by Jeff Roach

Millennials have been thoroughly analyzed for over a decade, culminating in Time Magazine’s cover story, The Me Me Me Generation, playing on the perception that Millennials are “lazy, entitled narcissists who still live with their parents”, while also highlighting how their values of collaboration and technology may “save us all”. But Millennials have now moved on to careers and young families and talk has turned to the next generation, affectionately named Gen Z.

Already, ideas about Gen Z are beginning to inform public opinion of a generation that is widely different from Millennials. Youth research consultancy Sparks & Honey says the members of this generation are hacktivists as the new norm, that they value diversity in new ways, they’ve grown up in a world where traditional gender roles have been challenged…with entrepreneurship in their DNA. This is the generation who talks in pictures, not words. Compared to Millennials, Gen Z is about togetherness, not tolerance, is more mature, and has greater humility as realists compared to Millennials. But are these new reports right about Gen Z? How is this next generation really different? And what impact are rapid advances in technology in Virtual Reality, Augmented Reality, wearables, 3D printing, and the Internet of Things having on this generation as they grow up with this technology?

XYX

Generation X, those born between 1965 and 1984, is The Personal Computer Generation. We grew up with the introduction of computers to the home. We saw the first Macintosh, the first IBM PC, and we didn’t practically use these computers until high school and university, where our primary use of the technology was as typewriter replacement. Although we witnessed the birth of the Internet, and lived through the AOL boom, we didn’t experience the realization of a truly, mass connected web until adulthood. As a result, the impact of the Internet wasn’t as profound on our generation. We were shaped more by our place in demographics – the Boom, Bust, and Echo – than by the personal computing revolution. As the children of the post-war shaped Boomers, our generation was the slacker generation, marked by Naomi Klein’s No Logo, Douglas Copeland’s Generation X, and films like Reality Bites, Slackers, and Singles. We were a generation that valued our independence, were weary of corporate encroachment on our culture, and the first generation to widely chase personal fulfillment in our careers.

Generation Y, or Millennials, born between 1984 and 2000-2004, is The Social Media Generation. As children and teens, they were the first wave of social networkers. They are both Digital Natives – born with wide access to the Internet – and the first socially connected generation. For the first time in modern history, the idea of “Friend” was literally redefined, and this group charted what it meant to communicate by text, not voice. It’s no surprise that the MySpace and Facebook generation have been called narcissists, as they are the first group to express themselves to the world with a persona and voice, managing their digital profile in the same way we manage brands. They don’t know a world without instant messaging as an ongoing digital conversation, and their desire for experiences over things has shaped a generation of new consumers intent on changing our economy in profound ways. This may have been the most empowered, I-can-do-anything generation in history… if it weren’t for 2008.

As teens and young adults, this group witnessed the largest global economic crash in history, and they suffered as a result. As the unemployment rate skyrocketed, particularly amongst 20-somethings, and entry-level career openings dried up, Millennials around the world were introduced to harsh realities that challenged their outlook. Overnight. Occupy Wall Street, Fukushima, unattainable victory in Afghanistan, the Boston Marathon bombing, Crimea, Ferguson, the Sony hack, climate change, ISIS: as Millennials reached adulthood they had to realize a world in flux, defined as much by the technology-fueled optimism of their youth as a freshly-formed, jaded socio-economic outlook.

“…as Millennials reached adulthood they had to realize a world in flux, defined as much by the technology-fueled optimism of their youth as a freshly-formed, jaded socio-economic outlook.”

Which brings us to Generation Z, The Mobile Generation. Some are calling this generation the iGeneration. Our kids to teens today don't know a world without smartphones and tablet computers. As babies they watched videos and played preschool games on iPads, anywhere. As kids they collected virtual currency and played with digital toys with Webkinz, Moshi Monsters and Club Penguin. As teens, they are driving new forms of mobile communications, from Snapchat to Instagram, recognizing the power of the Internet being always on and always on-the-go. They are creating 3D models and printing on 3D printers in the classroom, textbooks are digital and school work is in the cloud, and their entire life is gamified – from banking to chores to buying a coffee at Starbucks, they are being offered digital rewards at every turn. Oh, and they’ll have virtual reality in the home next year. Our children now are experiencing the Internet in everything. A computer chip in every device in their lives – from home to the car to school to where they shop and eat – that it’s ubiquity is shaping the first generation to simply not notice the technology at all.

“They are creating 3D models and printing on 3D printers in the classroom, textbooks are digital and school work is in the cloud, and their entire life is gamified – from banking to chores to buying a coffee at Starbucks, they are being offered digital rewards at every turn.”

So the question is, how is this shaping this generation apart from the one before? Mobile and technology ubiquity is so advanced, and so rapid, it must be making a profound impact on this next generation. What’s the impact?

