The New Millennials: Transitioning Generation Y To Generation Z

Brands, business leaders, and the mainstream media are losing out.  They’re missing the critical importance of Generation Z, America’s fastest growing new demographic.  Aged 6 to 21, Generation Z represents 26% of Americans.  That makes them America’s largest cohort, bigger than either the Baby Boomers or the much-touted Millennial generation.  Despite the fact that Gen Zers are not Millennials and don’t have the same priorities or motivations, CEOs, CMOs and human resources executives continue to incorporate this generation into the same category as Millennials as an over-used, and resoundingly inaccurate, descriptor for the youth demographic.

How will successful brands transition from Millennials to Generation Z?  First, they must acknowledge that while, in some ways, Gen Zers are extreme versions of Millennials, in most cases, they are polar opposites.  Second, they must take the time to fully understand the disparities between these two groups.  Third, they must act, long before Generation Z is viewed as “marketable.”

Let’s take a look at some of the key differences between Gen Zers and the Millennial generation.  First of all, members of Generation Z are focused and realistic.  Unlike the Millennials, 89% of which are optimistic about their futures, only 60% of Gen Zers are optimistic about theirs.1  Generation Z’s pragmatic outlook has been shaped primarily by events like 9/11 and the Great Recession.  They’ve grown up in an age of school shootings and unrest.  More practical and financially driven than their Millennial counterparts, they’ve watched their Millennial siblings struggle and have resolved to do things differently.  Members of this group crave order and stability.

On a related note, they are worried about the economy.  This is due to their parents’ job uncertainty and to violence around the world and in their towns.  They’ve also witnessed the burdens of student debt and unemployment among Millennial siblings.  As a result, they save their money and understand the value of a dollar.  This is in direct contrast to Millennials, who report that they would spend their entire allowances or earnings immediately.  It follows that Generation Z is a much more price sensitive group than members of the Millennial generation.  Gen Zers will seek out products that provide maximum value.

Generation Z is dominated by technology.  Members are often referred to as tech-native or tech-innate, versus tech-savvy for Millennials.  Generation Z does not distinguish between social media and the Internet , in fact, most members don’t even remember a time without social media.  While the Millennials had to adapt to modern technology, Generation Z was born into the modern digital world.  They report that they are online constantly, and as a generation, they do not distinguish between their devices.

Not convinced?  Consider this.  On average, members of Generation Z multi-task across five digital screens, versus two for Millennials.  They listen to music while reading books on their e-readers, chatting, checking electronic communications and eating dinner.  This is the age of the selfie, a never-ending cycle of photo taking, uploading and commenting on social media that is now the social norm for Generation Z.2

Gen Zers communicate with images, versus sound bites for Millennials: emojis, animated GIFs, six-second videos.  Their attention spans are shorter than those of Millennials, and they are drawn to communication platforms that facilitate private conversations.   Although they process information at faster speeds, keeping their attention is a challenge.

Gen Z’s favorite TV spots are funny, cool – and in the case of boys, quirky and weird.  They gravitate toward ads that make them laugh, put smiles on their faces and inspire them.3  Research suggests that “acting as a friend” helps make members of Gen Z feel safe, a much-needed state of mind given this group’s fears and uncertainties around the economy, political unrest, and violence in their communities.

It goes without saying that, with members of Generation Z absorbed in social networking and mobile devices, they expect brands to be there, too.  Companies that have had early success in connecting with this generation have been quick to add platforms such as Periscope and Snapchat to their portfolios.  But brands won’t engage Gen Zers by simply embracing technology. They must behave “tech-native.” Gen Z will expect brands to initiate conversations online and create a consistent experience across brick-and-mortar, digital and mobile platforms.  With members of Generation Z multi-tasking across multiple digital screens, brands will need to integrate their products not just into social media sites, but also into their games and other digital experiences.

On a superficial level, marketers might simply conclude that more technology is better – more sponsored posts, more banner ads, more social platforms.  And it is true that brands must communicate across multiple digital platforms in order to get noticed by this generation.  Take note: If Gen Z isn’t sharing your brand on social media, you don’t exist.

But marketers will not simply be able to tweak their messaging and post it to Facebook.  They will need to adjust all aspects of their marketing in order to capture Generation Z’s attention.  As we transition from Millennials to Generation Z, winning brands will need to be far more persuasive in terms of communicating value.  Because of its technical prowess, Gen Z knows how to uncover the highest-quality goods at the lowest prices – they will access all the information they need to make informed purchase decisions before they ever engage with you.  If your brand does not proactively communicate value through the Web-based channels Gen Zers are surfing, it is unlikely to make it onto their radar.

Successful brands will use visual media to “befriend” this generation, telling stories that entertain and make them feel safe.  They will give advertising a tone that is quirky and playful.  And they will take great care in providing information that is hyper-relevant to this demographic.

Members of Generation Z are going to be your customers, your employees, or – someday – maybe even your boss.  With such dramatic contrasts between Generation Z and Millennials, business leaders who do not adapt to this new generation will miss out on the opportunity to fully capture their hearts, minds, talent, and spending power.

1 Corey Seemiller, Meghan Grace, Generation Z Goes to College (San Francisco, California: Josey-Bass, 2016), 36.
2 Sparks & Honey. (2014). Meet Generation Z: Forget Everything You’ve Learned about Millennials.  Retrieved from
3 Cassandra Report, Tween Focus, 204.