Millennials are old news. Gen Z are the new focus of attention, and often wild speculation. Most of them are still very young, with the oldest only just reaching their early 20s, but they are already the subject of spurious claims and myths about who they are and what they’re going to be.
This report, the latest in our Ipsos MORI Thinks series, pulls together existing and new analysis, as well as brand new research on this latest generation, to provide a better understanding of the initial signals on how they will be different to, or the same as, previous generations.
Before we outline the findings and their implications, there are five things we wanted to flag upfront.
1. Most generational research is bad
Generational analysis is developing a bad name. And fair enough, because a lot of it is poorly done, aimed more at getting headlines or hits for simplistic interpretations of difference than providing true insight. This is not only annoying, it’s a genuine risk: as our recent report Millennial Myths and Realities outlined, these clichéd views can take hold, colouring the perception of a whole cohort and leading to bad decisions.
The truth is there are seldom big swings between generations. Instead we tend to see more gradual change, driven by some real differences in context. This is, in fact, a very good test of claimed generational differences: ask yourself ‘why?’. What could have driven this shift? If it can’t be traced back to big, measurable changes in the environment, be cautious: whole cohorts of people do not magically transform.
2. Generational factors are often NOT the most important drivers of difference
We still love generational research – not as an academic exercise, but because we believe it provides a great way to understand the future. If you can separate ‘period effects’ (where everyone changes in a similar way at the same time, because of a societal shift or event), ‘life cycle effects’ (where our attitudes and behaviours change as we age) and ‘cohort effects’ (where a generation has different views and behaviours from others, and they take those with them as they age), you can start to predict what will happen.
But that does not mean that we try to explain everything as a generational factor – quite the opposite. As you’ll see throughout this report, lives are becoming more stretched and varied within a cohort group, and often it’s other things (like country, income, education) that are more important in explaining differences. Ironically for us, given our generational obsession, we’re the first to recognise that it’s ever more important to recognise the limitations of cohort explanations.
3. There is not much data on Gen Z yet – and the generation and context is changing quickly
We’re taking a relaxed attitude to the age groups we look at in this report, partly because there just isn’t enough data to be precious about it. Officially, our definition of Gen Z is anyone born from 1996 (currently aged up to 22), but as you’ll see, we often focus on certain age groups – particularly teenagers and young adults – as this is where there is most data. We haven’t looked at young children below secondary/senior school age very much, as clearly they still have a lot of growing up to do – and researchers who focus on children will tell you how little sense it makes to ask them about adult concepts.
More than that, so many of the drivers of change for this cohort – the first truly fast-internet enabled generation, from their earliest memories – are technological, and this never stands still. It’s therefore difficult to look at trends to see what is actually different, so we’ve had to make do with snapshot data in some places. But we think this pragmatic approach to the data is the right one, because we’re trying to get an overall sense of change. Some (good) evidence is better than none, and we’ve brought together in one place more than we’ve seen anywhere else.
4. Our theme is ‘Beyond Binary’ – but that’s about much more than gender or sexuality
One of the recurring themes we’ve seen in bad generational research is a tendency to segment everything into boxes – this idea that the next cohort will be either this thing or that thing, never a mix or somewhere in between. But it just isn’t as black and white as that. A good reading of the evidence takes into account the nuance and variation between cohorts, and this is what we hope to bring out. Each section tests out oppositions to highlight the tensions within this one generation.
However, the ‘Beyond Binary’ theme goes beyond that, applying to an emergent theme of flexibility in society. The stretching out of options and choices, partly fostered by technology, means the wide variety of possible lifestyles, attitudes and behaviours have led to a breakdown in homogeneity. This does include sexuality, but it extends to other areas of life, and this fluidity is something that government and brands will have to understand. The ‘types’ of people you need to look at have extended massively.
5. We don’t even know what to call this generation yet
Generational definition and naming is an interesting thing in its own right. There are obviously no hard boundaries around generations, and the ends of each birth range will blur into each other. But this doesn’t reduce their value – we use similarly arbitrary age, social class and geographical boundaries all the time. Some generations have clear demographic drivers (Baby Boomers), others draw on cultural references (Gen X), others are based on a point in time (Millennials). Some make more sense in some countries than others (there wasn’t really a Baby Boom in some, for example), although we’d argue that the inter-connection born from technological developments, means that some of the drivers of similarity are growing across countries.
We’re using Generation Z as our title for now, because it is currently the most recognised term (‘what do you have on Gen Z?’ is a common question from clients and journalists). But neither the boundaries around this generation, or their name, is set yet: we’re with the Pew Research Center on that – it’s just a bit too soon. Equally that doesn’t mean we can’t say something useful about emerging differences and similarities, as we hope this report shows.
Looking across the findings – on everything from health, risk-taking behaviour, social action, technology use, attitudes to privacy, political views, optimism for the future, trust in institutions and people, social attitudes, sexuality and many other subjects – we think there are seven main themes to pull out:
1. Increasingly fluid: as the title of the report suggests, this generation is less boxed in. Please don’t think we’re making the clichéd point that ‘anyone can be anything’ which you sometimes see taken from a generalisation of unrepresentative Twitter feeds, or meeting one young person who thinks that way. What we mean is that things are more open, less set, because people do have more ways to connect, see and experience more things.
