It’s easy to put off worrying about gen Z, the up-and-coming youngsters, and instead focus resources on the generations that are most active and influential in today’s economy. But doing so is a mistake.
Sure, we’re talking about a generation that is roughly between the ages of 5 and 18 — kids, basically. Why should businesses care when they’re already trying to cater to millennials, gen X, boomers and civics?
First, gen Z is huge. With 2 billion people worldwide, gen Z represents one-quarter of North America’s population. And just because they’re young doesn’t mean they aren’t without resources. A survey by JWT Intelligence found that today’s children make or influence the majority of their parent’s decisions when it comes to the purchase of toys, media, apparel, mobile phones, dinner, computers, entertainment, home furnishings, family vacations and family cars.
They’re minutes away from joining the workforce, and smart businesses are preparing now. It’s a good thing, too, because winning gen Z business and labor is going to be hard.
What does gen Z look like?
Like no generation before. They may be close in age, but gen Z is distinctly different from their millennial siblings. They’re growing up with a front row seat to the millennials’ misfortunes, often watching older brothers and sisters move back home after college with few job prospects and strained economic outlooks. Gen Z is learning from this, promising they’ll do better.
The gen Z reality is scary — a post-9/11 world with economic hardships and constant media reports of terrorism, war and school shootings. In fact, according to a survey by Forbes, 43 percent of 7- to 13-year-olds say school violence will have more of an impact on their generation than any technological or political advancement. All of this chaos is shaping our kids into little realists, not optimists.
While this sounds despairing, it’s cultivating a resilient, pragmatic and well-informed group. Surveys show a majority of youth are already worried about the economy and their parents’ job security, cybercrime and privacy, government leadership and corruption, local crime, terrorism, war and the environment. Because of this, they are hyper-aware of the world’s biggest issues — poverty, education, hunger, climate change and people dying from preventable disease — and they are looking for solutions.
Gen Z also represents the most diverse and tolerant generation yet and will be relatively unconstrained by the racial, ethnic and gender divides that have inhibited previous generations from working together. They have the largest number of multiracial youth in history plus less-structured gender norms.
And let’s not forget the digital stuff. In the gen Z world, zooming, swiping, pinching and tapping have always existed. Where millennials are active on three screens per day, gen Z multitasks across five — TV, phone, laptop, desktop and either a tablet or handheld gaming device. The majority of their purchases are made online, almost all of them have researched, taken classes, worked on projects with peers, taken tests or read textbooks online.
This wired world has rewired their brains. Attention spans on average now hover around eight seconds (four seconds fewer than a few years back), diagnoses of ADHD have gone up and teachers are reporting a worrisome lack of spatial awareness. Gen Z are curators and consumers of “snack media,” bite-size communications such as texts, tweets, Snapchats and Vines. That trend has lead to an emphasis on communicating with symbols and visuals rather than words and an overall decline in writing quality and ability.
On the other hand, they communicate with speed and adapt quickly to new technology. Research shows that their brains have evolved to process information faster, making them nimble thinkers and great problem solvers, all of which will benefit business, assuming employers can capture and keep the attention of gen Z.
How should the business world prepare?
Communicate frequently in bite-size bits or images. Embrace visuals over words. When looking at platforms today, think Instagram, YouTube, Tumblr and Vine for visuals, and be familiar with Snapchat, Secret and Whisper, which appeal to their desire for privacy. Also, at least for gen Z, forget Facebook — 25 percent of 13- to 17-year-olds left in 2013.
Embrace their opinions. Gen Z is focused on its ability to drive results and solve puzzles. Let them contribute and communicate back on how those contributions matter. They also appreciate collaboration and teamwork. Businesses willing to offer face-to-face mentorship and tap into gen Z’s motivations to contribute can benefit by shaping workers and consumers who embrace responsibility, expertise and growth.
Be honest and humble. More than half of gen Z believes honesty is essential in leadership. Demonstrating vision and integrity will draw them to an organization, particularly as they see leadership as an earned privilege, not a given. Businesses should show the gen-Z consumer products and services in reality. Gen Z isn’t looking for perfect or aspirational, they are looking for honest representations of life.
Tell your story across multiple platforms. While gen Z may be constantly connected to media, you must be prepared to reach them at whatever time and on whichever device they happen upon you. Developing image-based media like TV shows, music and YouTube videos are obvious, but also think about how to use social media to keep your story going.
Give them a social cause to care about. Gen Z lives in a broken world and has a strong desire to fix it. Find ways to tie social causes into your products, services or work places, make social service part of your business culture and consider embracing gen Z’s entrepreneurial skills to lead these projects. Pro bono work and volunteerism is not only a great thing for businesses to participate in, but can also offer learning opportunities for young employees.
Gen Z is young, for now. But don’t fall into the trap of judging them by their youth. As this generation enters adulthood, if their current trends hold true, we’re looking at gaining a large, frugal, hard working and socially conscious cohort, the likes of which we haven’t seen since the civic generation after World War II.
When it comes to over-hyped marketing and workplace topics, the millennials win hands down. But they are going to change everything, probably for the better, and the rest of us should stop fighting it and get on board. Here’s why:
I recently asked a gen-X friend of mine to give me her take on generational communications in the U.S. today. Her response was perfect: “In the words of MTV’s cultural phenomenon The Real World, it’s ‘The true story of seven strangers, picked to live in a house, work together and have their lives taped, to find out what happens when people stop being polite — and start getting real.’”
Let’s be honest, few generations were more aptly named than the baby boomers. While the moniker may have risen from a historically specific fertility trend, in many ways it has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. As writer P.J. O’Rourke once described it: “We’re stuck with being forever described as exploding infants.”
If I wanted my 20-year-old son to join me for a late meal, I’d text him: “Buffet on me.” But I would never ever text my 86-year-old mother with a dinner invitation. For her, there would be a phone call with plenty of formalities and forewarning, a promise of a nice, sit-down establishment and a start time of 4:00 p.m. to take advantage of early bird specials. Why? Because each generation communicates differently.