Generation Z

Gen Z has arrived.

Also sometimes called “Post-Millennials,” “iGen,” “Pivotals,” and “the Selfie Generation,” these young guns are growing up, getting out, and making a splash in the market and workplace. Born between 1997 and (arguably) 2015, the oldest Gen Zers are now around 21 years old. They’re buying goods as consumers – spending nearly $44 billion per year themselves and influencing an additional $600 billion – and entering the workforce as employees. For companies, it’s worth knowing who they are and what they value.


By Andrew Shaughnessy

Chart about Gen Z values

Source: Barkley & FutureCast

Defining Generation Z

Every generation is shaped by their context. For Boomers, it was the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement; for Gen X, the fall of the Berlin Wall. Millennials came of age during 9/11 and the advent of readily accessible Wi-Fi, Google, and social media. Growing up in the shadow of the 2008 economic recession, ISIS, and political polarization, Gen Zers’ context was shaped by a climate of uncertainty. They watched their parents and siblings struggle in a lousy job market and saw the deluge of negative stereotypes laden on Millennials. Reacting to their situation, Gen Z is driven by a desire for individual achievement in the traditional sense. They want academic accolades, career success, a good family life, and financial security, and they’re willing to work hard to get there.

While their yardstick for personal success is conservative – more akin to that of Boomers than Millennials – most Gen Zers hold far more progressive social values than previous generations, leaning left when it comes to issues like LGBTQ rights, gun control, and economics. This is the most diverse, multicultural generation the U.S. has ever seen. They grew up with America’s first black president and changing cultural attitudes toward gender and sexual orientation, and they expect to see diversity reflected and appreciated around them – in the ads they see and the workplaces they inhabit.

Thanks to social media, Gen Zers also tend to be informed about and active in conversations surrounding activism and social justice from an earlier age than previous generations. And where Millennials honed in on environmental activism, Gen Z is most passionate about advocating for human equality: racial, gender, and sexual orientation.

Beyond activism, exploring, discovering, and projecting one’s individual identity is a central theme for Gen Zers, with social media serving as platforms both for exploration and for presenting the “curated self” – the carefully selected versions of their lives that they choose to show to the world.

Gen Zers are also highly individualistic, preferring to work alone rather than in teams. Some trace this characteristic to technology’s increasing ability to be personalized to individual taste (think Spotify playlists and video game avatars). They don’t expect life to be handed to them on a silver platter, but they do expect to be noticed, as individuals, for their achievements.

Perhaps most importantly, today’s teens and young adults are the first post-digital generation. Most Millennials remember the days when Wi-Fi, smartphones, and social media were uncommon or non-existent. Gen Z has never known a day without them. Facebook, Instagram, and Google, instant access to information, entertainment, and communication – these have been woven into the fabric of their lives since childhood. Technology shapes the way Gen Zers form their opinions, choose which companies to buy from, interact with their friends, and present themselves to the world.

Percent of Generations that Expect Brands to Support Causes They Care About Graph

Source: Barkley & FutureCast

Marketing to Generation Z

By 2020, Gen Z will make up 40% of all consumers. They’re unique, certainly different from any previous generation marketed to – yet they’re also powerful, both as consumers and as market influencers. It’s crucial that companies understand what Gen Zers want from them and learn to meet them on their own terms in order to capture their business and earn their loyalty.



According to UTC marketing and entrepreneurship professor Dr. Stephanie Gillison, Gen Z’s unique experience growing up with technology and social media shapes how they interact with companies’ marketing efforts.

“Most of them were given cellphones when they were children,” Gillison says. “They don’t know a world without social media, without easy internet access.”

Gen Z goes to social media, typically on their smartphones, to get their information and form their opinions about brands. Mobile-friendly online content appropriate for different mediums (Facebook versus Instagram, for example) is not an option but a requirement for brands wanting to market to Gen Z.

