Innovating for Your Next Customer: Three Insights on Gen Z
Gen Z, the next generation after Millennials, makes up a quarter of the US population and by 2020 will account for 40 percent of all consumers. Understanding them will be critical to product innovation for companies seeking to succeed in the next decade and beyond.
But no one really seems to know much about them yet.
While generational research is inherently messy, much of the recent research is awash in normative preconceptions, biases, and stereotypes. So Altitude set out to dig below the surface to understand not only what Gen Z were doing but why. We worked 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 designed to provide a glimpse into their lives (the same innovation process we use for any target consumers). Our goal was to view the world through their eyes. It’s critical that we recognize Gen Z’s differences and meet them where they are, rather than where we want them to be. Without empathy and understanding, brands risk being filtered into obscurity.
Here are some the insights we gleaned and how they will be important to companies’ future success.
1. 8 second attention span or 8 second filter?
Recent headline-grabbing studies suggest that Gen Z attention spans have shrunk to 8 seconds and that they’re unable to focus for extended amounts of time. However, we found that Gen Z actually have what we’re calling highly evolved “8-second filters.”
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, relying on tools such as trending pages and trusted curators.
Once something has demonstrated attention-worthiness, Gen Z can become intensely committed and focused. Marcus, 17, spent years exploring the corners of vintage sneaker culture online, eventually becoming a “sneakerhead.” During his freshman year in college, he leveraged this knowledge and started a side business flipping rare shoes.
Gen Z have a carefully tuned radar for being sold to and a limited amount of time and energy to spend assessing what’s worth their time. Getting past these filters, and winning Gen Z’s attention, will mean providing them with engaging and immediately beneficial experiences.
2. They’re not screen addicts. They’re full-time brand managers.
The media has painted Gen Z as a bunch of socially-inept netizens and older generations struggle to understand why they spend so much time online. In reality, Gen Z are under immense pressure to simultaneously manage their personal and professional brands to help them fit in while also standing out.
On a personal level, Gen Z seek immediate validation and acceptance through social media. “We filter out whatever flaws we may have, to create the ideal image,” says Sneha, 16.
On a professional level, Gen Z are hyperaware of the negative stereotypes that have plagued Millennials. They want to be known for their ability to work hard and persevere offline. “I’ve always felt like I needed to prove myself,” says Sneha. “Hard work eventually pays off.”
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.
3. They’re not all entrepreneurs. They’re practical pragmatists.
Recent reports have labeled Gen Z the “entrepreneurial generation” and highlighted their desire to forsake the corporate grind for tartups. We 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.
Gen Z are determined to plan ahead. “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.”
To ease this anxiety, the participants in our study all claimed to be aiming for jobs in growing, less-automatable fields like education, medicine, and sales. And they’re obsessed with developing contingency plans. While the media has singled out a number of high-profile entrepreneurial teen success stories, the majority of Gen Z in our study are biased in favor of career and financial stability. Entrepreneurship is seen as a way to not have to rely on anyone (or anything) else, and their version of it will likely be focused on sustainable “singles and doubles” rather than Silicon Valley “home runs.”
The Space In Between
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.
It’s critical for product innovation that we recognize Gen Z’s differences and meet them where they are, rather than where we want them to be. Without empathy and understanding, brands risk being filtered into obscurity. As writer Logan Pearsall Smith put it nearly 100 years ago: “Don’t laugh at a youth for his affectations; he is only trying on one face after another to find a face of his own.”