Reading about the characteristics demographers use to define generations “feels a lot like browsing a horoscope,” Rebecca Onion wrote in a 2015 Aeon essay called “Against Generations.” At the time, popular media was awash in takes about the Millennial generation’s failure to grow up and buy houses of their own; how they had turned soft from constant praise as children. These takes, Onion argued, obscured the economic realities of coming of age in the wake of the Great Recession, and the flaws of basing a diverse generation on characters played by people named Zooey and Lena.
Yet here we are, six years later, lumping all the youth into one big category: Gen Z. Maybe generational categories are more like horoscopes than Onion predicted. No matter how much they’re ridiculed and debunked, people will always be fascinated by them.
To be fair, there is something very different about a generation who can’t remember a time before smartphones and social media, whose moral compasses were being fine-tuned during Donald Trump’s presidency, and who are now spending a major chunk of their education in “Zoom school.”
What does all of that do to a young person? To find out, we talked to the people who are paid to know these things: marketing professionals who research the deepest feelings and desires of large groups, so as to better convince them of what they want. For the most part, they think Gen Z is navigating their historical situation with grace. But then again, Gen Z, and the people who study them for a living, are masters at controlling the narrative. So we made like good consumers (or horoscope readers) and took them at their word.
Studying generations has always been more of an art than a science, to put it generously. Two of the most influential writers in the field of “generational studies” are William Strauss and Neil Howe — the pair responsible for popularizing “Generation X,” thus setting in motion the alphabetical naming system widely used to this day. They later coined the term “Millennial,” which ultimately supplanted “Gen Y” as the most common way of referring to the cohort born between the early 1980s and mid 1990s. They also posited a cyclical theory of generations in their book The Fourth Turning, which became a major inspiration for Steve Bannon, architect of President Trump’s rise. Strauss and Howe call Gen Z “the homeland generation,” and place them later than other sources, chronologically, encompassing children born after 2005.
They are far from the only ones to come up with their own name and criteria for Gen Z. The psychologist Jean Twenge has referred to Gen Z as “iGen,” the first generation to spend their entire conscious life using smartphones and social media. Twenge argues that the ubiquity of screens has made iGen less sociable and adventurous, contributing to increasing rates of depression and anxiety among young people.
Pew Research Center, which has been studying generations for decades, is one of the most authoritative sources on this topic. They define Gen Z as those born between 1997 and 2012. (There’s a growing consensus that the next generation will be called “Generation Alpha.) The “always on” technological ecosystem Gen Z was born into is a major characteristic, according to Pew, but so is their diversity, and their more progressive views on race, gender, and climate.
There is also a cottage industry of professionals, some of whom are themselves Zoomers, who seek to understand the younger generation on behalf of companies, institutions, and brands. Marketing professionals don’t have the luxury of relying on grand generational theory: They’ve got to offer their clients specifics. If they’re wrong, business dries up. And they have a lot to say about who Gen Z really is.
Anyone who knows anything about Gen Z will begin their description of the generation with a caveat: as a group that represents 40 percent of the global population (and $143 billion in spending power!), there can be no hard-and-fast descriptors. “We are such a large and diverse generation, and that includes diversity of thought, diversity of identities,” says Sandra Salvatierra, director of brand at JUV Consulting. “And so I think multifaceted is probably the best word to sum up what Gen Z is.”
Salvatierra would know. Born in the year 2000, she’s unequivocally one of them. Her firm, JUV, was founded by and is almost exclusively staffed by Zoomers. (Hiring their first Millennial over the summer “was a big step for us,” she says.) JUV’s slogan, “talk to us, not about us,” speaks to some of the misconceptions many people have about Gen Z. “It would be limiting to only think of Gen Z as just being experts at social media,” Salvatierra says, citing her generation’s embrace of in-person “experiences,” like pop-up shops and digital detoxes.
Gen Z’s constant exposure to social media has led to a “real need for privacy,” says Mike Weiss, a partner at the marketing agency Ice Cream Social (and a Millennial). It’s not as if Gen Z is rejecting social media en masse, rather, their need for privacy is reflected in their choice of social media platforms. “On the bigger older giants like Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook, those are places where it’s very visible what you’re doing, and the platform kind of wants it that way.” On TikTok, by contrast, it’s much easier to just sit back and watch. On Snap, your communications disappear.
That doesn’t mean things are all good when it comes to how Gen Z uses tech. Based on her own data and talking with friends who are teachers, Joyce Ng, Principal at Springboard Marketing Research (and technically a Boomer, although she doesn’t identify with the label) says young children tend to be “much less well-socialized. And we think it’s because they are spending a lot of individual time on tablets and other devices.”
