Decoding Gen Z: Shape Shifters

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. 

Last in our series on Gen Z, we explore…

Shape Shifters

Michael Jackson once sang that “it doesn’t matter if you’re black or white.” That has never been more true than for Gen Z. They are empowered to challenge assumptions about who they are or who they should be based on conventional definitions. They embrace the blurry middle between binary positions.

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Statistically, and logically, they are the most ethnically diverse group of consumers ever to enter the market. As globalization has moved from an economic phenomenon to a familial reality, more teenagers growing up today have parents from different cultures and have roots in far off places. Which means they can spot ‘token’ diversity a mile off — whether in advertising or in the make up of your work force. They see diversity not just as a marker of political correctness but a signal of accessibility: if brands and businesses don’t reflect their multi-racial reality they will walk on by, since this is clearly ‘not a place for people like me’.

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But diversity is not solely about ethnicity for this generation. Gender and sexuality are also increasingly nuanced concepts, open to interpretation by each individual. 10,000 people in the US have taken part in the Self Evident project to identify as anything other than 100% straight, and transgender champions now grace the cover of Vanity Fair. By no means has prejudice been eradicated but there is no doubt that the mainstream media is on board with fluid notions of sexuality and gender, thanks in large part to contemporary idols like Miley Cyrus and Jaden Smith who defy typical gender and sexuality stereotypes.

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Lily Rose Depp in Self Evident Truths. image: @iolovesyou on Instagram

Gen Z refuses to be pinned down. They want opportunities to chop and change their identity, and they celebrate those that share that sense of freedom. Increasingly, this means they are less focused on glossy celebrities, and looking for guidance and inspiration from people who feel more ‘real’: peers (like Cameron Asa), bold individuals (like Malala), and talented people who reject conventional celebrity tropes (think, Zoe Kravitz with punk peroxide hair and grungy cargo pants).

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They aren’t asking for your acceptance into a tribe. They are collectors of reference and kaleidoscopes of identity. Don’t expect to mold them to your idea of ideal: they are looking for a platform to find their best selves, whatever that might look like this week.

Amy Lee is Strategy Director at Wolff Olins New York.

Illustrations by Nejc Prah. Hero image left: Wenn, middle: polyvore.com, right: hollywoodlife.com

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