Standing out in the midst of the online noise takes some real creativity, but several major brands have stepped up to the challenge. Domino’s Pizza now allows registered customers to order pizza simply by tweeting a pizza emoji at Domino’s. Dunkin’ Donuts’ Gen Z customers can buy their friends coffee and donuts through ApplePay on the brand’s mobile app.


Authenticity and Value

Companies need to be present on the latest social media to reach Millennials, yet simultaneously, social media is so engrained into Gen Z’s lives that they can spot promoted content a mile away. They know when they’re being marketed to. So how does a brand set themselves apart? The key, according to Gillison, is authenticity.

“They want to see real people,” she says. “This is the generation that goes to YouTube and watches other people using products and reviewing them. They’re looking for honest feedback from real people, not a television ad with a celebrity spokesperson in it. They want authentic voices coming at them.”

The trick is actually giving Gen Z what they want without over-doing the product placement. If they want beautiful, entertaining stories – give them stories and do them well. If they want how-to tutorials, teach them something they can use. Gen Z is overbooked and stressed out. If you waste their time, they’re gone.


Value for Money

Gen Zers certainly value their time, but they also appreciate the value of the dollar. 

“They’ve grown up in lower economic times, going through a recession when they were kids,” says Gillison. “That’s going to shape their view of how they spend their money.”

Financial security is a huge priority for Gen Z. They want to spend their money wisely, so brands’ marketing needs to make a clear case for their product or service. After all, the whole internet is out there with alternatives they can find with just a few clicks and swipes.

Brands like Patagonia are popular among this young generation because, though their products have a steeper price tag, their lifetime warranties and quality materials ensure a superior level of craftsmanship and value.

“Value is really, really important,” Gillison says. “Really making them understand why this product is going to be great for them, why they should spend their money on your product versus your competitors.”


Equality and Activism

Thanks to social media and growing cultural diversity, Gen Z is becoming passionate about social justice issues and activism at a much earlier age than previous generations. Connected to the globe through their digital social networks and Facebook feeds, they are actively involved in international conversations surrounding issues like Black Lives Matter and LGBTQ rights. Topics that were once easy to ignore or deemed impolite to discuss have risen to the fore, and Gen Z wants to see companies involved in the conversation, reflecting their values back at them in ads – people who look like them, different family compositions, ages, and ethnicities – and in action.

According to a 2017 report by Barkley and FutureCast, 60% of teens support brands that support human rights causes, particularly racial and sexual orientation equality. Gen Z is quick to celebrate a brand they see as authentically standing for a cause they believe in, but they’re also quick to point out the phonies, those who cash in on a cause for PR with no action behind their words – so you’d better practice what you preach.

Ben & Jerry’s, for example, has frequently and consistently voiced their support for issues like climate change and LGBTQ rights. They use their website and social media as platforms to take public stands with the likes of Black Lives Matter, and even give ice cream flavors social-justice themed names (“Empower Mint” anyone?) paired with campaigns to support human rights rallies or lobbying for refugee resettlement. Gen Z loves it.

On the other hand, brands like Pepsi have faced backlash for their marketing toward Gen Z. In 2016, the company released a television ad featuring a well-known celebrity appearing to solve a protest by handing a can of the fizzy drink to a police officer on the front line. Many saw this as a way of trivializing the social justice movement, and the ad was pulled almost immediately.

Events that defined each generation graphic

Source: Barkley & FutureCast and Pew Research Center


Working with Generation Z

Gen Z is the world’s emerging workforce. Many of the oldest, around age 21, are nearing the end of college. Many others, seeing Millennials’ student debt and low return on investment in education, have skipped the traditional college path and are already working. Today’s companies need to know how to recruit and manage them.


Tap into Tech

When it comes to recruiting this young generation, tapping into Gen Z’s affinity for technology is key. Unum, a Chattanooga-based insurance company, recruits at college career fairs, but also employs a tech-friendly recruitment strategy, taking to LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter to ensure that candidates can easily apply for positions on digital platforms, and connecting them with a human recruiter during the process.