But there’s also an argument that Gen Z’s experience online gives them the tools to use these platforms in a healthier way. “I actually think Gen Z is in some ways better-equipped to manage against those really sinister elements of social media, because we’re fully aware of them,” says Larry Milstein, co-founder of PRZM, a Gen Z marketing agency. In the advertising business, there’s a running consensus that Gen Z has an eight-second attention span, while Millennials have a 12-second attention span, according to Milstein. While this might at first glance be a bad look for Gen Z, it could also be a reflection of their ability to “meaningfully filter” content and to immediately know “if it’s going to be relevant for them or not.”
Milstein, who was born in 1995 (like this writer) identifies as a “Zillennial,” on the cusp between generations Y and Z. “A lot of our pop culture references and our formative experiences are shared with Millennials, but a lot of things around our technological habits, and our values are actually in some ways more aligned with Gen Z,” Milstein says. As this definition of “Zillennial” implies, yet another way to understand Gen Z is in relation to what it’s not.
Gen Z vs. Millennials
Millennials are often accused of having killed things — including golf, tuna, and mayonnaise. But in the eyes of many Zoomers, their predecessors haven’t changed things enough.
“Millennials want a seat at the table,” Salvatierra says. “Gen Z wants to flip the table.” Consider the no holds-barred activism of Greta Thunberg, or the unequivocal calls for social justice from Gen Z celebrities like Oakland-born actress Zendaya.
“Gen Z is the most diverse generation in modern history,” Milstein says. “We really prioritize values around inclusivity, and representation, body positivity, de-stigmatizing mental health, greater commitment to climate advocacy and environmental action.”
While Millennials certainly changed norms in terms of injecting diversity and more varied images of beauty and success into pop culture, they still had some affinity for more traditional standards. Look no further than the stereotypical Millennial influencer on Instagram, presenting a perfectly polished and, in all likelihood, conventionally attractive, version of themselves.
“I don’t think that they [Gen Z] are looking for archetypes of masculinity and femininity, and the perfect body or the perfect representation of their gender,” says Nicole Danser, a creative manager at the advertising agency Jet Fuel who produces influencer ads on TikTok (and is a Millennial). “They like when somebody’s seen as sweeter than the rest, or more awkward, or more trustworthy.”
Whereas Millennials “wanted to perfect their life,” Gen Z wants to “go with the flow and do it their way,” says Mike Berland, CEO of market research firm Decode_M (and a Gen Xer). “They live their life and are really comfortable with changes and disruptions.”
That would certainly seem to be a valuable attribute for a generation coming of age during a global pandemic, and with various climate catastrophes steadily increasing in frequency and intensity. Maybe their best bet is to lean into the chaos.
Clean to Chaotic?
Remember the “Millennial brands” that all had a remarkably similar visual aesthetic? Casper, Warby Parker, Allbirds, Sweetgreen, and their peers looked a lot like Instagram itself, with minimalist design and simple, pastel color palettes. According to Milstein, all that could be going out the window.
“You already are seeing brands embrace a lot more of a bold and unapologetic aesthetic,” he says. “It’s not the whole world of sans serif: clean, hyper-minimalist. It’s drawing from meme culture and the inherent chaotic nature of a hybrid internet-real world life.” The website for Milstein’s company, PRZM, ebodies this design philosophy, with its bright red and lavender color scheme, and a hyperactive interface with multiple video clips playing at once. It’s a subtler version of the “glitchcore” visual and musical aesthetic that has proliferated on TikTok over the past year, packing overwhelming amounts of sensory information into a brief clip.
“The defining Millennial social media platform was Instagram, because everything had to be perfect and staged. And the defining Gen Z platform is Snap or TikTok,” says Berland. “They’re so much more fun and whimsical, and don’t take themselves so seriously… It doesn’t feel commercialized and yet it’s all commercial.”
Gen Z is OK with commercial, as long as they like the person or brand doing the advertising, according to Danser. “They have an acute eye and a hair trigger for realizing when something is an advertisement,” she says. But they’ll play along with their favorite influencer plugging a product. “Even if it’s an advertisement, I don’t mind because I like that influencer,” Danser says, channeling the demographic she researches. “And I’m excited that they’re chasing that bag.”
Whether that Zoomer entrepreneurialism can harmonize with their social consciousness remains to be seen. Only one thing’s for sure: Someday, Gen Z will be in charge.
“It’s a natural course of events that the young lion will overcome the older lion at some point,” Ng says. “I’m hoping that even though in our country right now politically we see this horrible schism, maybe these commonalities and greater tolerances that younger people have will help as the old folks die off.”