In brief Gen Z and trust
- Generation Z are much more likely to trust other people compared with Millennials at the same age – six in ten (61%) of Generation Z trust the person in the street to tell the truth, compared with just a third (36%) of Millennials at an equivalent point in 2002.
- But, this says more about the unusual attitudes of the Millennial generation rather than a surge towards a more trusting Generation Z – who are actually just back on par with older generations.
- Talk of a new ‘crisis of trust’ in institutions is overblown. People have always had varying degrees of scepticism towards big institutions, and Gen Z are no different to previous generations.
- Some institutions are even enjoying generational increases in trust – civil servants in the UK are trusted by 80% of Generation Z, more than Millennials at an equivalent age.
- But, Gen Z are less likely to trust information simply because it is on the internet. Only half of 12-15 year olds (49%) think the news they see on news websites is mostly or totally true, compared with almost nine in ten (87%) of 12-15 year olds (young Millennials) in 2008.
THE IMPLICATIONS AND THE FUTURE
Digital education: Reading, writing and recognising fake news
A bounce-bank in levels of trust in people has a number of positive implications – just as a particularly distrusting Millennial generation had negative ones. It seems to indicate that technology and mass media – factors identified as crucial to explaining declines in trust by Robert Putnam, the influential US academic who has examined declining trust levels for decades – may not have as one-sided a negative impact on trust as we once thought. At least not for a generation who have a greater ability to separate the multitude of information online into fact and fiction, relevant and irrelevant – a skill Millennials had not mastered when younger. This type of skill could be key to maintaining interpersonal trust levels within Generation Z in the future.
There are already calls to incorporate digital and media literacy into school curriculums. A recent initiative by the Italian government, in partnership with digital companies such as Facebook, aims to teach school children how to discern ‘fake news’ and conspiracy theory from reliable sources.49 This formalised approach needs to become more widespread, as these skills become evermore central to forming realistic views of the world.
The growth of triangulation of information
This ability to discern in Generation Z means we may see a growing (and welcome) hard-headedness when it comes to dealing with online news, information and disinformation. This is important because the internet is increasingly the medium through which all information will be delivered for Gen Z. The internet allows formerly discrete news mediums such as TV, newspapers and radio to break free of their moorings; so whether they are reading newspaper apps, streaming TV news broadcasts or scrolling through Twitter, Gen Z are using the internet for information.
This will further enable the growth of triangulation, where information is sought from multiple perspectives and a personal decision is made on which is more credible, entertaining, or interesting. It is no longer about using the internet for ‘brand research’, it now acts as the primary filter through which people make decisions about what information they consume, and even who they vote for. There’s no doubt Generation Z will be at the forefront of this trend, and it will become important for brands and institutions to diversify the media through which they communicate with a generation who have no problem flicking through multiple sources to find one they trust.
THE CURRENT EVIDENCE
There are few concepts more nebulous or context-driven than ‘trust’ – who do we trust, to do what, and in what circumstances? But it is an important concept, and in an era where bots and fake news have entered the public consciousness, understanding how to project and build trust with consumers is a priority for governments as well as for companies large and small.
However, for a generation whose oldest members are just 22, the amount of hard data out there on trust levels and their drivers is limited. Therefore, this is a massive area worthy of further study; here we will be looking at distinct areas where we have enough data to draw tentative conclusions – trust in people, trust in (some) institutions and trust in the news.
Trust in their fellow man: the kids think people are alright.
Millennials were a cause of some concern when they were younger. Consistently less likely to trust other people, particularly in the UK and US, they have only recently begun to loosen up a little and trust others to tell the truth. But now that Generation Z are old enough to be mapped onto the adult Ipsos MORI Veracity Index, we can see that they are utterly different from their suspicious predecessors.
Six in ten of Generation Z said they trusted the person in the street to tell the truth in 2017 (61%), a figure which is nearly double that of Millennials when they were the same age in 2002. Back when Millennials were up to 22 years old, only a third (36%) felt that they could trust the person in the street to be truthful.
So does this mean we should expect a new age of trust? Not really. Generation Z are more trusting than Millennials certainly – but this says more about how abnormally distrusting Millennials were than how trusting Generation Z are now. The long-term data suggests that Generations Z’s views are avowedly average – simply a reversion to the mean. Since the early 2000s, Millennials have trailed all other generations on trusting the average man or woman in the street, only catching up with everyone else in 2017 (when the oldest of the group were well into their mid-30s).
In the US it’s a similar picture, although the cohort effect is less surprising. A generational pattern of falling trust had been established since the early 90s, with both Generation X and Millennials less trusting than the generations before them. But now that we can measure Generation Z for the first time, that pattern is decidedly broken. Only about a quarter (26%) say most people can be trusted, which, although less than other age groups currently, compared with Millennials at an equivalent point in 2006, Generation Z are starting out adulthood more trusting.