Unum also has an internship program, called Unum Scholars, designed to give college students an insight into the company’s processes and career opportunities. Students work part-time for the company for two years, receiving training, mentorship, and job shadowing in different departments. Recently, Unum allowed some of their Scholars to take over the company’s Instagram account, sharing real stories with their peers about what it’s like to work for the company. Remember how Gen Z wants authentic stories from real people? This is what that looks like in action.


Reward Hard Work

True to their drive for individual achievement, Gen Zers look for employers that take care of their people and give them a chance to grow. Sure, the size of a paycheck is important, but what they really want is a company that provides professional development opportunities, offers chances for merit-based promotion, and gives performance bonuses. It’s not enough to offer a good salary. Gen Zers look carefully at the whole benefits package.

“Gen Zers want to work for a company that recognizes hard work, encourages new ideas, and is willing to adapt to change,” says Unum staffing consultant Nahomi Ortiz.

Unum offers rewards beyond a paycheck, including tuition reimbursement and generous paid vacation. Recently, they invested $100 million in office renovations, adding or improving features like on-site fitness and health facilities, mindfulness rooms, and “town square” meeting spaces.

Third-party logistics service provider Coyote Logistics, a UPS company, emphasizes their opportunities for mentorship and professional development. “Gen Zers have an entrepreneurial mindset and really thrive on individual attention and opportunity,” says Coyote Chattanooga recruiter Caroline Beatse. “We are able to meet them there by providing them with the opportunity to build their own business and be creative.”

We almost exclusively promote from within our entry-level roles, making opportunity for growth readily available,” she adds. “We also make it a point to have regular touchpoint meetings with our employees to discuss their interests, career goals, and passions.”

Gen Z Post-Digital timeline

Source: Barkley & FutureCast

Blurring the Work/Life Balance

For Gen Z, work/life balance looks different than it did with previous generations. Combine a life of constant connection with their willingness to work hard and their fear of failure, and you have a generation that blurs the lines between work and play, personal and professional. As technology makes remote work more common and more feasible, tech-savvy Gen Zers are attracted to workplaces that have flexible work hours and even flexible work locations – if they can get good work done from their couch at home after hours, why not?

This flexibility makes them innovative, but also puts them at risk of burnout.

“Gen Zers are extremely tech-savvy, but we have to help them maintain a balance of the always-on, hyperconnected way of working with the need to rest, recover, and enjoy life outside of work,” Ortiz says.

While accommodating a growing desire for flexible working hours and location may be key to attracting young talent, Gen Z employees may need individual attention and guidance to make sure they are managing their time well now and also planning for a sustainable future.


More than a Paycheck

“A big factor that holds weight for Gen Zers is company culture,” says Beatse. “This generation is really making it a priority to join a company that they are happy with.”

That doesn’t necessarily mean beanbag chairs and video games – remember, Gen Z is more traditional and pragmatic than their Millennial predecessors. It does, however, mean pushing transparency, open communication, and a casual atmosphere that favors flexibility without sacrificing professionalism.

Additionally, just as this diverse generation wants to see diversity in marketing, they value a culturally and ethnically diverse workplace. And just as Gen Zers want to buy from brands that reflect their values, they want to work for organizations that behave ethically and show evidence of corporate responsibility. They take note of what charitable causes a company supports (or if they don’t support any at all) and appreciate opportunities to get involved.

“Gen Zers generally want to give back to the community,” says Beatse, noting that Coyote supports St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, and posts a monthly list of community service opportunities their employees can get involved in. “We provide endless opportunities for our employees to participate in something bigger than themselves.”

Gen Z Workplace Expectations

Source: Robert Half International

Young and Full of Potential

Over the next decade, Gen Z will become increasingly important as both consumers and employees. They’re hardworking, tech-savvy, ambitious, and dedicated to the greater good. By understanding what makes them tick, you can optimize their talents as employees and earn their loyalty as customers.

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