This article was originally published on Forbes.com on August 11, 2016. Image courtesy Panoramix Global.
By Mary Meehan
This singular, unique (some might say enviable!) lifestage is often equated with fun, discovery, angst, (don’t call it moodiness) freedom and transition. We now see the teenage phase as an essential passage to adulthood. But it wasn’t always that way.
Teenagers are an invention of recent history, morphing over the years from chaperoned innocents, to malt shop boppers, from hippy protesters, to latchkey kids, all the way down to today’s digital natives. Maybe it’s because of their fresh perspective on the world and their sense of immortality, but teenagers serve as cultural mirrors. They reflect our shifting society in ways other lifestages don’t. Is that why we’re so interested in them? Or is it just the massive market, discretionary income and potential for long-term loyalty that we’re after?
There’s a new generation of kids moving through those teen years right now; it’s the generation after the Millennials. In early 2014, I wrote about the best name for this new generation, we named them Gen We, but resisted defining them any further.
Often referred to as Gen Z, (just the next letter in the alphabet? We can do better!) I think Gen We is a more apt description. This group is constantly connected to their digital and offline friends, they value diversity and social justice within a whole new global context and they’ve been raised to learn in teams and work for the collective. As they grow older, they now become easier to research and decipher. In order to begin to understand this new generation, I offer below some of the core issues that will follow them as a generational cohort. I also suggest what this group’s values mean for business, citizenry, and the planet.
1. Socially Just, Not Just Social
From an early age, Gen We has been raised to be empathetic, to spot and stamp out bullying, to know that “It Gets Better” and now to see that Black Lives Matter. As part of the most ethnically and gender aware cohort, teens are exposed to more, asked to understand more, and driven to fight for more. It’s only natural that teens are passionate about equality and justice of every kind. They fight for themselves, their friends, their classmates and others they see treated unfairly, whether due to issues of gender, sexuality, race, pay, or environmental.
Those members of Gen We who are over 18 can vote for the first time in a presidential election this year, and mean to be heard fighting for change — they overwhelmingly supported Bernie Sanders and his political revolution.
While Bernie didn’t make it past the primaries, he and his supporters will continue to make their voices heard on domestic and global issues. Fast Company reported that 76% of what they call Generation Z is concerned about human impact on the planet and believe they can operate as a change agent.
It’s no wonder that web activism (some call it “slacktivism”) has exploded. The Internet is what the generation knows; they know how to exploit it, and will use it — they believe — to save the world. Now, teens are exposed to ideas, opportunities, inspiration and issues through YouTube, Instagram, Kickstarter, selfie challenges, Twitter debates and more.
One of the many social justice issues supported by teens is this generation’s feminist agenda. Teen Vogue writes about the burst of feminism and feminist clubs as awareness grows. Even President Obama, writing in Glamour, is lending his voice to how equality for women means equality for all. Buzzfeed reports that On Twitter, there’s a growing movement of young women who post and share personal photos of one another as a gesture of support and empowerment amid a body-positive movement.
Gen We is a generation just beginning to enter the workforce and the voting booth, and they are going to fact check the heck out of companies, as well as potential friends and business partners. For businesses to attract and retain these young workers you better be walking the talk of your Corporate Social Responsibility program.
Fast Company reported on a study recently, quoting that “77% of Generation Z feel businesses should make ‘doing good’ a central part of their business, and 45% agreed with the statement that they’d rank working for a company that helps make the world a better place as important as salary.”
Now apply that kind of scrutiny to purchases, dates, elected officials and brands.
2. Wired and Worldly
We all know that teens are glued their tiny, personal screens (much like many of us). Sure, it can be annoying and sometimes dangerous, but this is the way it is. Moreover, the implications of being wired to the world go beyond their constant contact with friends.
Technological innovation has given Gen We a form of independence older generations never knew. Bicycles and cars were the vehicles of freedom from the glare of parents, but those were confined to the earth. Technology allows Gen We to be out in the world exploring, learning, meeting, and forming communities all on their own, with no physical boundaries. Technology helps them form their personal brand, to be recognized for something, to be part of something.
A terrific piece on Kill Screen recently made the argument that the Internet is the television of the Boomer era, exposing a young generation to new ideas and the real world. The piece states that “Our Homeland is Online. Sometimes called ‘digital natives,’ we may not feel as tied to a country and feel the same national pride as the generations before us because our homeland is online. We are generations who are able to travel and work around the world and always return to the Internet; a place where we can connect with others and educate ourselves no matter where we are in the world.”
One of the issues that older generations burdened by job and family demands don’t get is that all the ephemeral apps and constant contact is “about being there in the moment.” Capturing that instant, sharing the specific experience and emotion with your friends, connecting right then and there. Because that’s what there is when you’re young. Right now.
Snapchat has made big investments to create news coverage that they call “content” to “reinvent mobile storytelling” for this year’s presidential election and they are getting a million viewers for every piece.
Media shifts like this are a signal that connecting with and communicating to Gen We is going to be a new ballgame. Just because your brand is where it’s at now doesn’t mean it will be where it’s at tomorrow; know your message and be able to communicate it no matter how the winds of media shift.
3. Wary, Worry
Gen We was born into a 9/11 world, with the war on terror serving as a constant backdrop. Many lived through, or witnessed, tragedies and sacrifices of the Great Recession. They don’t know a time without terms like active shooter or lock down. Their parents have them on Find Friends in case of an emergency.
Many teens report feeling stressed by the demands of school. The pressure is on to do well and get into a good college. Social pressures are exacerbated by social media, the increased divorce rate and the general change in people’s sense of safety and security. These kids feel loved, but stressed.