What’s in a Name

 

If there’s one thing we can’t agree on, it’s what to call this generation. Although Generation Z seems to act as the placeholder, many different researchers and industry experts are using different names to define this group under the age of 18. Authors William Strauss and Neil Howe, who are credited with coining the term for Millennials, have suggested the Homeland Generation, a reference to the post-2001 generation. Marketing firm Frank N. Magid Associates coined the name Plurals to reflect this generation as the pluralist generation as they are the most diverse of any generation in the U.S. But the name that seems to make the most sense for this generation so far is the iGeneration. It’s a nod to both the first generation to exist with the iPad and iPhone, and the generation that is growing up in a more international world-view. The idea is that the traits of this generation are largely formed by two distinct cultural factors: mobile computing, and a more diverse world.

“The idea is that the traits of this generation are largely formed by two distinct cultural factors: mobile computing, and a more diverse world.”

I believe the iGeneration name connects so well because we’re able to see it. We’ve watched toddlers tap a magazine or book, expecting a screen. We’ve seen children glued to their smartphones and tablets, making the TV feel like some ancient device, alien to their world. We’re seeing teens communicate with each other almost exclusively through emoticons. I’ve seen my own children connect to digital culture in every form – to Electronic Dance Music, to Minecraft and digital creation, and 3D computer generated movies. It’s this incredible, natural connection to digital culture that is simply so amazing with this generation. They are not only just users of the technology that was invented in their lifetime; they are rabid fans of it. This is the first generation where “screen time” had to be aggressively managed by parents, where sexting became a parental concern, and schools had to monitor cyber bullying. The iGeneration is truly molded by mobile computing.

Forming Theories

In the research surrounding Generation Z so far there are a number of themes that have begun to formulate about this generation. Although research with this group is relatively new, data captured over the last five to seven years are discovering insights that are formulating how we perceive this next generation. Through many reports, we’re seeing three key themes permeate about this group. Those themes are:

They are realists, with a perspective about the future that is equally pragmatic and optimistic

They learn differently, and their education and digital prowess is preparing them for a technology-fueled future

They are global and diverse, more blind to race, gender and age than any other generation

If Millennials are dreamers, than Gen Z are realists. This theme is common throughout all of the Gen Z research to-date and it’s largely based on the idea that the Gen Z upbringing came during a socio-economic world that included a global recession, drawn out war, and political uncertainty at home. Baby Boomers raised the Millennials to believe in the American Dream. They encouraged Gen Y to chase their passions and dreams wherever they may lead. But Gen X watched Millennials fail and lived through an economy breaking down and so they have chosen to raise Gen Z more practically. They have taught Gen Z to find what they are good at and to pursue that. (Gen Z Whitepaper, Sarah Sladek & Alyx Grabinger, XYZ University)

Gen Z are growing up in a post-9/11 world and through the Great Recession. GenZ2-webToday, 1 in 4 American children are living in poverty and 73% of Americans were personally affected by the recession. As a result, their media reflects a more dystopian world-view, where Gen X had Reality Bites and Singles – a perfect reflection of their anti-authority, disconnected worldview – Gen Z has Hunger Games and Divergent, with explicit themes of political distrust and wealth disparity.

So it’s not that surprising that this is affecting their view on finances. “Their exposure to the impact of the recent economic slowdown on their families is expected to lead to financial conservatism.” (“Consumers of Tomorrow, Insights and Observations About Generation Z”, Grail Research, June 2010) While more than 50% of teens 12-18 years old had already started saving for technology gadgets and cards, more than 33% pay for their own cell phone bills. An Australian study found that that they disliked borrowing money. (Veda Advantage & Habbo, Australia)

"While more than 50% of teens 12-18 years old had already started saving for technology gadgets and cards, more than 33% pay for their own cell phone bills. An Australian study found that that they disliked borrowing money."

If Gen X are anti-authority, highly individualistic, and self-reliant and Millennials are confident, digital thinkers who are needy with a sense of entitlement, than Gen Z are realistic, creative, and hyper-connected. Their realism is a defining aspect of this generation.

They learn differently, and their education and digital prowess is preparing them for a technology-fueled future

One of the other themes that is common throughout all of the research on Generation Z is how this generation is learning differently because of mobile technology, and how their approach to technology is setting them up to be innovators. This is a generation that prefers visual communication because they are growing up on iPads. This is a generation that prefers collaboration because they are growing up in classroom diversity that encourages it. “They are collaborative team players where everyone is equal at winning and losing.”

“Gen Z speak in emoticons and emojis. Symbols and glyphs provide context and create subtext so they can have private conversations. Emoji alphabets and icon “stickers” replace text with pictures.” Gen Z are agile communicators: speed of communication and repartee garners cultural currency. They’re accustomed to rapid-fire banter and commentary. As a result, Gen Z are not precise communicators and leave a lot of room for interpretation.” 68% of teachers think that digital tools make students more likely to take shortcuts and not put effort into their writing. 46% of teachers say digital tools make students more likely to write too fast and be careless.

Although Generation Z needs more structure and is more over confident in their knowledge than Millennials, research is finding them to be less selfish than Generation Y who tends to ask “What’s in it for me?” As a result, they are a group where creativity and speed of information, used with their desire for collaboration, has set them up to be a generation of innovators.

