In recent weeks, teens and even tweens have grabbed the nation’s attention with their relentless focus on effecting meaningful change on school safety and gun control laws. When discussing these young people, media and politicians have struggled with what to label this vast generation that came of age in a post-9/11 world. Most have defined them primarily by the generations that came before them (“Post Millennial,” or “Generation Z”), while others have lumped them in with their older brothers and sisters by referring to them as “Millennials” (something that extends that generation into its third decade of birth). Regardless of what history decides to label this generation, it’s very clear based on their attitudes and behaviors that they are not Millennials, and that everyone from political leaders to marketers will need to prepare for the unique ways they will be reshaping the world in the years to come.
Reshaping the world is something many of them fully intend to do – whether all of their elders approve or not. According to a poll released in late March, a vast majority of young people aged 18-24 (89%) think they can change the world – or are already doing so, even as adults over 50 say in the same poll that young people make them pessimistic about the future.
GfK has been paying close attention to the ways that this age group, whose eldest members are just entering their 20s, differs from past generations. GfK Consumer Life research shows they are ambitious, highly stressed (70% say they feel stressed fairly or quite often – 2.5 x the proportion of Millennials who felt the same way ten years ago), and concerned about the future – characteristics that were not associated with fun-loving, “live for today” Millennials when they were the same age. They have big dreams for the future: 47% would like to own their own businesses – a number that jumps to 52% among girls that age. Many are old souls in young bodies, with nearly half admitting they feel older than their years. We see many of these characteristics, and others unique to this generation, playing themselves out in the students’ response to the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas.
Their idealism is cut with a heavy dose of pragmatism
Leading a protest movement is nothing new for young people, as teenagers led the charge in prior generations on everything from school integration, to protesting Vietnam, to apartheid, to Occupy Wall Street. But where this group of young people differs is in their ability to marry the practical with the idealistic. While they have ambitious goals, they are also practical as to the means and the timeframe in which such change may take place. They see many different ways to attack a problem – be it through changing legislation, influencing businesses, or empowering individuals – and are prepared to change tactics and regroup as necessary. And they won’t let setbacks or naysayers dampen their enthusiasm: perseverance is a core value for this group and rated much higher by them than by any older generation.
They are digital natives, equally comfortable in tech and non-tech worlds
With other potential generational monikers for this group being “The i-Generation” or “# generation”, it is clear that technology – and social media networks – don’t come with the same learning curve that prior generations had to address. This generation finds technology fascinating (more so than Millennials, both when they were young and today) and they are able to use it in new and creative ways. But being fluent in technology does not mean that they are laggards in other forms of communication. Those who were concerned that this screen-obsessed generation might be unable to communicate in the real world were mistaken: they also know that there are appropriate times to unplug and to focus on in-person interactions, and they understand the amplification power of mass media as well. They are able to harness the power of virtual and real-world networks as needed, seamlessly moving from online social media campaigning and fundraising into old-fashioned face-to-face canvassing and back again.
They will hold all of us accountable
Young people today have grown up in a world that rarely makes them feel safe. Many of them have been participating in active shooter drills since they were in elementary school and four in ten of this generation strongly agree “I am afraid for my safety and security all the time.” No wonder that GfK Consumer Life’s data shows that a vast majority believe “we need more changes today, not less” and that they are ready to lead the march for change themselves. That doesn’t mean they are going to let others off the hook though. Both at the ballot box and in the marketplace, they will reward those whom they believe share their values, and punish those who will not – something that was seen in the immediate aftermath of the Parkland shooting when they began pressuring businesses to change their gun sales policies or stop their support of the NRA. More than half of teens today say they are more likely to buy a brand that supports the causes they care about, higher than any other age group and two times as many as Millennials when they were the same age. And don’t think that being a high-end brand will inoculate you from this – today’s teens are less likely than Millennials, both now and when they were teens, to say that they like to buy products with prestigious names.
They are color-blind in important ways
This still unnamed generation is the most culturally diverse segment in US history. And GfK Consumer Life research proves that these young people place higher importance on the values of internationalism, social tolerance, open-mindedness, and equality than Millennials did at their age. They share a greater tendency to recognize and accept cultural differences, as well as a strong desire to make sure that the whole spectrum of experiences be considered. The Parkland teenagers have built bridges to other teens with very different backgrounds than their own to make sure they understand the full impact of gun violence on their generation. They ensured that voices from many different socio-economic and racial backgrounds were incorporated into their public efforts, recognizing the similar issues that united them all.
They understand the value of money
As the children of Generation X, a generation that itself placed “having a lot of money” as a critical aspect of both the “Good Life” and “The American Dream” (as tracked over time by GfK Consumer Life), this generation has been taught the importance of material security and having the funds you need to get things done. That is why raising money became a quick and important focus of the students, many of whom were quick to reach out to different individuals and organizations to secure the financial support needed to back their plans. This financial savvy was also demonstrated in their clear understanding of the power of the pocketbook as both a carrot and a stick when it comes to driving social change across business and the public sector.
It’s time to adjust your strategies
It should be clear that not only does this generation differ from Millennials in very substantial ways, but that they will place new demands on companies and institutions. Their expectations for brands are very high – as is their level of scrutiny. According to GfK Consumer Life, one quarter of this generation, compared to one-fifth or fewer of older generations, avoided a particular brand or store in the past month because they disagreed with the company’s business practices or values. Companies must appeal to them on a deeper level, whether it’s alleviating their stress about the future, making them feel safer, helping to fulfill their big ambitions, or offering to make their lives easier. However, all of this needs to be done with authenticity or else they will, in the words of Emma Gonzalez, “call BS.