How to Avoid Missteps in the Rush to Define Gen Z

We want it: the information that helps us draw hard lines around a generation and determine who they are, what they value, where they go for fun, and how they shop. Then we want more: data that uncovers their favorite snack foods, how much they get in allowance, and what their preferred screen size is for mobile devices.

This desire to define by age group can make a lot of sense, since focusing on “The Generation” – a group of individuals whose commonality stems from the fact that they share major events and social contexts – offers a fresh and useful take on market segmentation. Aware of the flaws in focusing on solely gender, ethnicity, or class in advertising, brands have increasingly turned their focus to Boomers, Millennials, and now, the still-elusive and highly anticipated Generation Z – those born from around the mid-to-late nineties.

But there may be some gaps in our understanding of what a generation is, what we can expect of it, and when we can draw conclusions about it – gaps that are especially relevant as businesses rush to identify and develop strategies for marketing to Gen Z. The following identifies these gaps, explains the possible missteps in ignoring them, and offers a point of departure that can put us on the right path to knowing some key things about this emerging generation.

1/ The Time Gap: Rushing to judgment

Generations, just like the individuals who populate them, have an aging process.

They grow and mature over time in ways that help themselves and the people around them identify their patterns and impacts. It is, therefore, impossible to know everything about a generation in the very early stages of its development and self-definition. Equally misguided are attempts to compare two generations at different points in their processes – a misstep that amounts to comparing apples to apple trees.

For example, our notion of Gen Z as pragmatic and resourceful is a sensible reading of their response to the unpredictable economic context in which they were raised. But we can’t be sure just yet if this pragmatism will lead Gen Z to exhibit industriousness or hopelessness in the workplace – or perhaps both. Our understanding of Millennials, not to mention Boomers and Gen X, is still developing, but these groups no doubt benefit from the perspective and hindsight that a few years or decades can provide.

Point of departure:

Gen Z is in a reactionary phase of identity construction, exploring themselves through opposition to the generations that have come before them.

Paying attention to what they reject and how they apply their sense of skepticism – from notions of beauty to approaches to social networking – will give us good clues into what will become their foundational beliefs and future aspirations.

2/ The Space Gap: Ignoring a global/local balance

 Gen Z is much more international, and therefore much larger in number, than any generation that has come before it. While teenagers in New York and New Delhi have not typically been considered subject to the same major events and social contexts (ever wonder why we never talk about Indian Baby Boomers?), many of these individuals are now part of a far more coherent group, having collectively seen footage of the fall of the Twin Towers, anticipated the release of a new smartphone, or had a meal at McDonald’s.

The global reach of multinational corporations, as well the consumer products, foods, and media that they generate and promote, has made it necessary to think of generations beyond the local context. Of course, the significance of local events and touch points hasn’t disappeared, nor have cultural and economic conditions that might encourage Indian and American teenagers to approach the world in different ways.

Point of departure:

Gen Z is a truly global generation, so much so that for them, the term globalization is already a tired cliché. Carefully watching the impact of events and cultural moments that resonate around the world (like the 2009 death of pop star Michael Jackson), while also noting the significance of events that resonated on a more local scale (the sudden 2013 death of Bollywood star Abir Goswami) provides an important framework for considering what might matter to members of Gen Z, and how that may be the same or different across space.

3/ The Life Stage Gap: Confusing moments in time with long-term patterns

Because of the rush towards judgment, and our reluctance to accept generational development as dynamic and ever-changing, we also fall into the trap of defining generations by single moments in time. These moments are often more demonstrative of life stages than they are of patterns that define an entire generation. When we think of Gen Xers as loners and Millennials as gluttons for attention, we are denying the very real changes in those generations that emerged when they moved out of young adulthood and into other phases of life.

As it turns out, middle-aged members of Gen X have built strong community institutions, while Millennial parents report being terrified of their young children over-exposing themselves on social media. For their part, Gen Z has being lauded as a generation of cosmopolitan sophisticates. Some ethnographic work, however, explores their desire to move inward as they grow into adulthood, living in places that are comfortable and calm instead of flashy.

Point of departure:

Gen Z is a generation that is subject to rapid change in their external environment. The glut of information to which they are consistently exposed has given them no choice but to remain fluid and open to change. Marketers should mirror this approach, acknowledging that research can never be timeless and must be refreshed and reframed, particularly as generations grow, change, and move through life’s various stages.

the author

Maya Shapiro

Dr. Maya Shapiro is a resident anthropologist at Idea Couture.