Ipsos Thinks

Progressive / traditional

In brief Gen Z and social attitudes

  • The shift towards a greater acceptance of varied lifestyles and identities across most generations in the west means Generation Z are not actually that much more progressive on issues that were once the cornerstone of the liberal agenda – gay rights and gender equality.
  • In countries like the UK, where tolerance towards same-sex relationships has become the norm, Generation Z are no more likely than Millennials, Generation X or Baby Boomers to think there is nothing wrong with same-sex relationships (around seven in ten of each of these generations think this).
  • But that’s not the case in every country. In the US, where acceptance of homosexuality is less widespread, younger generations stand out as being much more liberal. Millennials, and now Generation Z, are much more tolerant – around seven in ten of Generation Z and Millennials (72% and 69% respectively) have no problem with homosexual relationships, compared with just 43% of Baby Boomers.
  • There’s evidence this more liberal context has given Gen Z a greater freedom to have a less binary view of sexuality. Although likely to also be an impact of age, just two thirds (66%) of Gen Z think of themselves as exclusively heterosexual, compared with 71% of Millennials, 85% of Gen X and 88% of Baby Boomers.
  • Similarly, more traditional views of gender roles (men going to work, women staying at home) are no longer the norm in many countries. But the norms of younger people (at least in the US) are also more gender-neutral – well over half (56%) know someone who uses non-gender-binary terms.
  • This impacts on what they’re willing to buy: Generation Z are less likely to want gendered clothes, shoes, sports goods, perfume and deodorant.
  • At the same time, there are some aspects of Gen Z which hark back to the 1940s – many more are staying at home with their parents past the age of 18, and families are closer. The proportion of children aged 11-15 talking to their parents about something that matters to them each week has increased by 14 percentage points between 2002 and 2015.

The implications and the future

Keeping ahead of change: what was progressive is now normal, what is now progressive will be normal

Since many in Generation Z were born, the societies they live in have shifted towards social liberalism, from whatever baseline they started from. Equality and anti-discrimination laws continue to progress, and although the level of inclusion of these laws varies greatly from region to region, what were once markers of socially liberal attitudes (acceptability of same-sex relationships, less restrictive gender roles) are simply the norm in many countries now.

This isn’t to say that feminism and gay rights aren’t and won’t be in the spotlight for Generation Z. However, the issues continue to move forward, expanding in their remit and encompassing other issues, such as gender fluidity and trans rights. Social norms are changing for Gen Z, and arguably at a quicker pace due to the global conversations enabled by technology. In this market, it will be imperative for brands to react and adapt or be left behind. A good example of successfully taking on feedback is in the fashion industry. After model Talulah-Eve penned an open letter questioning why she was the only transgender model to walk the catwalk at London Fashion Week, a record 28 transgender models appeared at New York Fashion Week 2018.1

Guys and dolls: gender neutral marketing

Another social norm of the future is likely to be gender neutrality. Generation Z’s attitudes to equality and neutrality reflect the nature of social change and, in turn, are being reflected in culture. Already we are seeing more shows with gender fluid characters, such as children’s series Julie’s Greenroom which debuted on Netflix in 2017.2

For brands targeting Gen Z, these trends should not be taken lightly, particularly as Generation Z seem to be less interested in buying gendered products. Brands of the future must adapt their marketing to the changing values of their audience, and for many this will mean moving away from gender-specific products and communications. This will be a change they can lead, or be forced to follow. For example, H&M is one of the first mainstream brands in the UK to launch a unisex adult clothing line.3 While in 2017 UK shoe outlet Clarks was forced to drop a girls’ shoe design called ‘Dolly Babe’, and the boys’ equivalent called ‘Leader’, with Scotland’s first minister even joining the debate calling the situation unacceptable.

Feminist branding

The feminist movement has seen an enormous revival in recent years and people all over the western world are holding politicians, celebrities and brands to account on where they stand on gender equality and rights. But its character is very different to what older generations, such as Baby Boomers, might have known. It’s now global, thanks to the internet. Conversations are no longer restricted within nations, but shared. Hashtags such as #everydaysexism, #heforshe and more recently #timesup and #metoo have gained huge amounts of traction. Social media is providing not only a platform to call out gender imbalances, but a space for young women to share and support.

