7 Unique Characteristics of Generation Z
Discussions of the clash between generations are seldom out of the news at the moment.
In particular, much of our politics in several different countries is defined by the opposing views of baby boomers (born from the mid-1940s to mid-1960s) and millennials, their children or grandchildren (born from the early 1980s to late 1990s). The boomers are wealthier and more conservative, and worried about their house prices falling; the millennials are socially liberal and worried about ever being able to get on the property ladder. The generation in between, generation X, occasionally get a look-in. But the youngest generation, generation Z, are almost entirely ignored.
That’s partly because they’re still young: generation Z was born from the mid-1990s to the late 2000s, so the majority of this generation is still under the age of 18. That means that unlike older generations, their views of politics aren’t often being analysed because most of them aren’t yet allowed to vote. And often it’s assumed that generation Z are enough like the older millennial generation that there’s no point in looking at them separately. But that’s a mistake, as we’ll see in this article: generation Z is distinctive, different and not to be ignored.
1. They’re digital natives
There are two key questions that separate millennials from generation Z, and the first is whether or not they recognise this sound (we’ll come on to the second one shortly). Generation Z is the generation that never had to deal with dial-up internet or brick-shaped mobile phones. They have grown up with the knowledge that they can speak to anyone around the world at a moment’s notice, and through assorted social media networks, that’s what they’ve been doing for their entire lives. For this generation, electronics that were a luxury to their parents and older siblings have always been a necessity for living in the modern world. This facility with technology has sometimes between used to describe the entire generation; as well as generation Z, they’ve also been called the neo-digital natives.
And the difference between them and their predecessors in this respect is stark. Every previous generation has seen a change from analogue to digital – take playing music, where the average millennial might just about remember taping songs from the radio, then burning CDs, then blue-toothing music files from one phone to another. For generation Z, music has always been consumed and shared digitally. And the same is true of many things, from maps to party invitations. Generation Z is the first generation for whom the extraordinary technological advances of the last 20th century are just a normal part of life. Undoubtedly they will see the same huge changes in technology in their adult lives as baby boomers, gen X and millennials have done in theirs – but with their early experiences, generation Z may well be better able to adapt and cope.
2. The world they live in has never felt safe
The second key question that separates millennials from generation Z is whether or not they remember 9/11. For the oldest of generation Z, it happened in their lifetime when they were too young to remember; for most, it’s a historical event that happened before they were born. This kind of international terrorism on a massive scale, happening in Western countries, does not feel new to them; it’s what they’ve always known. This helps to understand some apparent contradictions in generation Z’s beliefs; they’re keen to live and work all around the world, but they’re deeply anxious and afraid of the terrorism, extremism, conflict and war that they might find. But to generation Z, this isn’t contradictory – as far as they’re concerned, while terrorism is frightening, living with it is the norm not the exception, and they feel just as likely to encounter it at home as overseas.
But it isn’t just global terror that keeps generation Z from feeling safe. They were also born during or just before the 2007 financial crisis and resulting recession. For the unlucky members of this generation, their earliest memories might well include houses being repossessed, family members losing their jobs, and other signs of massive international financial upheaval. Contrast this with boomers and millennials, who were both born in times of prosperity and typically didn’t have to face economic downturns and their consequences until they were well into their teens. No wonder that generation Z have a reputation for frugality and caution in comparison with the generations that preceded them.
3. They’re accepting
The world didn’t just become a more frightening place while generation Z were young children; it also became a more accepting one. The most obvious example is gay rights: while generation X and millennials in the UK will remember the fight to repeal Section 28 (a piece of legislation that banned the promotion – and effectively, the discussion – of homosexuality in schools), for generation Z that’s distant history. While millennials cheered on the introduction of same-sex marriage in country after country, and the views of older generations slowly and steadily changed in favour, generation Z were more likely to be surprised that it wasn’t legal yet in so many places.
To be tolerant of differences has always been the default position of generation Z – while their politics varies and can tend towards the economically conservative, they think that being socially liberal goes without saying and are often horrified that anyone could think otherwise. Partly this is motivated by the fact that generation Z are themselves a very diverse generation; they’re the generation whose parents met people from all over the world through cheap flights and the internet, and as a result, they’re more likely to be mixed race and hold more than one nationality than their predecessors. They’re also more likely to know people – including their peers – who are openly transgender. Theirs is a heterogeneous generation, and that’s the way they like it.
