What is Gen Z

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Generation Z comprises people born between 1996 and 2010. This generation’s identity has been shaped by the digital age, climate anxiety, a shifting financial landscape, and COVID-19.

Gen Z is currently the second-youngest generation, with millennials before and Generation Alpha after. Like every generation, Gen Z’s behaviors are shaped by how they grew up. Young people today have come of age in the shadow of climate doom, pandemic lockdowns, and fears of economic collapse. The first Gen Zers were born when the internet had just achieved widespread use. They’re called “digital natives”—the first generation to grow up with the internet as a part of daily life. The generation spans a wide range: the oldest Gen Zers have jobs and mortgages, while the youngest are still preteens. Globally, Gen Z is growing fast: Gen Zers will make up a quarter of the population of the Asia–Pacific region by 2025. Read on to understand what makes Gen Z tick.

What is a generation?

No doubt you’re already familiar with the concept of generation within families. Your grandparents, parents, children, and children’s children all make up a distinct generation in relation to you. But each of them also belongs to a diffuse category of their peers, grouped together based on when they were born and what they experience during their lives. Social scientists have studied generations—in theory and more practically—for millennia. More recently, thinkers like August Comte have argued that generational change is the engine behind social change. More specifically, each generation entering into a new life stage at more or less the same time is the pulse that creates the history of a society.

Specific major-scale events can also shape the outlook of a generation and are often reflected in how they’re named. The Lost Generation, for example, is named for the malaise and disillusionment experienced by people who lived through World War I. Later, the Greatest Generation was named for the heroic sacrifice many made during World War II. Their children, born soon after the war ended, are called baby boomers; their outlook, in turn, was colored by the Vietnam War and the social upheavals of the 1960s. More recently, millennials’ worldviews have been shaped by the September 11 attacks and the proliferation of the internet.

Of course, these are generalizations: every so-called generation comprises a multitude of unique individuals with their own opinions, values, behaviors, and plans for the future. Some social scientists even believe that the practice of studying generations can obfuscate what motivates people on an individual level. Generational theory should be understood with this caveat, and used only as a way of thinking about society, rather than the gospel truth.

What is unique about Gen Z?

While there are substantive differences within the cohort known as Gen Z, there are a few commonalities its members share.

As the first real digital natives, Gen Zers—speaking generally—are extremely online. Gen Zers are known for working, shopping, dating, and making friends online; in Asia, Gen Zers spend six or more hours per day on their phones.

Digital natives often turn to the internet when looking for any kind of information, including news and reviews prior to making a purchase. They flit between sites, apps, and social media feeds, each one forming a different part of their online ecosystem. Having grown up with social media, Gen Zers curate their online selves more carefully than those in prior generations have, and they are more likely to turn to trends of anonymity, more personalized feeds, and a smaller online presence, even as they voraciously consume media online.

Video-sharing social media sites have seen a meteoric rise as Gen Z comes of age. TikTok currently rules trends, feelings, and culture for Gen Zers, who make up 60 percent of the app’s one billion-plus users. Gen Zers flock to corners of the internet where they can discuss their passions and interests with those who share them—from gaming to K-pop—bonding with both people they know in real life and ones they’ve only met online.

Gen Z also faces an unprecedented behavioral health crisis: US Gen Zers surveyed by McKinsey report the least positive outlook and the highest prevalence of mental illness of any generation, and European respondents report struggling with self-stigma. This pessimism is fueled by growing global unrest, wars and disruptions, financial crises, and educational interruptions due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Feelings of “climate anxiety” are also widely reported: many Gen Zers report that they think about the fate of the planet on a daily basis.

They are already seeing decreased economic opportunity and don’t assume a social safety net will be there to catch them as pensions shrink, saving for retirement gets more difficult, and the older population grows. Already, 58 percent of Gen Zers in a recent McKinsey survey reported not having a basic social need met—the largest percentage by far of any generation.

But Gen Zers also report a more nuanced perspective around the stigma of mental illness than other generations. European Gen Zers seem less inclined to discriminate against people with mental illness (although they do stigmatize themselves).

However, Gen Z is also generally known for its idealism—they’re part of a new wave of “inclusive consumers” and socially progressive dreamers. Generally speaking, Gen Zers believe in doing their part to help stop the intensification of climate change and to establish greater equity for all. More than any other generation, Gen Z collectively demands purpose and accountability, the creation of more opportunities for people of diverse and underrepresented backgrounds, and rigorous sustainable and green practices. 

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