Generation Z thinks spatially and in 4D. “Gen Z have always known how to pinch and swipe. They have grown up with hi-def, surround sound, 3D and now 4D – 360 degree photography and film is their normal. Ultra slow motion and hi-speed video is their standard.” (Sparks & Honey, Pew Research, 2012)

And they multi-task unlike any generation before them: 84% of Gen Z multi-tasking versus only 2% of the general population. (University of Utah, Forrester Research) Psychologist Larry Rose of CalState University-Dominguez Hills believes that technology is rewiring this generation. Where the average American attention span has decreased to 8 seconds, from 12 seconds in 2000, 11% of children 4-17 years old have now been diagnosed with ADHD, up from only 7.8% in 2003. (National Center for Biotechnology Information, U.S. National Library of Medicine, The Associated Press)

This intense understanding and use of new technology, their ability to multi-task, and their collaborative approach is molding this generation into creative entrepreneurs unlike any before them. Entrepreneurship is simply in their DNA. 72% of high school students want to start a business someday compared to 64% of college students. 61% of high school students want to be an entrepreneur rather than an employee compared to 43% of college students. (“Millennial Branding and Internship.com”, Mintel, 2014)

"72% of high school students want to start a business someday compared to 64% of college students. 61% of high school students want to be an entrepreneur rather than an employee compared to 43% of college students."

GenZ1-webAmongst kids in grades 5-12, 42.1% plan to start their own business, 46.9% have schools that offers classes in how to start and run a business, and 16.9% already work at least one hour per week, while 37.8% believe they will invent something that changes the world. (Gallup & Operation Hope) And this generation is starting jobs earlier than the more sheltered Millennials, “55% of high school students feel pressured by their parents to gain early professional experience” (High School Careers, entrepreneur.com)

Of course, all of this is happening within a technology revolution. With the rise of 3D printers, wearables, the Internet of Things, and virtual reality, the rapid pace of technology is not only being adopted by Generation Z, but they are driving it forward. This is the Maker Generation, a generation that is learning how to make 3D models in school and print their own products on 3D printers, who received robots they could program themselves as children, and who know how to make their own video games.

This is resulting in some incredible talent amongst the Gen Z group and a bright future for all of us. From non-traditional brand ambassadors and influencers such as Tavi Gevinson (fashion editor, founder Rookie Magazine), Kristin Prim (fashion influencer, founder of Prim Magazine), and Charlie Lyne (The Guardian journalist), to TED Talks like Adora Svitak’s “What Adults Can Learn From Kids” and Logan Laplante’s “Hackschooling Makes Me Happy”, we are raising a generation of creative innovators, who see the world differently and have the technology prowess and tools they need to do incredible things.

They are global and diverse, more blind to race, gender and age than any other generation

One common theme that comes through in all the Generation Z reports is how diverse this generation is. They have been called the Plural Generation as they are growing up in an America where multiracial children are the fastest growing group. There’s a +400% increase in multiracial marriages within the last 30 years; a 1,000% increase in Asian-White marriages; a +50% increase in the multiracial youth population since 2000 (to 4.2 million); and a -1.5% decrease in the Caucasian 6-17 year old population while a +7.6% increase in the Hispanic teen population, the fastest growing population in the U.S.

What’s even more interesting is how changes in household make-ups are defining Generation Z. There is now a greater number of multi-generational households and an increase in the number of people in the home than for Millennials or Generation X. This is creating a generation of sharers and has a stronger affinity and respect for the elderly. In fact, because Generation Z is growing up in the Great Recession and are more realistic in their worldview, they share many of the same values as Boomers, the Great Generation who lived through global war depression. (U.S. Census, The two or more races population, 2010 Census Brief)

And that closeness and sharing is even happening in technology. “One of the most surprising findings that emerged from the study, is the positive role at times played by grandparents, who are actively engaged in socializing children to online technologies, selecting appropriate content for their grandchildren, encouraging the acquisition of skills and digital literacy. Grandparents are also usually more permissive and close to the child. They then provide those children who are highly regulated at home with opportunities to experiment with new technologies.” (“Young Children and Digital Technology”, European Commission, Stephane Chaudron, 2015)

"50% of all global tweens 8-12 years old are online daily, 25% actually interact with peers in other countries every day."

As a result, Generation Z tends to even think more globally. As 50% of all global tweens 8-12 years old are online daily, 25% actually interact with peers in other countries every day. (Millward Brown, 70 cities, 15 countries)

This is a generation defined as being more blind to race, gender and age than any other.

Behind the Numbers

But when you talk to kids and teens, one thing becomes clear; Generation Z is optimistic about the world and excited to create in it. As a generation bound both by immense technology potential and tough socio-economic environment, this is a generation who wants to create and innovate, who believe they can hack the world around them for the better. As we talk to children all over the world we’ve come to understand one thing: give them tools to play with, and they’ll make incredible things. The negativity that plagued reports of Millennials so far hasn’t made its way to Gen Z, and that’s a great thing. All signs are pointing to a generation where creativity will explode and innovation will soar. Treat Generation Z like the powerhouse they’re going to be – as brand collaborators, innovators and makers – and be prepared to hack the world.