Generation Z mania is everywhere and understandably so. They are now the biggest demographic on the planet (32% and rising), and their rejection of traditional media and the fact they are both the creators and consumers of their own media, means they are both amorphous and difficult to target – especially for brands and companies hoping to do so. They communicate differently, have different social habits, tastes and behaviours to even their closest demographic (millennials), and they are both shaping and being shaped by world that has changed more rapidly in the last decade than any in living human memory.
As a result, information and studies on Generation Z tend to be very similar and reproduce the same information over and over again – yes, they love Instagram and filters, yes they are digital natives, no they don’t drink much alcohol, no they are not particularly hopeful about the future – and for good reason.
As someone who has really engaged with Generation Z, interviewing thousands of them in my book, Generation Z: Their Voices, Their Lives, and subsequently for a vast number of brands, companies, political parties and studies, I wanted to go beyond the usual Gen-Z stats and stories looking at everything from the weird more esoteric stuff and how they tell a bigger story about this fascinating generation to the really big issues and how these are changing and transforming for both Generation Z, and more tangentially, all of us too.
This will be of huge value to anyone really interested in Generation Z, and over three weeks I’ll discuss, Driving and Cars, Staycations, Gender and Beauty, Now Nostalgia, Psychedelics, Thoughtful Endorsements, Cancel Culture, HBO’s Euphoria, The New Careers and Economy, Audio-Everything, Street Markets, Cash-Money, the New Sex, Privacy, Birth and Death.
Trend #1: Driving and cars
Getting your licence and your hands on a death-trap has long been a teenager rite-of-passage. The car and/or the motorcycle has been one of the most consistent teenage tropes in cinema, music and advertising for the last six decades, with cars being symbolic of sex and freedom, virility and success and endless possibility – a car can quite literally take you almost anywhere. Teen and young adult classics – On the Road, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Drive etc. – place the car as central to the action of taking the young protagonists away from the humdrum existences of their hometowns whether for a short while or forever. This appeal has worked like magic on every generation of teenager who saw learning to drive and getting car (almost) as important as getting laid – until recently. Driving rates and car purchasing are dropping like a stone with young people – incredibly, even in car-loving America – younger people are moving to the coasts, where owning a car isn’t as necessary. Conversely, there are huge spikes in taxi service and car-sharing services. Electric scooters and push-bikes are doing booming business as evidenced any time you set foot in the city. Cities that don’t have efficient bus and train services (hello, New York!) are met with serious derision. So what does this tell us about the future and where Generation Z are going?
The decision to not own a car is heavily motivated by concerns for the environment, but the top reason is actually financial. Owning a car is hugely expensive, and younger people don’t have cash to burn on metal. But it also tells a story of a generation who are who going to travel around and move very differently, going to overwhelmingly dwell in cities, exacerbating an already pronounced generational urban/countryside splits, and rent rather than buy in high numbers because desirable cities are expensive to live in.
This means efficient and creative urban planning (see: markets and modern villages in next week’s edition), forward-thinking transport options (Car BnB, anyone?), and 21stcentury-style communal living are set to become big business. Wise investments in the future will focus on sharing and borrowing, as Generation Z are set to become a generation priced out of (and less focused) on sole-ownership.
Trend #2: Staycations
Millennials spent their formative years reading The Beach, Eat Pray Love, and Bill Brysonand watching Into the Wild (was Chris Candles a modern-day savage or a bit of a self-indulgent hipster twat? Discuss. – RIP.) “Taking a gap year” became youth-speak for wanting to go off and find oneself usually on a credit card if you were poor or on the dime of Mum and Dad if you were rich. We all dreamed we’d have an adventure like Leo/Richard in The Beach, but in reality most of us ended up jumping over fire with a sand-bucket on our head in Thailand (those buckets-of-joy were great), and paying exorbitant amounts to touch a snake, just so we could post it on Facebook (this was pre-Insta.)
Generation Z were born to a very different world, where global and domestic anxiety are sky-high, parents who don’t know where their children are every minute of the day are (at best) irresponsible and (at worst) negligent - so consequentially, teenagers are very attached to the home/parents/domestic life. Added to that, everyone can experience everything – from space travel to sex – virtually – so people feel less and less need to go and try those things IRL. As a result, Generation Z have developed a high anxiety about the big world out there and a much lower need to go and see it – which has resulted in a boom in the staycations.
Day-trips and short-vacations with friends or holidays with your parents are booming even for older Gen Z’s and exorbitantly-priced snake for the time being will remain unmolested by today’s teenagers. This means a need to get creative again with leisure-time for the masses in their own countries – but especially when catering for young people. Seaside towns (promenades, arcades, funfairs) and amusement parks once considered a bit naff by millennials and Gen X-ers, are doing booming business with Gen Z-ers who seem to hanker after both their childhoods and the familiar. This tells a much larger story, about how our leisure-time reflects who we are as a populace, but in the short-term, industries definitely need to be looking inwards as opposed to outwards to really engage with downtime Gen Z.
Trend #3: Gendered Beauty
Once upon a time girls were ‘supposed’ to wear pink and boys were supposed to wear blue. Girls wore makeup - the only acceptable makeup for boys was some war-paint in a big manly war. Girls were meant to be pretty; boys were only meant to be pretty in a Tom Cruise in Top Gun kind of way (though that’s a discussion for a whole other day…)
To say the gendered notion of appearance, identity and dress is a thing of the past would be an understatement. Generation Z are fully embracing the notion that gender is a social construct imposed on children at an impressionable age and are questioning the previously accepted biological imperative of gender. Additionally, queer culture and aesthetic has been fully embraced into the youthful-mainstream, which only adds to the ambiguity and playfulness around gender-identity. As a result, nothing is off-limits to either/neither gender and so tattoos and heels, baggy jeans and slinky dresses should no longer be aimed at one gender or another. Additionally, body-hair (specifically, armpit hair, full bushes and leg-hair) which have long been a major taboo for girls, are making a serious reappearance for Gen Z girls who refuse to be body-policed to please the male gaze and/or more traditional beauty standards.