The proportion of 15-16 year olds reporting that they frequentlyfeel anxious or depressed has doubled in the last 30 years, from 1 in 30 to 2 in 30 for boys and 1 in 10 to 2 in ten for girls.
According to the Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance Survey (as reported in Vox) recently, today’s teens drink, use drugs, have babies, watch television, and fight less than the rest of us did. The possible reasons for such declines range from less exposure to lead, to better public health programs. Or maybe it’s the realities of the era?
Looking into the void of adulthood is a little scary. “In a way we are all kind of dreading the future,” admits Kristen Beckles, a 17-year-old at East Side who is part of a student leadership group. “We don’t know what comes after.”” But this generation is largely realistic not frightened. Even more reason to keep those besties close.
Gen We expects to wear wrist bands and wait in security lines, but they will also be scrutinizing everything you publish or ask of them
4. Face of the Planet
While the world has always been mixing and merging, we recently saw the largest wave of refugees in history trying to find safety and peace. Without a doubt, this migration will change cultures in almost every country.
Already, the US is on it’s way to becoming a minority majority withCensus Data showing the tipping point of more minority 5 year olds than whites.
It’s been reported that teens are the most ethnically diverse in history. Pew has stated that the biggest share of whites in U.S. are Boomers, but for minority groups, it’s Millennials or younger
Between 2000 and 2010, the country’s Hispanic population grew at four times the rate of the total population, according to the Census Bureau. The number of Americans self-identifying as mixed white-and-black biracial rose 134 percent. The number of Americans of mixed white and Asian descent grew by 87 percent. “Same-sex marriage, for example, has gone from a controversial political issue to a constitutional right recognized by the Supreme Court. For today’s 14-year-olds, the nation’s first African-American president is less a historic breakthrough than a fact of life.”
What this means is that Gen We is now the face of the planet. They represent boundary-blurring countries and the reality of our shifting global culture. Already they display a great interest in and tolerance of “other.” They are more naturally equipped to lead and govern in a multi-power, blended, niche world and will expect such from the workplace and government.
5. Gigging the Days Away
The Gig Economy is reality for many people forging their own way or trying to make ends meet. “Nearly 54 million Americans (1 in 3) participated in some form of independent work in 2015.” That’s 33% of the U.S. workforce and it’s expected to grow. The gig economy is populated by all age groups but Millennials make up the largest portion.“
Many reports show that Gen We leans towards career and financial stability but the path to get there is something different from what other generations knew. Fast Company reports that “entrepreneurship is seen as a way to not have to rely on anyone (or anything) else, and their version of it will likely be focused on sustainable “singles and doubles” ventures rather than Silicon Valley “home runs.”
Entrepreneur’s recent study states “Gen Z appears to be more entrepreneurial, loyal, open-minded and less motivated by money than Gen Y.” they want to be taken seriously and they want to work for an honest leader.”
Highly focused on social justice “60% of Gen Zers want to have an impact on the world, compared to just 39% of Millennials. Social entrepreneurship is one of the most popular career choices for this generation.” “In fact, 72% of today’s high school students want to start their own business.”
The real-world scenario of starting a business may come as a shock to Gen We, but then again they grew up with instant YouTube stars and crowdfunded instant startups. Studies show that this independent streak is more along the lines of wanting to be their own boss, and that starting a business is a means to righting some of the wrongs of the world.
This group sees starting small businesses where “the ‘shareholders’ like the needy or homeless get the share of the benefits.” “Where they apply their leadership skills by turning their passions into donations for non-profits, their hobbies into meaningful careers, all while creating and customizing their futures. Not only does this shine on the college resume, it’s the perfect entrée into future C-suite jobs.”
The way we work and the concept of a career is rapidly changing, and by the time Gen We fully gets there it will be even more worker-driven, allowing individuals to pick up the gigs and certificates needed to stay relevant, and giving them time to start that side business that will contribute back to the world.
Gen We see kids becoming media sensations overnight, and college kids become dot com gillionaires. They’ve got the smarts, they also want the freedom to direct and control their own future
6. Smart + Realistic = Savvy
Exposed to more and experiencing more leads some to say that it’s all too much too soon for this generation. That our overprotective, risk-averse society is warping adolescence. But we also see a resourcefulness, a resilience and a realism in Gen We, unlike the Millennials’ idealism, that is leading to more savvy and stable youth.
The kids are alright. Don Tapscott’s book, Grown Up Digital, “features a study of 11,000 kids who were asked whether they’d rather be smarter or better looking: 69 per cent chose ‘smarter.’” Nielsen research showed that “more than one-quarter of Generation Z respondents (27%) say reading is a top leisure activity, behind listening to music (37%).” (Thank you, Harry Potter!) “Traditional values, such as getting married, having children and buying a house are still relevant for many Generation Z.”
Young women understand the options available to them now and intend to make use of them. “Back in the day you were very worried about finding a husband so they could take care of you,” says Emma Baker, an 18-year-old cheerleader at Briarwood. “Nowadays women can go to college and make a living on their own and be very independent. The pressure is a whole lot less.””
A realistic, yet confident sense of what’s ahead is a mix of social entrepreneurship, empowerment and traditional goals that lead to a future they create. Only 56% of Gen Z expects to have a better lifestyle than their parents. Compare that to 71% of Millennials expecting that.
To be sure it’s easier to be optimistic at this bright-eyed nascent stage, but despite all the entrepreneurial talk they look to stable lives and sensible careers.
Acknowledge that teens today are more sophisticated at a younger age. Don’t talk down to them. Take queues from the smart and realistic first movers in the Gen We cohort – they’re the harbingers of change that will come for us all.
Mary Meehan has been analyzing the culture for over twenty years helping companies understand the complexities of future consumer behavior as a path to innovation and growth.