What Is Generation Z, And What Does It Want?

The new generation, millennials, about to enter the workforce, are getting a bad rap, writes Jeremy Finch for Altitude/Accenture. The oldest members of this cohort are barely 18 and media and market research companies have labeled them “screen addicts” with the attention span of a gnat, says the report.

While generational research is inherently messy, with older generations studying “the kids” to figure them out, says the report, much of the recent research is awash in normative preconceptions, biases, and stereotypes. Gen Z deserves a fairer shake, says Finch.

The study set out to understand not only what Gen Z were doing but why, in their own words. Working with over a dozen 16- to 18-year-olds with diverse backgrounds from across the country, through a series of in-depth discussions, video diaries, and daily interactive exercises, the study finds that Gen Z actually have what the report calls highly evolved “eight-second filters.”

The recent headline-grabbing studies suggest that Gen Z attention spans have shrunk to eight seconds and that they’re unable to focus for extended amounts of time. However, the study found that they’ve grown up in a world where their options are limitless but their time is not. As such, Gen Z have adapted to quickly sorting through and assessing enormous amounts of information. 

Online, they rely heavily on trending pages within apps to collect the most popular recent content, says the report. They also turn to trusted curators to locate the most relevant information and entertainment. These tools help Gen Z shrink their potential option set down to a more manageable size.

Once something has demonstrated attention-worthiness, Gen Z can become intensely committed and focused, says the report. They’ve come of age with an Internet that’s allowed them to go deep on any topic of their choosing and learn from like-minded fans. Gen Z have a carefully tuned radar for being sold to and a limited amount of time and energy to spend assessing whether something’s worth their time. 

Though Gen Z has been painted as a bunch of socially inept netizens, and older generations struggle to understand why they spend so much time online, Gen Z are under immense pressure to simultaneously manage their personal and professional brands to help them fit in while also standing out, posits the report.

On a personal level, Gen Z seek immediate validation and acceptance through social media, since that’s where all their peers are and where many of the important conversations happen. They curate different social media personas in order to please each audience and minimize conflict or controversy. On a professional level, Gen Z are hyperaware of the negative stereotypes that have plagued millennials, and, as a result, they want to be known for their ability to work hard and persevere offline. 

Between these two forces, Gen Z feel torn: They need social media to build their personal brands but resist being defined by it. They seek social validation and inclusion, but are looking to differentiate themselves professionally. Companies that understand this tension will provide Gen Z the tools they need to reconcile and better manage their personal and professional brands.

Recent reports have labeled Gen Z the “entrepreneurial generation” and highlighted their desire to forsake the corporate grind for their own startups. However, the study found that while Gen Z like the idea of working for themselves, the majority are risk-averse, practical, and pragmatic. Their supposed entrepreneurialism is actually more of a survival mechanism than an idealist reach for status or riches.

Gen Z are determined to plan ahead, says the report. Gen Z have been strongly shaped by their individualistic, self-reliant Gen X parents and they’re committed to avoiding the mistakes their meandering millennial predecessors made. “I need a job that will come out with money, otherwise college will be a waste”, says Marcus, 17. “I want to pick a career that is stable.”

Concluding, the report says that Society tends to either romanticize youth or criticize the things they’re doing differently. The reality of Gen Z, however, lies somewhere in between. They face many of the challenges that everyone faces in that life stage, transitioning from school to work, separating from parents, and forming their own identities. But they’re doing so in an ultra-connected, fast-moving technological age.



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