We know all about millennials. They’re narcissistic, entitled, easily offended, over-sharers. Or, so the stereotype goes. But what about “Generation Z”, the generation born after millennials, who are emerging as the next big thing for market researchers, ad agencies and trend forecasters?
For starters, there’s considerable dispute over who they are, though most regard them as having been born somewhere between the mid-to-late 1990s and the mid-2000s, making them roughly five to 21 years of age.
They already account for almost 20 per cent of the population and, given their millions in spending power, marketers are scrambling to find out what makes them tick. While it’s easy to pour scorn on the efforts of ad agencies to shoehorn young people into generational boxes, it’s clear today’s teenagers are growing up in a far different world from that of just a decade ago.
They came of age during the great recession and now are experiencing the recovery
They are the first truly digital natives, immersed in the screen-age from birth; their worldview is shaped by global events ranging from the rise of global terrorism, fake news and extraordinary social and political upheaval; they came of age during the great recession and now are experiencing the recovery.
So, what impact has all this had? If the millennials of cliche were self-involved, over-dependent and aspirational, most experts see Generation Z as conscientious, hard-working, a little over-anxious and fiercely ambitious.
But, most agree, it’s the all-pervasive influence of technology that has had the greatest influence of all. Millennials were digital, too, but their era was shaped by iPods rather than iPhones. Generation Z has grown up surrounded by smartphones and tablets – and many don’t remember a time before social media.
“This is a generation which had smartphones before they reached adolescence and never had to wait more than a moment to look up anything,” says Ciara Reilly, a director at Red C, a research and marketing agency.
Mobiles, she says, are central to their lives: it is where they meet their friends, play games, shop and conduct their general business. Young people themselves are inclined to agree.
“I have an iPhone and, yeah, I definitely think that I overuse it,” says Shauna O’Connor, (18) from Co Offaly. “I try to put it down if I’m studying, I’ll leave it out of the room, because I know that if I get a message I’ll get distracted. But the time goes so fast when you’re on it, you could go on for an hour, and it’ll turn into three hours, so easily.”
The average attention span of a Generation Z-er is eight seconds; down from 12 seconds for their millennial counterparts
It’s hardly a surprise that attention spans are shortening. According to the US National Center for Biotechnology Information, the average attention span of a Generation Z-er is eight seconds; this is down from 12 seconds for their millennial counterparts. (Reassuringly, this is still longer than goldfish, whose attention span is said to be about nine seconds.)
So far, so similar to millennials – but those who study youth trends say they notice key differences in how the two generations behave online. Millennials may have over-shared their beer-soaked antics on Facebook, but many in Generation Z have learned that images live forever on the internet. They've adapted their digital practices accordingly.
Many have multiple social media accounts (carefully curated ones for the wider public; private ones for their closest friends) or have embraced anonymous social media or platforms such as Snapchat where incriminating images disappear almost instantly.
Claire Hyland, head of The Youth Lab, the insights division of youth marketing company Thinkhouse, says she is continually struck by how acutely aware young people are of how they document themselves online.
“They’ve seen reputations torn to shreds and people suffering from mental health or anxiety problems as a result,” she says. “So, they’re very savvy in creating alternative profiles among their close circle of friends that are deliberately hard to find for parents, teachers or employers.”
The Youth Lab’s research indicates that some 88 per cent of Irish 16-18 year olds are concerned about data privacy. There is also a tension in their relationship with smartphones: most are acutely aware of how endless scrolling and internet wormholes can devour their time. The Youth Lab’s research indicates that most feel they should be more productive, spend too much time on their devices and have tried, and failed, to cut back. They are also aware of the barriers it can place in the way of engaging with others in real life.
“I think it can have a really negative effect on your self-esteem,” says Grace Feeney (18) from Sligo. “It’s almost as if social interactions aren’t really social any more; screens and technology really impede the way people interact with one another.”
Fear of failure
Anxiety is another hallmark among many in Generation Z. Teachers and principals, uniformly, say they see rising levels of mental health problems in the classroom. There’s far less agreement on what, exactly, is driving this.
The impact of always-on social media, a lack of structure or support in families where parents both work or simply a greater awareness of mental health have all been invoked as potential reasons.
But there’s no doubt young people feel pressure – both from themselves, their parents and society at large. This is a generation where competition in education and employment is hotting up like never before. Where once simply getting to college was an achievement in itself, these days about 60 per cent of school leavers are progressing to third level, making us the most educated workforce in Europe. Competition isn’t just local – it’s global.
On top of that, labour is being casualised, jobs for life are a thing of the past and disposable income is shrinking due to soaring rents and higher living costs. Research shows people in their 20s these days are significantly less well-off in relative terms to their parents at the same stage of their lives. In a world where so much is expected of them by parents, many hover between perfectionism and fear of failure.
“I’m scared [about the future], I’m nervous. I think I’m not ready to go out into the world yet,” says Anna Jeackle (18) from Mount Merrion in Dublin. “I’ve seen it catch up on people and it’s scary to see.”