The modern feminist movement is more holistic – no longer just focusing on specific issues like gender roles and pay gaps, but encompassing identity and the core concept of equality. It is no longer a ‘women’s issue’. Practical changes such as the doubling of stay at home dads in the US since 19894 and the relatively recent introduction of shared parental leave in the UK should not be ignored. By the time Gen Z are starting families, men could be carving out more instrumental roles in the home and women will have more opportunities to return to the workplace on an equal footing.

This resurgence has not gone unnoticed by brands. American underwear brand Aerie launched their ‘Real’ campaign hoping to tap into the positive body image movement by claiming to use un-photoshopped images which “challenged supermodel standards”. After years of criticism from the feminist movement, Barbie has released a series of ‘Shero’ dolls made in honour of outspoken women, featuring Frida Kahlo and American plus-size model Ashley Graham.5 Adapting to the changing landscape will be absolutely key – the space to respectfully participate in the growing conversation about feminism is growing.


Green-lighting the rainbow

In the time Generation Z have been growing up, there has been a continuation of social shifts, with greater acceptance of varied lifestyles and identities. One of the areas that has seen most change is the growing acceptance of same-sex relationships, particularly in the western world. When the first of Generation Z were born in 1995, only 22% of British adults believed that same-sex relationships were “not wrong at all”.6 Fast forward twenty years and that figure has reached two-thirds of the population (64%).

There is no doubt that this liberalisation is a combination of cohort and period effect, but the interaction of these factors differs globally. In Britain, this shift is predominantly cultural, with all generations becoming more accepting of same-sex relationships since the early 1990s. It’s only the Pre-War generation which stands out generationally – just 41% of those born in the 1940s say same-sex relationships are “not wrong at all”.7

This is not surprising due to the number of important milestones passed over the last twenty years that have encouraged a growing tolerance of the LGBTQ+ community, across the whole of Britain. Not just the obvious legal stamp of acceptance of same-sex relationships through civil partnerships (2004), followed by the legalisation of same-sex marriage (2013). But, also milestones like the Equality Act (Sexual Orientations) Regulations in 2007 – banning any type of discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation, and the granting of equal rights to same-sex couples applying for adoption in 2002.

British Generation Z attitudes are looking as if they are similar to older age groups, not more accepting. Seven in ten (73%) of 15-16 year olds from our Young Persons Omnibus think same-sex relationships are not wrong at all, compared with seven in ten (73%) of Millennials born in the 1980s.8 There’s nothing particularly more progressive about younger generations in societies where issues, like same-sex relationships, have plateaued into general acceptance. Yet in the US, overall tolerance of homosexuality, and its generational pattern, is very different. The same general trend of greater acceptance over the past 20 years can be observed, but only half (50%) of Americans think same-sex relationships are not wrong at all. And younger generations stand out as being much more liberal: Millennials, and now Generation Z, are hiking up the country’s average (72% of Generation Z and 69% of Millennials).

Globally, the difference in national context creates massive variation in tolerance within Generation Z. The latest wave of the Ipsos Global Trends Survey highlights differences between young people’s attitudes in emerging and established markets. In this study, participants were asked whether or not they agreed that “gay men and lesbians should be free to live their own life as they wish”.

Across established economies, there’s no real difference between age groups – just over three quarters (77%) of Millennials, Generation X and Baby Boomers are in favour of this sentiment, with Generation Z only slightly more in favour (82%). In emerging markets, younger generations are slightly more tolerant than older age groups (69% of Generation Z are in favour compared to 61% of Baby Boomers). But, compared with people in the same age group in established markets, Generation Z in emerging markets are 13 percentage points behind.

New issues for Generation Z?

There is some indication that growing up in a more accepting society has had an impact on how young people view sexuality more generally. For example, among British school children, three in five (60%) of 15-16 year olds think sexuality is a scale and that it is possible to be somewhere in the middle.

Self-identification among older UK Generation Z (16-22) seems to follow a similar pattern: just two thirds (66%) think of themselves as exclusively attracted to the opposite sex, compared with 71% of Millennials, 85% of Gen X and 88% of Baby Boomers. It’s difficult to say how much this is a factor of age without any trend data. And certainly this fluidity is likely to be due, in part at least, to being at an earlier stage of identity development. Yet, the strength of the change in the wider societal context makes it likely that it has had some impact on a cohort of young people with more scope to explore.