4. They’re health-conscious
Our understanding of nutrition has advanced a lot from knowing how much fruit and veg a person should eat every day, to understanding that too much sugar, rather than too much fat, is what’s really damaging to our health. Previous generations have grown up with assorted bad food habits: the fry-ups of the baby boomers, the yo-yo dieting of generation x and the sugar-filled frappuccinos of the millennials. These generations all learned bad food habits growing up (often based on what was seen as perfectly sound nutritional advice at the time). While nutrition isn’t a flawless science, it’s certainly moved on a lot and generation Z have reaped the benefits, growing up used to getting their five-a-day and with the chocolate and crisps that would have been in their predecessors’ primary school lunchboxes replaced by snacks of nuts and fruit.
And as generation Z have become teenagers, they’ve continued this healthy streak. They’re much less likely to take up smoking than previous generations, and far more of them drink no alcohol, not even in moderation. Part of this has been put down to the fact that generation Z can socialise with friends online more easily than any previous generation, and so spend less time going out to parties than older generations did. But part of it is surely also that years of public health campaigns of various kinds, aimed to break older generations of their bad habits, have caused generation Z to start off by forming good ones.
5. They value their privacy
As the spate of politicians caught out by unwise forum comments, blog posts and Facebook discussions shows, earlier generations have frequently been caught on the hoof by bad management of their digital privacy – forgetting that on the internet, nothing ever really goes away, and that saying something on social media can be more like shouting it on the town square than whispering it to a friend. This isn’t a danger for generation Z, who’ve grown up with a keen understanding of the line between public and private in online settings, and who guard their privacy carefully as a result. It’s one of the reasons that generation Z has little interest in Facebook, preferring social media where they can more easily keep their interactions restricted to their closest friends, or present a carefully curated image when they do post for a wider audience, such as on Instagram.
That’s not to say that generation Z are privacy-conscious at the expense of all else. They have, after all, grown up in a world where it’s usual for their favourite brands to gather extensive data on them in order to tailor marketing communications to their specific wants. The difference is that unlike older generations, generation Z doesn’t view this as an invasion of privacy, but instead an expected marketing technique of any company wanting to provide a good customer experience. It’s not a contradiction; it’s just that generation Z expect to keep their communications private, but not their customer preferences. In fact, they’ll avoid brands that don’t offer them a sufficiently personalised experience.
6. They’re entrepreneurial and worried about their future prospects
Generation Z have grown up in a world that hasn’t always made them feel financially secure, and they’ve taken that on board in their plans for their future careers. While the millennial generation were encouraged to dream big and aim to find fulfilment and wealth in creative and exciting careers (with corresponding disillusionment when those careers turned out to take more than determination to access), generation Z is more realistic. They dream of becoming entrepreneurs, building up their own businesses and never needing to answer to a boss. With all the resources of the internet at their disposal, they know that running your own business can be very hard work, but they’re ready for it because they see it as a route to the financial security that they prioritise. And their goals are optimistic, but not impossible: they don’t plan on becoming billionaires before they’re 30, but they do dream of inventing an app that lets them graduate without debt.
While the millennial generation reached adulthood to be confronted abruptly with the loss of the financial perks that their parents had enjoyed – affordable housing and heavily subsidised university education above all – generation Z have grown up with the knowledge that they aren’t likely to have it so good, and they’ve made their plans accordingly. That’s not just reflected in their entrepreneurial streak, but in their inclination to prioritise working towards a well-paid career over chasing a pipe dream.
7. They’re changing the distinction between childhood and adulthood
The line between childhood and adulthood has moved a lot over the past hundred years. A century ago, the First World War saw young men go into battle who were deemed old enough to fight (at least, those who didn’t lie about their age) but not old enough to vote; the voting age was then set at 21. In the first half of the 20th century, the number of women having their first child as teenagers steadily climbed until it peaked in 1952, when one in five women had their first child before the age of 20. At this time the school leaving age – and therefore the age at which people were deemed mature enough to work full-time – was set at just 14. The concept of being a ‘teenager’ as something separate and different from a child or an adult had only just arrived.
The line between childhood and adulthood is just as unclear for generation Z as it was for their 1950s predecessors, but in a different way. Generation Z won’t leave education until they’re 18 at least, and a large majority of them will go on to university after that. The number of girls in generation Z having babies as teenagers is likely to be lower than it has been for a hundred years. And as generation Z have grown up in a world that feels unsafe, they’re unlikely to have enjoyed the freedom to roam by themselves that earlier generations took for granted; they’re also much less likely to own a car or know how to drive one. But in the other direction, generation Z’s awareness of the internet and their privacy means that even as young teenagers, they’re thinking about what they’re saying and how they’re saying it, and even working towards establishing a personal brand online. Generation Z might have it relatively hard compared to some of their predecessors, but their strong sense of their own identity and their determination to succeed should see them through.
Images: girl wearing sunglasses yelling; three female friends; hooded person taking a selfie; healthy salad; peace flag; armed guards; hand holding phone and laptop;