Poor Generation Z. The oldest members of this cohort are barely 18 and they’re already getting a bad rap. Media and market research companies have labeled them "screen addicts" with the attention span of a gnat. And the pressure: They only have the weight of saving the world and fixing our past mistakes on their small shoulders.
While generational research is an inherently messy process—older generations study "the kids" to figure them out—much of the recent research is awash in normative preconceptions, biases, and stereotypes. Gen Z deserves a fairer shake, and the rest of us need a more nuanced conversation: This group makes up a quarter of the U.S. population and by 2020 will account for 40% of all consumers. Understanding them will be critical to companies wanting to succeed in the next decade and beyond.
My firm Altitude set out to dig below the surface to understand not only what Gen Z were doing but why—in their own words. We worked with over a dozen 16- to 18-year-olds with diverse backgrounds from across the country through a series of in-depth discussions, video diaries, and daily interactive exercises designed to provide a glimpse into their lives. Our goal was to view the world through their eyes.
What we learned was surprising.
The recent headline-grabbing studies suggest that Gen Z attention spans have shrunk to eight seconds and that they’re unable to focus for extended amounts of time. However, we found that Gen Z actually have what we’re calling highly evolved "eight-second filters."
They’ve grown up in a world where their options are limitless but their time is not. As such, Gen Z have adapted to quickly sorting through and assessing enormous amounts of information. Online, they rely heavily on trending pages within apps to collect the most popular recent content. They also turn to trusted curators, such as Phil DeFranco and Bethany Mota, to locate the most relevant information and entertainment. These tools help Gen Z shrink their potential option set down to a more manageable size.
Once something has demonstrated attention-worthiness, Gen Z can become intensely committed and focused. They’ve come of age with an Internet that’s allowed them to go deep on any topic of their choosing and learn from like-minded fans. Marcus, a 17-year-old from Connecticut, spent years exploring the corners of vintage sneaker culture online, eventually becoming somewhat of a "sneakerhead." During his freshman year in college, he realized he could leverage this knowledge and started a side business flipping rare shoes.
Gen Z have a carefully tuned radar for being sold to and a limited amount of time and energy to spend assessing whether something’s worth their time. Getting past these filters, and winning Gen Z’s attention, will mean providing them with engaging and immediately beneficial experiences. One-way messaging alone will likely get drowned out in the noise.
The media has painted Gen Z as a bunch of socially inept netizens and older generations struggle to understand why they spend so much time online. In reality, Gen Z are under immense pressure to simultaneously manage their personal and professional brands to help them fit in while also standing out.
On a personal level, Gen Z seek immediate validation and acceptance through social media, since that’s where all their peers are and where many of the important conversations happen. They curate different social media personas in order to please each audience and minimize conflict or controversy. "We filter out whatever flaws we may have, to create the ideal image," says Sneha, a 16-year-old from Arizona.
On a professional level, Gen Z are hyperaware of the negative stereotypes that have plagued millennials. As a result, they want to be known for their ability to work hard and persevere offline. "I’ve always felt like I needed to prove myself," says Sneha. "Hard work eventually pays off."
The majority of the people in our study also said that their ability to communicate clearly in person, specifically with older adults, was the number one skill that would ensure their future success. "I need to be able to look adults in the eye, give them a firm handshake and ask them how they’re doing," says Liam, 17.
Between these two forces, Gen Z feel torn: They need social media to build their personal brands but resist being defined by it. They seek social validation and inclusion but are looking to differentiate themselves professionally. Companies that understand this tension will provide Gen Z the tools they need to reconcile and better manage their personal and professional brands.
Recent reports have labeled Gen Z the "entrepreneurial generation" and highlighted their desire to forsake the corporate grind for their own startups. We found that while Gen Z like the idea of working for themselves, the majority are risk-averse, practical, and pragmatic. Their supposed entrepreneurialism is actually more of a survival mechanism than an idealist reach for status or riches.
Whereas millennials were criticized for their lack of focus, Gen Z are determined to plan ahead. Gen Z have been strongly shaped by their individualistic, self-reliant Gen X parents and they’re committed to avoiding the mistakes their meandering millennial predecessors made. "I need a job that will come out with money, otherwise college will be a waste", says Marcus, 17. "I want to pick a career that is stable."
To ease this anxiety, the participants in our study all claimed to be aiming for jobs in growing, less-automatable fields like education, medicine, and sales. And they’re obsessed with developing contingency plans to help them navigate the dynamic job market. While the media has singled out a number of high-profile entrepreneurial teen success stories, the majority of Gen Z in our study are biased in favor of career and financial stability. Entrepreneurship is seen as a way to not have to rely on anyone (or anything) else, and their version of it will likely be focused on sustainable "singles and doubles" ventures rather than Silicon Valley "home runs."
Society tends to either romanticize youth or criticize the things they’re doing differently. The reality of Gen Z, however, lies somewhere in between. They face many of the challenges that everyone faces in that life stage—transitioning from school to work, separating from parents, and forming their own identities. But they’re doing so in an ultra-connected, fast-moving technological age.
It’s critical that we recognize Gen Z’s differences and meet them where they are, rather than where we want them to be. Without empathy and understanding, brands risk being filtered into obscurity. As writer Logan Pearsall Smith put it nearly 100 years ago: "Don’t laugh at a youth for his affectations; he is only trying on one face after another to find a face of his own."