Gender-ational change

Greater acceptance of homosexuality is not the only traditional ‘liberal’ view that is becoming a societal norm in many different cultures. Long-term trends on gender roles show real changes during the time Generation Z have been growing up. Women continue to contribute more to the workplace and fathers are having greater responsibilities at home – aided by laws such as the right to parental leave. The gender pay gap has gradually decreased in the UK – the gap (in median earnings) for full-time employees decreased from 17.4% in 1997 to 9.1% in April 2017.9 This gap is still significant, but reflects the changing role of women in the workplace during the lives of this generation.

Again, it is no surprise, therefore, that very traditional views of gender roles – that men should go to work, while women should tend to the home – are no longer the social norm. In the US, all generations younger than the Pre-War generation are far more likely to disagree with this sentiment than agree – 84% of Generation Z disagree with traditional gender roles, as do 79% of Millennials and 78% of Generation X.

There is, however, evidence that this shift in environment is impacting young people. Similar to their opinions on sexuality, Generation Z seem to see a spectrum of gender identities – with evidence that gender neutrality is more of a norm among young people than it was for Millennials. In 2016 in the US, three quarters (74%) of Generation Z (13-20) said they are more accepting of non-traditional gender identities than they were a year ago – compared with 64% of younger Millennials (21-27). And well over half (56%) said they knew someone who uses non-gender-binary terms (they/them/ze etc.), compared with 47% of younger Millennials (21-27) and 43% of older Millennials (28-34).

Ignore this at your peril. There is evidence this impacts on how they think the world should be, for example: seven in ten of Gen Z think it is important for public spaces to provide access to gender neutral bathrooms (compared with just 58% of younger Millennials and 56% of older Millennials).10 But, it also affects where they want to spend their money. Gen Z are much less likely to buy products specifically geared towards their own gender, compared with Millennials. Just two in five (39%) of teens prefer to buy shoes which are gender-specific, compared with nearly three in five (57%) of Millennials.

Closer knit families?

Between 2001 and 2015 the percentage of dependent children in the UK living in a married couple family fell from 68% to 62%, with the number of co-habitating families increasing from 10% to 15% in the same period.11

But, while the experience of living with married parents may be declining, many more young people are living with their parents for longer. This is a trend that looks set to continue for Generation Z. In 1997, 20% of 20-34 year olds were living with their parents, in 2017 this figure had reached 26%.12

On top of being in closer proximity for longer, they also appear to be closer emotionally than Millennials were. The proportion of children aged 11-15 talking to either parent about something important has increased by 14 percentage points between 2002 and 2015. In 2002, half of 11-15 year olds (part of the Millennial generation) talked to their mums about things that mattered, by 2015, two thirds of children (65%) reported doing this at least once a week. Similarly, around a third of Millennial 11-15 year olds would talk to their dad regularly about things that matter in 2002 (31%), compared with nearly half (45%) of secondary school age Generation Z in 2015.13


Traditional measures of liberal attitudes no longer reveal anything special about younger generations – particularly in countries where things like acceptance of same-sex relationships and a rejection of traditional gender roles are the norm. This doesn’t mean Gen Z are not more liberal in some ways. Arguably, social liberalism has just shifted focus on to different issues (as it always does), encompassing wider views on gender and sexuality. And on these measures, Gen Z seem to be leading the way – they’re more likely to embrace sexual fluidity and accept gender neutrality.

These changing norms are important. Gen Z take their preferences seriously – and they’re willing to put their money where their mouth is.

Yet despite having different views to their parents’ generation on these issues, they are closer to their families than before, both physically and emotionally. This shouldn’t be ignored. The influence of parents on young people’s lives extends beyond just being reluctant landlords to kids stuck in the nest – they are more likely to be an active part of their lives.

The Perennials: The Future of Ageing

This report looks at our ageing societies and their challenges and opportunities. The media have obsessed about ‘Millennials’ as disruptors, but in fact ageing – which will affect every generation – is having even larger effects. Rising life expectancy and falling birth rates mean populations around the world are getting older. It is portrayed as a ’narrative of decline’ – not a time of opportunity and change.