access to
information is limitless, and while extremely beneficial in many cases, this access also comes with consequences. This widespread access to information and details of events has accelerated the rate at which this generation has grown up; it has exposed them to adult problems at a time when they should be dealing with kid problems.
So how has all this impacted them?
The answer is as varied as the over 82 million individuals that make up Gen Z, but there are a few themes that emerge from the data that are worth considering as we look to build products and services for the future.
Not unlike generations before them, these young people are looking to defy stereotypes and make their own rules. Unlike previous generations, this “rite of passage” has taken on more significance as Gen Zers look to build a brand that is very visual and public facing, enabled by the far reach of social media and the Internet. Spend a
little time swiping through Instagram and you’ll discover the inspiring, diverse, entertaining, and sometimes disturbing “brands” that Gen Zers are promoting to the world. They can inspire with their creativity, intelligence, determination, and activism. Their brands are diverse, spanning across race, socio-economics, sexual identity, beliefs, values, and so much more. They entertain on so many levels, some that remind us of our own youthful ex- periences, some that make us shake our heads, some that make us cringe, and others that are just simply over our heads. And sometimes the brands they portray flat-out scare us, but look at the world they live in—are we really all that surprised?
Gen Z has never known a world without the Internet or YouTube, so it’s not surprising that many believe they can learn anything and everything they need to know online. They are characterized by creativity and resourcefulness. Traditional education is being rejected by many in order to avoid debt and because they have seen and found other ways to be successful without a college degree. They are natural-born entrepreneurs and innovators. Whether it’s a bowtie business started by Moziah Bridges at the age of nine, a book written by teen author Maya Van Wagenen, seventeen-year-old Connor Blakley starting a marketing consultant business, or the myriad of other ventures, it’s clear these youth are far ahead of where many of us were at their age.
Given the instability they have grown up in, it’s not surprising that Gen Zers are both realistic and optimistic about their futures. Where previous generations were saving for bikes, video games, cars, and phones, this generation is saving for their future, because they know how volatile the economy can be and they want to create some stability and security for themselves. Social media has allowed Gen Zers to turn a hobby or skill into a side-hustle that can be quite profitable in ways our sidewalk lemonade stand businesses only dreamed of. Whether it’s reselling clothes and shoes to save for a down payment on a house or leveraging their influencer status from social media, today’s youths are making money in new and innovative ways.
They grew up with the movie WALL-E, which painted a dim, depressing view of their future without a change in behavior, and they’ve taken up the charge. They care deeply about the future—about doing good, changing humanity’s impact on the environment, and creating sustainable solutions. They invest their time, money, and energy in order to see impactful social, environmental, and political change. They believe and act knowing they can impact the future for good.
When looking at the many characteristics of Gen Z, it is striking the number of contradictions that can be found both across the generation and within the individuals. They care about the people and world around them but at the same time are typically self-focused. One day making a social media post about #BlackLivesMatter and the next day posting their #ootd (outfit of the day), it’s the dichotomy of “me” vs “we” that so aptly represents Gen Z.
They wrestle with portraying the brand they’ve worked hard to curate and being authentic. This tension often leads them to create and struggle to manage multiple social media profiles. Many have a public facing “rinsta” account (real Instagram), a private “finsta” account (fake Instagram), and sometimes an even more private “sinsta” account (secret Instagram). Having multiple profiles allows them to control the brand others see.
This is Gen Z. They are your children, your family members, your neighbors. They will be your employees, coworkers, bosses, and leaders. They already are having, and will continue to have, an impact. The question is, how do we enable them to have the greatest impact possible instead of focusing on, and fearing, the ways they are different? In the end, they are just like us, but they can be better than us. Let’s open the doors to empower their futures and ours.
Dawn Wilson, Sr Design Research Manager, Device and Services Design Group
Curator of Pi // Patterns & Insights, Cameron Campbell, is a Design Forecaster, Curator and Strategist. Her key driver in life is to engage people and inspire creative growth through context, speculation, art, literature, objects, and technology. Want to know more about Pi? firstname.lastname@example.org