Decoding Gen Z: Fake Real

This week, our Strategy Director Amy Lee deep dives into the world of “Gen Z”. Loosely defined as anyone born after Millennials (helpful), Gen Z are roughly 13-17 years old right now. Regardless that the majority of them are still relying on pocket money, brands and marketers are already frantically thinking about ways to capture their attention, influence and potential spending power.

“Screen addicts”, “Cord nevers”, “The iGeneration”, “Net Gen”… whatever you call them, Gen Z are coming into the world of work and consumption soon. At scale: they make up over 25% of the US population and millions more worldwide. So, it’s worth understanding more about the next tidal wave of influencers.

No generation can be reduced to simple definitions. But we’ve observed patterns of (largely US-centric) behavior, having observed Gen Z through research insights, their online activity and speaking to them directly.

In the second part of our series, we explore the world of…

Fake Real

From Holbein to Valenica filters: for centuries, we humans have tried to portray ourselves in a more flattering light. ‘Selfies’ made it into the dictionary in 2013 as cameras became omnipresent throughout phones. Now, Gen Z are growing up with the online world at their feet and all the tools to build an identity at scale.

Online audience gives them (and all of us) an opportunity for immediate validation, so they seek opportunities to create an image and demonstrate what they stand for. But in a world where hashtags — like #Cecilthelion — attract two billion impressions and ‘virality’ is the goal, it’s hard to tell what is from the heart and what is more for their audience’s benefit (aka fake real).


#cecilthelion – image bottom:, right:

Gen Z are certainly not shy of promoting themselves in the traditional way (flawless skin, ideal angle etc.) on social channels. But they are also more nuanced creators of self-image than the generations before them. Insta-envy may be prevalent, but so is the #epicfail culture — they understand that showing yourself as fallible makes you more likeable, and so they deliberately curate their image to present a rounded view.



They are taking cues from pop icons like Taylor Swift: a performer who regularly shames us with her picture-perfect #squad of girl friends (that we don’t have), while creating videos that embrace her failures (not being a great dancer — see ‘Shake It Off’) as much as her assets.



However tempting likes and affirmative comments can be, Gen Z are well aware of the pitfalls of sharing everything: Apple Cloud revealed more of Jennifer Lawrence than she ever intended, and off-key tweets result in real life consequences — as Iggy Azaelea, Cee-lo Green and many more can tell you.



The utopia of social media has passed, as Gen Z grew up knowing its dangers. So, they are increasingly turning to more ‘shy’ social tools like Whatsapp, Snapchat and Whisper which limit sharing by group size, time and anonymity respectively. They are also more inclined to leave something to the imagination. There is power in showing something — an image, a quote, an oblique tweet — and leaving the rest to interpretation. And we are left to discern what is real, what is fake, and what is fake real.

Come back tomorrow for the conclusion of our series where we explore ShapeShifters. 

Amy Lee is Strategy Director at Wolff Olins New York. 

Illustrations by Nejc Prah. Hero image: Instagram


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