They're humble, pragmatic, and hardworking. They make stuff and sell it on Ebay—then show you how they did it on YouTube. They worry about the future, but mug on Instagram and gossip on Snapchat. They want to change the world, and they've got the numbers to do it.
They're Generation Z, born roughly between 1996 and 2011, outnumbering Millennials by a million and fast on their way to becoming the next powerhouse to dictate trends in the marketplace and the workplace.
So put down that smartphone and shake hands, Millennials. This is a group you can't afford to ignore.
Shaped by Chaos
In contrast to Millennials, who have seen a full cycle of boom and bust, Z's have experienced only economic malaise and political and environmental disruption, said Lucie Greene, worldwide director of the Innovation Group at J. Walter Thompson. The agency did a study of 12- to 19-year-old Gen Z's, a generation that has never known a time before terrorist attacks and financial crises.
As a result, they worry about the future—the world's and their own. In the study, 36% reported being nervous or anxious, and 27% said they had experienced extreme stress, compared with 21% of adults. They fret less about “typical" teen problems like looks and popularity than they do about getting a good job and becoming successful, cited as the top concern by 64%.
Gen Z is also more diverse, and more accepting of diversity. Due to demographic changes, more of them are minorities or multiethnic. They grew up with an African-American president and have seen same-sex marriage become commonplace. They don't care about someone's color, religion or sexual orientation, but they care very much about honesty, sincerity and openness.
When it comes to technology, Z's are “Millennials on steroids," Greene said. The first true digital natives, they spend more than two hours a day on Facebook, YouTube, Instagram and Snapchat. Their attention span is even lower than Millennials', and they communicate in sound bites and emojis.
They're so dependent on devices that they're unable to give directions, a Sparks and Honey report found. Their platform is almost exclusively mobile.
“Youth culture is all about watching stuff on their phones," said Max Polisar, chief revenue officer at AwesomenessTV, a multi-channel entertainment platform for youth that started on YouTube and is now 51% owned by Dreamworks.
Eighty percent of the company's viewers tune in on mobile devices, compared with just over 50% two years ago. “The whole concept of having wires in the home feels like the Titanic traveling from Europe to America," Polisar said.
Gen Z isn't just consuming content, they're making it. Awesomeness has a community of thousands of teens who share their lives, prank their moms, and upload songs. Thousands of other teens share their lives on social media without a sponsor, sometimes gaining a massive following.
For this generation, YouTube is long-form entertainment. They also like Instagram, which allows one-minute videos, and Vine, limited to six seconds.
“It's an art to create something entertaining in six seconds," Polisar said. “It's an art to get content across in emojis or on Instagram or Snapchat."
Gen Z isn't into glamour or drama. The stars they follow are more likely to be people they can relate to. Z's sell crafts on Ebay and make how-to videos for YouTube. Even the 13-and-under set is into DIY, and Dreamworks hosts a popular channel called “Life Hacks for Kids."
Perhaps because they're about comfortable pushing their creations out into the world, Gen Z is also entrepreneurial—over half want to run their own start-up, and 76% percent aim to make their hobby their job, the Sparks and Honey study found.
Gen Z at Work
With the oldest members turning 20, there's not much information about Gen Z in the workplace yet. But their attitudes give clues about what to expect.
Transparency and ethical behavior will be a must for companies that employ them, Greene said.
Millennials, too, want companies to act in the social good. “But be careful what you wish for, Millennials; Gen Z will hold you accountable. They have exponentially higher expectations," Greene said.
They set a high bar for themselves, too, and are willing to work hard to reach it.
In the Marketplace
Marketers who want to reach Gen Z need to create short, fun, “snackable" content and post it on social platforms. Irreverence and creativity are appreciated; selling is not. “It's very important to engage them in ways that don't alienate—they'll decode fakes in a nanosecond," Greene said.
Mona Wood-Sword, owner of PR firm IkaIka Communications in Honolulu, finds the best way to reach Gen Z is to have them create the ads. To promote a salon's hair gel that wasn't selling, she took a bunch of skateboarders to a park and told them to use it to style their hair however they wanted. Then she filmed them flying and flipping on their boards to see how their hairstyles held up. The video got 200 views the first weekend, eventually gaining 20,000.
“Within two days, we started having parents come to the salon asking for the product for their kids," Wood-Sword said.
Plugging on social platforms has another advantage. “This is so much cheaper than buying advertising, yet the impact for this market is amazing if you do it right," Wood-Sword said.
Brands that want to make headway with this generation need to meet them on their own turf—as Coke Zero did when it teamed up with Twitch to host a "Game-a-Thon" where four professional gamers competed for charity at Coke's Atlanta headquarters.
Other brands ask Z's to model their clothes on Instagram or use their products on YouTube.
It's not easy to capture Gen Z's attention—they receive over 3,000 messages a day, Polisar said. But give them something they think is cool, and they'll blast it all over the Internet. Turn them off, and they're gone forever.