Last year was an emotionally challenging one for millennials. Our childhood heroes started dying, and our parents made some hugely consequential decisions that it’s statistically fair to say we don’t agree with. In some ways, 2016 marked a turning point for millennials—the beginning of the end of an era where it’s all about us and what makes us tick. That applies to marketing, too: Enter Generation Z, the younger, richer, version of Gen Y that is about to take our place in the center of brands’ hearts.
Gen Z’s desires and motivations are very different from ours. True digital natives, they’ve been using technology their entire lives. They use up to five different screens compared to our three, and they parse information incredibly quickly, taking a mere eight seconds to determine whether something is worth their attention. They also have different attitudes about privacy. That’s not to say they don’t value it or have no concept of what it means—in fact, in some cases, they are more vigilant than millennials about digital privacy issues.
They are also more selective and nuanced in their use of social media. It’s not unusual for them, for example, to have several Snapchat profiles—a “public” one, another for close friends, and yet another for family. Rather than spewing thoughts out into the world unfiltered, they think deeply about what they share and with whom.
Gen Z is also quite well behaved in comparison to older, rowdier generations. Rates of smoking, drinking, unplanned pregnancy, and recreational drug use are dropping for under-24s across the board. In the U.S., the percentage of high schoolers who drank alcohol dropped 16% from 1991 to 2013, according to the CDC. In the U.K., nearly 20% of under-24s claim to be teetotalers. (If your business is ancillary to partying, a brand repositioning may be in order.) Theories abound as to why—the cost, government policies, better access to information, or an increase in health consciousness. There is also the fact that they micromanage their online selves, so getting wasted in front of friends and doing something stupid is fraught with social danger. It’s no coincidence they favor transient or private platforms like Snapchat or WhatsApp.
The other reason for this seriousness is that they are worried. The global financial crisis, the worst since the Great Depression, happened when the oldest members of Gen Z were in middle school and beginning to engage with the wider world. They worry about being able to get a job. They grew up in the shadow of 9/11, school shootings, and increased security measures. So when asked what they want, they want to fix things, and they want stability. They desperately want to own houses and live in the suburbs, things the countercultures of previous generations dismissed as traps. They want to make a difference in the world. They are entrepreneurial, but not enticed by risk—they want to start their own businesses so that they don’t have to worry about being fired.
It’s a fair assumption that this focus and concern will develop into enormous political and financial power; by 2020, Gen Z will make up 40% of all consumers. The fundamental differences between millennials and Gen Z in both outlook and behavior are massive. Millennials put off growing up as much as possible. Gen Z wants to grow up as soon as it can. If you’re reading this, you’re probably the former, and you need to work hard at understanding the latter if you want to sell to them.
*A version of this article originally appeared in Contagious.