Whether it’s porn (sorry parents, they’ve seen it all), information on terrorist groups, cyber bullying, social justice issues or finding a misfit tribe, Gen Z have digested it all and are wise beyond their years, writes Dion Chang.
In the past few weeks there has been a noticeable thread running through the #BlackLivesMatter protests following the killing of George Floyd by the police: the presence of young people and specifically Gen Z (the cohort born roughly between the mid-1990s and mid-2010s) - from Darnella Frazier, the 17-year-old who captured the horrific event on her cellphone, to the groups of teenagers who organised and led many of the protests in America and around the world.
This was not surprising to me, but rather an affirmation of one of the key characteristics of this generation. They have a strong – and fearless – social justice barometer and use their devices as digital weapons to communicate with and galvinise their peers and other communities, to push for positive change.
Last year, millions of teenagers around the world joined Greta Thunberg on her School Strikes for Climate Change, which then initiated a further 2 500 events scheduled in over 150 countries. My advice to brands and businesses who brush this generation off is "don’t underestimate a digital native", especially if you’re a business which is less tech proficient than they are.
I started tracking Gen Z five years ago, long before they started coming of age, because as the first generation of true digital natives, their impact and influence on both retail brands as well as businesses is going to be very different compared to previous generations.
For those who scoff at generational theory, imagine the world from a digital native’s perspective. Gen Z know no world without smartphones, the internet and Google. Even tech proficient millennials had to adapt to technologies like social media platforms, all spawned around 2005.
This allows them to have whatever information they need at their fingertips. As such they don’t wait for questions to be posed to them, they just "google it". They learn and assimilate whatever information comes through their mobile devices, seemingly by osmosis. It’s why the traditional schooling system – spawned in the late 19th century – is so mismatched with their 21st century reality (but that’s another column entirely).
Stepping into a world falling apart
Whether it’s porn (sorry parents, they’ve seen it all), information on terrorist groups, cyber bullying, social justice issues or finding a misfit tribe, Gen Z have digested it all and are wise beyond their years, hence their ease and understanding of gender fluidity, the nuances of identity politics, issues on sustainability, inequality and corporate greed, all of which layer today’s social dynamics.
The Covid-19 pandemic will add to this perspective and be a defining life event for them, much the same way 9/11 and the 2008 global financial crisis shaped the millennial generation’s views on global politics and economics. It will reaffirm their convictions around climate change, corporate greed, social inequality and global solidarity and give them impetus to shout "I told you so" to older generations whom they blame for the turmoil the world is in.
Gen Z will be walking into a job market shadowed by the economic crisis triggered by the coronavirus, and future prospects of prosperity and growth dimmed by the realities of environmental constraints. They are stepping into the world, as it is falling apart.
Climate and Covid-19 are a perfect pair of catastrophes - one acute, one chronic - that will shape the course of Gen Z’s lives and world view. This is crucial for businesses which are not only looking at Gen Z as a new consumer base, but also as a new workforce. If you thought millennials were difficult to adapt to, then you’re in for a bumpy ride.
Listen to them more closely
With their high social justice barometers, Gen Z consumers want their values mirrored in the brands they support. They demand transparency and expect brands to go beyond bottom line profits or shareholder primacy. In a world where brand loyalty is rare, these conscious consumers are not going to buy blindly into a brand that doesn’t stand up to peer review.
"If you are a retail clothing shop, if you aren't sourcing material locally, using local hands or you're not ecologically friendly - I'm not as interested anymore. I'd like to get to know you and know your brand. I don't want to buy from a logo, I want to buy from someone." ~ Jayde McLoughin, 23, interviewed for Flux Trends' Gen Z report.
In terms of a workforce, the traditional linear approach to a single, lifelong career trajectory is anathema to them. Multitasking is second nature to digital natives, so rigid corporate templates with silos and hierarchies and a 9-to-5, 40-hour workweek are all outdated concepts for them. "Work" is also ideally aligned with a purpose and continual learning, and something you "do". rather than "a place you go to".
Africa has the largest concentration of Gen Zs on the planet. The median age of sub-Saharan Africa is 18 years old, so the Gen Z ripple effect is particularly significant for businesses on the continent. If they are only starting to come of age now, it means that by mid-century, Africa will be home to 35% of the world’s youth, and will also account for an approximately 60% increase in the total world population by 2050.
Africa’s future, and its impact on the world, will therefore be shaped by Gen Z.
Just give them connectivity, and then listen to them more closely.
- Dion Chang is the founder of Flux Trends.
The new Flux Trends online report: Generation Z – Architects of Our new World Order will be launched on Youth Day, 16th June. Visit www.fluxtrends.com for more details and to download online.