Trust in ‘The Man’: still no crisis
The preoccupation of firms, institutions and brands with a ‘crisis of trust’ among people in general, and the young in particular, continues to baffle us. There’s no real evidence for it. Yet still there are self-perpetuating reports on how Generation Z (most of whom have yet to hit adulthood) are anxious and distrustful,50 are brand-wary,51 and lack trust in public institutions.52
But any fears about Generation Z rejecting the basic trust relationship between institutions and their citizens or consumers are looking just as misplaced as they were about Millennials. Distrust in institutions continues to be a cultural, long-term phenomenon in the western world – it’s not a generational thing, and young people are just as likely to say they trust institutions as anyone else.
Looking first at global trust in businesses using the latest Ipsos Global Trends Survey, Generation Z are just as likely to trust companies as other age groups in established and emerging markets. Trust in businesses is notably higher among emerging markets – with half (52%) of the population saying they have a high level of trust compared to 37% of the population in established markets. But Generation Z are on a par.
Additionally, in terms of other institutions and experts, there’s just no evidence Generation Z’s trust has collapsed. Although based only on British analysis, we can split data from Ipsos MORI’s Veracity Index by generation, and what we see is that there is no institution which seems in danger of experiencing any kind of generationally-driven ‘crisis of trust’. Generation Z trust levels just don’t vary massively from the rest of the population when it comes to key institutions like the police, judges, priests and clergymen, scientists and journalists.
In fact, Generation Z, at least according to the latest data, appear to be continuing the generational pattern of increasing trust in the central government bedrock of civil servants. Four in five of Generation Z (80%) trust civil servants to tell the truth, more than any age group currently, and significantly more than Millennials did at an equivalent point in 2002 – just 62% trusted civil servants when they were aged up to 22 years old (which itself was a higher level of trust than previous generations).
This doesn’t mean that institutions should not be working hard to try and establish credibility with the public and consumers, but fears that suddenly a new generation of young will want nothing to do with them are unfounded. Trust in institutions is clearly not something that implodes so easily, which should be reassuring.
But a sceptical eye on the news
It would, however, be wrong to think Generation Z are completely trusting. This in itself is not a bad thing, as Onora O’Neill and other great thinkers on trust have suggested – trust foolishly given is potentially a more dangerous trend, and really, we should be focused on the extent to which institutions are ‘trustworthy’.53 Plus Generation Z’s attitudes to different branches of the news does suggest discernment.
As a cohort, Gen Z are much pickier about online sources of information. Unlike Millennials, who straddle the information technology revolution that has occurred worldwide since the nineties, Generation Z are the first fully internet-enabled generation. This also means this generation is completely removed from the home-spun utopian hopefulness that typified much of the early internet age. Looking at the views of 3-15 year olds about news online from a 2017 poll by Ofcom, the telecommunications regulator in the UK, we can see signs of the emergence of a greater level of worldliness among this generation than that which existed among those who went before.
The primary difference is a decline in trust of online news outlets. Among 12-15 year olds in the 2017 survey, half (49%) felt that the news they see on news websites and apps was either entirely or mostly true. When this survey was carried out with the same age group in 2008, young Millennials were found to be much more credulous – then, almost nine in ten agreed that the news they saw online was entirely or mostly true (87%).
We can observe the same pattern for social media, although trust levels were never as high as they were for more official news outlets. The proportion of 12-15 year olds in 2010 who felt that things they saw on social media were either entirely or mostly true was 40%. Among Gen Z 12-15 year olds the comparative figure is 24% in 2017 (in fact a small rise from 2016).
This matters because online news is reaching a level of pre-eminence among the young that is unmatched even by the importance of TV to older generations. Other Ofcom research shows that two thirds of 18-24 year olds (64%) claim online sources are their primary source of news – and a third (33%) use social media ‘specifically for news. The direction of travel is clear and we can expect future generations to be even more dependent on the internet for news. By contrast, TV’s hold on the over 55s is lower, with half saying this is their main source of information (51%).
A complicated picture is emerging in Generation Z here, combining an increasingly guarded (or realistic) attitude to trust in online sources with rising reliance on the self-same sources for news and information. This may represent the growth of a trend in the ‘triangulation’ of news sources that is also observed in Millennials – using a basket of information sources ranging from online to word of mouth, and drawing conclusions based on an interpretation of all of them.
Final thoughts …
Whereas with Millennials we assumed that tech had a role in the falling trust levels, actually this may have been a misreading of the trend, given that Gen Z are even more embedded in the tech explosion, but are actually more trusting in some ways. Instead, this puts more weight on the economic explanations for Millennials’ trust issues, as great thinkers on trust like Robert Putnam in the US have argued. It is also the case that Generation Z have grown up around social media and online news sources. Perhaps this early learning experience with tech, and an environment propounding the risks of fake news, means they are more able to discern between fact and fiction – reducing the drain on their overall trust levels.
But there are two points of caution to this more optimistic view of changing trust.
First, Gen Z’s discernment will be partly because the environment really has changed. There is more reason to be cautious online because there is more information than ever and the proportion that is misinformation has certainly not declined.
Second, leading on from that, it is wrong to assume that all Gen Z have innate super-human abilities to triangulate their way to a reality-based view of the world: they may be more used to the skills required, but they still need all the help they can get, as they are subject to the same human biases of looking for information that confirms our already held views and avoiding information that contradicts us.
Improving the information environment and equipping people with the tools to look out for themselves remain some of the key cultural challenges of our times.