Leaving Cert student Adam Page, from Woodford, Co Galway, agrees. "Going to college next year, it's a bit of a worry, rent and houses and that, going to Dublin or anywhere else," he says.
Against a backdrop of lack of security, ultra-competition and declining wealth, you might expect despair or disillusion at their lot. Instead, there seems to be a determination to make things better.
Rachel Collier, co-founder of Young Social Innovators, says she sees a generation where young people care deeply about the world they live in and want to make a positive contribution. It's just we don't get to hear their voices often enough.
“In the most recent spate of US school-gun massacres, some of the most considered voices in the debate were those of the young people directly affected,” says Collier. “They were united on tackling the problem of gun control, rather than knee-jerk measures. Their considered views outflanked some of the political classes.”
At one of its recent “speak out” tours – where students have two minutes to make pitches on solutions to contemporary social challenges – presentations were driven by conviction and compassion . They also bore the hallmarks of a generation reared on social media: the pitches were highly visual, engaging and succinct. Ideas ranged from digital privacy (boosting awareness of “sextortion”) to health (making counselling services more accessible through technology) and social (boosting awareness of LGBT issues).
An accusation levelled at this generation is that campaigning is limited to online activism. Many, however, are combining social media smarts with old-fashioned organising. Last year, for example, following the central role young people played in the British general election, the Oxford English Dictionary's word of the year was "youthquake".
Issues such as same-sex marriage and abortion are getting young people on the streets
Over here, issues such as same-sex marriage and abortion are getting young people on the streets. Last month’s “Take back Trinity” protest by students who occupied university buildings over fee hikes, amounted to the biggest campus protest in 20 years; it was followed by similar action by students at DCU over rental increases, and there are rumblings of discontent on other campuses too.
Niamh Scully is one of many young people seeking to promote social change – such as women’s rights and gender identity – both online and offline. “I did a lot of campaigning with women’s groups and BeLonGTo, in the last couple of years, that is something that I’ve seen on the rise . . . I’m still very active about it on social media and getting other people involved.”
While most in Generation Z are reliably liberal on social issues, there is conservatism too. There is a sober sensibility about many, at least compared with previous generations.
NUI Galway's health promotion research centre has been gathering data on thousands of 10-17 year olds since the late 1990s. Its latest data shows young people are turning to alcohol later in life and fewer are smoking tobacco and cannabis. In fact, Irish teenagers now have one of the lowest levels of alcohol consumption in Europe, according to the World Health Organisation.
More young people than ever are trying to lose weight. It’s good news for those worried about obesity, though there’s a flip-side. “Social media probably is to blame for body image issues, because it promotes images of thin people or strong people or whatever,” says Mathew O’Rourke, 18, from Sandymount in Dublin. “It promotes an image of people being this way rather than that way, and that’s what people want to be.”
Put all this together – the privacy, the focus on career, the caution – and Generation Z seems to have less in common with entitled millennials; they seem closer to the diligent careerists of their parents or even their grandparents' generation. (Admittedly, the analogy is hard to sustain for a generation whose most popular YouTube stars involve unboxing products or commentating on video games.)
There are signs, too, of resourcefulness and entrepreneurial zeal: this, after all, is a generation that has repeatedly witnessed the stunning success of start-ups. They saw Mark Zuckerberg, now in his early 30s, make his first billion by the age of 23; and Snapchat co-creators Bobby Murphy and Evan Spiegel become the youngest billionaires in the world in their early 20s.
It’s little wonder then, so many college students these days are more likely to be spending their summers in start-up workshops than J1-style work in fast-food outlets.
DCU, for example, says a third of young students nowadays see themselves as entrepreneurs or working in their own business five years after graduation. Colleges are responding through a kind of innovation arms race, with huge growth in the number of modules and courses on entrepreneurship, as well as on-campus business incubators and supports.
Your own truth
Some see this independence, combined with ambition and distrust with institutions such as the church or even social media, as the start of something new. At The Youth Lab, however, they call it an era of “self-salvation”: young people who are putting the focus on the individual in order to flourish.
“This is less selfish than it’s often perceived,” says Claire Hyland. “It’s about saving yourself because no one else will.”
Their research shows a strong urge among young people to be productive – creating, doing or making – and most feel guilty at not making the most of opportunities in life.
Traditional goals for many don’t feel attainable – such as permanent jobs or home-ownership – and research indicates younger people redefining success around their personal values. For example, 99 per cent of 16-18 years old say happiness is “being true to myself”, while virtually all say having a “positive impact on society” is vital.
"Living your own truth is a priority, whatever that is," adds Fionn Rogan of The Youth Lab.
Maybe the biggest irony of all is that, despite efforts by market researchers and ad agencies to define this demographic force, young people themselves are most resistant to the idea of being categorised.
Research indicates that most don’t feel part of a generation; and where they are categorised, they feel they are negatively stereotyped. The marketing challenge is all the more difficult given that its youngest members are still in the early years of primary school; their cultural tastes don’t extend much further than Paw Patrol for now.
For brands and marketing agencies, though, there’s little time to lose. In many ways, the race to be relevant has only just begun.