Brands that fully embrace gender-ambiguity in their aesthetic and marketing, and eschew traditional identities are doing brisk business, and whatever happens in the future, rest assured, the future most definitely isn’t binary.
Trend #3: New Nostalgia
If you are over the age of 30, some part of your childhood is now considered fair-game for a nostalgic revival. There has been untold films and TV-shows about the ‘50’s, 60’s and ‘70’s (Mad Men, Stand By Me, Dazed and Confusedetc.) where millennials and Gen X-ers got to vicariously experience an era when smoking on planes, sexual harassment at work, and leaving your kids at home for an entire week was considered A-OK parenting. Generation Z now view the 80’s, 90’s and early 00’s (my teenage sisters recently went to a 00’s party and dressed like those old crones Britney, Christina and Paris) as the “olden days.” Tellingly, some of the biggest Gen-Z cultural smash-hits of the last couple of years have been based in these decades – Stranger Things, It, Dark, Fresh off the Boat – and it’s not really surprising. Harking back to simpler times when young people could actually go out and enjoy things without worrying about how they look on Insta-story, or getting to hang out from sunrise until dark without their parents texting them every second or calling the police if they disappear for more than hour must look pretty appealing. The nostalgia train is going to be hugefor brands and marketing – just remember the past is now a lot closer than you think – ‘90’s born-kids will start hitting their thirties next year!
Trend #4: Psychedelics
Next week, I’ll be discussing the new HBO teen-show Euphoria, and why it’s disingenuous adult wank-fantasy about modern adolescence. This show posits that all Gen Z kids are hoovering vast amounts of drugs – something that doesn’t hold up at all to the statistical reality – Gen Z are doing fewer recreational drugs than any young generation since the early ‘60’s. But there are some interesting exceptions. For the most part, recreational drug-taking (except marijuana), alcohol-drinking and cigarette-smoking have seriously declined with young people, and teetotalism and #cleanliving are booming.
Getting bladdered on drink and drugs are now viewed as anything but cool with young people, particularly with the almost certainty that any drunken-impropriety would be photographed/filmed and put on social media for ever and there is far too much work-experience to get done to even contemplate a drink/drug hangover. But this doesn’t mean, the primal and perpetual human-need to get out of one’s head (particularly when you are young) has vanished, and what we’re seeing now is an emergence of substances that fall into the more psychedelic end of the scale enjoying a renaissance. Chardonnay is being swapped for psychedelics, ketamine is being road-tested for a possible treatment for depression and psylocybins (magic mushrooms) are finding their way into the young party circuit. There are myriad reasons for this – music, a generation interested in the introvert and introspection, cost, the cyclical nature of drug fashions – but psychedelics are definitely on the rise with the younger crowds. This isn’t to suggest that we should encourage young people to crack out the LSD, but what we will see is natural buzzes finding their legal way into food and drink squarely aimed at young people. Herbs that produce natural buzzes becoming substitutes for alcohol, drinks that claim to have potion-like properties, and foods that are intended to inculcate very slightly altered states are set to become very popular – without the dreaded hangover. Generation Z are seemingly a generation that are altered-state curious, as evidenced by the wild popularity of weed-lollipops in the USA and Hemp-seed ice-cream being sold in very middle-classWaitrose in the UK. It’ll be interesting to see how the food, drink and entertainment industry will become abuzz with this trend!
Trend #4: Thoughtful endorsements
Pride-month has just passed and somany brands draped their logos in the rainbow flag – which was heartening to see – untilyou scratched beneath the surface of some of the brand’s true attitude to LGBTQ issues/rights. For example, AT&T, UPS, and Comcast all coloured their logos with the LGBTQ-rainbow which was all good and well until it was revealed all these companies had donated significant amounts of money to politicians who were staunchly anti-LGBTQ rights.
And who can forget the quintessential ‘when-wokeness-goes-bad’ example of Pepsi trying to muscle in on the Black Lives Matter movement? The image of bastion-of-white-privilege, Kendall Jenner stepping up to resolve civil unrest and police brutality with a can of Pepsi, was such a woeful misstep, Pepsico took a metaphorical step off a cliff along with their whole brand’s credibility. The advert only succeeded in showing how horribly out of touch they were with a current extremely serious issue and movement, and they managed to upset almost everyone – except quite possible the CEO of Coca-Cola! These and a million other examples underline the crucial importance brand’s understanding both the issue and the audience when endorsing something. If you are endorsing anything – whether it’s women’s right, disabilities, or saving the dolphins – it is imperative your track record is impeccable, and the endorsement is meaningful. An endorsement should be just that – a brand or company lending their financial and/or ideological and moral support to a cause and not just a way to look cool, hip or woke. Gen Z kids are very attuned to fake endorsers and are rigorous in checking big brands track records, and so a misstep on this front can end up in something far more than a day or two in the social-media stocks – in can damage your brand or name forever, and most horrifyingly, result in the most serious Generation Z punishment of all – getting cancelled (see next week: Cancel Culture)
Part Two (Wednesday, August 8, 2019): Cancel Culture, Euphoria, The New Careers and Economy, Audio-Everything,
Part Three (Wednesday, August 15, 2019): Markets, Cash-money, the New Sex, Privacy, Birth, Death
Chloe Combi, Author and Generation Z expert, Thought Laboratories