This doesn’t deny the threats of a more ideological and tribal political context: technology has also fragmented people into their own bubbles and echo chambers. But, even in politics, the clear pattern is that each successive generation is significantly less wedded to one political party. Gen Z look similar to Millennials on this: they’ll shift if you go wrong (or new options pop up, as in France or Italy). It’s the same with brands: trying to target one group to the exclusion of others, implicitly telling people they can only be one thing or the other, would be a serious mistake.
2. No turning point on trust: do not believe the latest polls or headlines that scream about a new ‘crisis of trust’ in our institutions, particularly not when they say it’s because of young people. Our new analysis shows no real differences in levels of trust among the young with regards to all sorts of traditional institutions. It’s true, Millennials did mark a low point in trust in others (we’re not sure why – maybe a sense of betrayed promises of progress), but now they are ageing, the differences are decreasing and Gen Z start adult life with much higher levels of trust.
This does not mean that institutions and established brands have no challenges with the young, it’s just that declining trust is not the source. Frankly it is a cop-out, implicitly blaming consumers and citizens rather than encouraging brands and institutions to look at themselves. The issues are much more about efficacy, relevance and leadership.
3. Just as caring: technology has been democratising in many ways, including in making age, seniority or established connections a lot less important to whether you can have an impact or not. There are so many examples of young people starting movements that change things or bring pressure on those in power, in a way that would have been much more difficult in the past (without denying the importance of student-led movements since the 1960s).
But this does not mean that Gen Z are a cohort of activists. Neither are they selfish snowflakes, too busy watching YouTube videos of people eating Tide Pods. The evidence suggests they are just as active in social causes as previous generations, sometimes in different ways (using technology), but just as often in traditional ways, such as volunteering.
4. Inflection point on health: the obesity epidemic may not be the constantly and inevitably escalating trend it’s sometimes made out to be, as it appears to stabilising among children in some countries. That doesn’t mean we’re not in dangerous waters – it’s not getting better either. A lot of this is arguably to do with the environment around young people which is shaped to make it harder to keep a healthy weight – the people they see, the shops they shop at, the food they have available, all create a social norm, and are often geared to make them fat.
But this is actually where there is hope on the horizon. Justified concerns about the health impacts of obesity are creating a wave of effective and innovative interventions. Gen Z have the prospect of more access to technologies, social media, and harder and more collaborative government interventions to help keep them a healthy weight. On top of this, they’re less likely to be getting involved in typically unhealthy behaviours – particularly smoking and drinking – which shows that some of the earlier interventions around this have really worked.
5. Importance of digital skills: digital literacy is obviously going to become one of the most crucial skills to have in the next ten to 20 years. In some ways, Generation Z already have an innate advantage over other generations, just through growing up fully integrated with technology – they are much more discerning of online sources than Millennial children ever were.
But this should not make us complacent about the risks: near universal access to the internet in established markets hides the very real differences in uses and skills development between different socio-economic groups within Gen Z. So working digital literacy and technological skills into both formal and informal education will become more vital, not less. This is not just to ensure all children are on a level playing field when it comes to taking full advantage of technology, but also to ensure that the adult Generation Z have tools to change jobs and upskill as technology transforms the labour market.
6. Danger is different: Generation Z are not the teenage rebels of ages past. Generational declines in youth crime, smoking, drinking and sexual activity reflect a significant behavioural shift. This has so many great implications. They’re less at risk of all the negative mental, social and physical impacts of early exposure to sex, drugs and rock and roll (okay, not rock and roll).
But society cannot rest on its laurels. This shift has not come from young people understanding and acknowledging the risks of these behaviours – it’s more likely to do with them being stopped by more general societal changes and interventions, as well as a shift towards online activities.
7. And digital is double edged: this deep integration of digital communications into the lives of young people brings wider benefits in connection, social action, and self-expression – but also its own risks.
There is a growing body of evidence of the downsides from unfettered use of technology, prompting more strident statements from politicians and officials, including the head of the NHS in the UK. Social media use has correlations with anxiety, bullying, peer pressure, lower self-esteem, alongside much more positive outcomes.
We’re only in the infancy of understanding the full impact of this entirely different technological context on the first truly digitally native generation. But this does not mean we are powerless in mitigating the negative and emphasising the positive aspects of young people’s lives – far from it. The calls for intervention from campaigners and legislators is likely to grow – but, given how rapidly technology is developing, a long-term shift is much more likely through a collaborative approach, that uses the huge expertise of technology companies.
Thanks to our authors, Bobby Duffy, Hannah Shrimpton, Hannah Whyte-Smith, Tara Abboud, Michael Clemence and Ffion Thomas.
If you would like a presentation or seminar on the implications of Gen Z for your organisation, please get in touch.