This may be marketing heresy, but in many ways, generational monikers are meaningless. Take mine, for example: Gen X. I sincerely believe that this was a placeholder name that stuck, if for no other reason than we weren’t nearly as interesting as the Baby Boomers. In fact, it has been suggested that the X is representative of an unknown variable. I rather like that one. But to further support my thesis that it was little more than a temporary label, waiting for someone to solve for X, the beloved Millennials were for a time known as Generation Y. And now we’ve got Generation Z. When did things go all alphabetically reductionist?
I remain hopeful that the so called “Gen Z,” those born around the turn of the 21st Century, will get their own more expressive nickname. I’m going to put forward The Diverse Generation as my nomination. (My reasons should become clear eventually.)
Many generational trends are, in fact, reflective of lifestyle changes within the context of current culture. For example: Trust fund babies notwithstanding, everyone is broke in their 20s. This is not unique to, say, Millennials. Yet I rarely go through a week without seeing a headline touting the spendthrift buying habits of this generation. (Which, incidentally, I would suggest renaming Generation Avocado Toast because I think they would like it. And, if I’m lucky, meme it.) Clearly, many Millennial shopping habits have been shaped by the economy in which they came of age. And their angst-inspiring home buying patterns were likely impacted by growing up with under the specter of the subprime mortgage crisis.
I’m not saying that there aren’t insights to be gained from thinking about each of these generations within the context of their sociopolitical and economic environment, however. In fact, I think one of the things that I’m discovering about the uninspiringly-dubbed Generation Z is that they are well-adapted to the world in which they are growing up.
For example, when I was young, artists like Prince, Boy George, and Laurie Anderson put forth gender-blurring personas. But we didn’t quite have a name for it (or at least not any nice ones). Today’s young people celebrate identity, ethnic, and cultural diversity and proudly proclaim their uniqueness to the world. And, perhaps significantly, this comes about at a time in which our nation finds itself highly polarized on issues of race and class.
Even when we look at social media usage, the trends are both obvious and counter-intuitive. Overall, social media usage hasn’t risen significantly for the past couple of years. Yet we do see growth on Instagram, which is more popular among the youngsters than is its parent, Facebook. And Snapchat is certainly most popular among younger consumers. However, overall, its numbers are sliding. YouTube is the sole holdout for continued popularity among young people and stable usage overall. What this tells me is that marketers need to keep an eye on the new thing and accept that it isn’t that easy to predict where you’ll find this group next.
In fact, while they are definitely watching less linear TV, this amorphous new generation apparently has some old-timey media preferences. Despite the fact that they literally spend all their time online, 75% of them read something in print every month. In fact, they reportedly enjoy attributes such as the feel and smell of print and prefer page-turning to swiping. (So maybe that’s why Netflix is printing a magazine. What’s next? TV Guide returns to coffee tables everywhere?)
While there’s a perception that younger consumers are less concerned about their privacy than the over-50 set, it actually looks like generational attitudes may align more than we’d think. (Though the acceptable trade-offs for privacy and acceptable scenarios differ.) And one can’t help but imagine that growing up in an environment in which increasing awareness and transparency around data collection and data use increasingly become the norm will affect Gen Z in the longer term.
Right now, it looks like receiving value in exchange for their data is important to this group. The good news for marketers is that almost half (47%) are happy to share personal data with brands if they get something in return. And the vast majority of young people - 91% of 16 to 34 year-olds - say they would prefer to receive ads than pay for the use of Facebook or Instagram, 84% for Twitter, and 79% for Snapchat. The trick, of course, is targeting that doesn’t come off as creepy and is viewed as accurate and valuable.
And for this young, alphabet-terminus generation, that last part is going to be very tricky. As one Gen Zer recently told The New York Times, "identity can be as varied as a musical playlist.” So, before we rush to label, or reduce another generation to a tidy set of marketable demographics, we may need to step back and give this one a good think. Start with strong values - trust, authenticity, inclusiveness, responsibility - and build real relationships from there. Let’s really get to know this generation and treat them right.