Move Over Millennials, Here Comes Generation Z

By Stephen Dupont, vice president, Pocket Hercules

As marketers try to understand the Millennial generation (Generation Y), while keeping tabs on Generation X and the Baby Boomers, a new generation of consumers is rapidly emerging.

Roughly defined as those born since 1996, Generation Z represents those under-twentysomethings who represent the first generation to be born into a digital world. As Millennials enter their peak earning years and start families, the next generation of trendsetters– representing more than 25 percent of the U.S. population (larger than the Boomers or Millennials, according to the U.S. Census Bureau) — is already starting to put their stamp on the world.

I call this generation the “New Realists” because their outlook on the future is grounded in events such as 9-11, the Great Recession, the megashift in once-taboo issues such as gay marriage and legalized pot, the war on terrorism, Sandy Hook (mass school shootings), climate change (megastorms), and a 24/7 digital world where kids have instant access to digital content through mobile devices.

Defining the New Realist Generation

While much has been made of how Generation Z swims in all things digital, the New Realists will likely define their generation by vivid, stressful childhood memories not seen since the Silent Generation — those individuals, now 80 or older, who grew up during the Great Depression and World War II.

Many of today’s young adults will recall the fear and stress of their parent’s unemployment during the Great Recession, when 15 million people were out of work at the recession’s height in 2009. As a result, according to a Magid Generational Strategies’ report, “The First Generation of the Twenty-First Century,” New Realists are not as likely as previous generations to believe in the American Dream. Another observation (based on the teens I know, including my 12- and 14-year-old daughters): it’s not uncommon to see young people brag about their treasure hunts for upscale brands at T.J. Maxx, Goodwill and local consignment shops. In fact, it’s considered a badge of honor.

While many in this generation were too young to comprehend 9-11, they’ll repeat the stories of where they were, based on their parents’ experience (similar to their Boomer parents sharing the stories of where they were when President Kennedy was shot). And where the Boomers practiced nuclear attack drills back in the 1950s and 1960s, this generation of young people has had to practice lock-down drills in anticipation of the very real possibility of a mass shooting similar to Sandy Hook.

Is it any wonder, based on events of the past ten years, that today’s kids gravitate toward such books as Hunger Games, Maze Runner and Divergent, where the teen heroes are placed in the role of fighting against rulers of dystopian societies?

If the activism of Malala Yousafzai is an indicator, Generation Z may be the next great generation to take on the many injustices throughout our world. Yousafzai, a 17-year-old Pakistani girl, recently won the Nobel Peace Prize for taking a stand about the need for education for females in Pakistan and other areas of the Middle East dominated by the Taliban. For her efforts, she earned a bullet to the head by a member of the Taliban, but survived to write a best-selling book and address the United Nations. Not surprisingly, according to a study by New York-based marketing agency Sparks & Honey, one in four Gen Zers are involved in volunteering, as reported by Business Insider, and is very popular among young people.

“Generation Z wants to be part of something,” said Steph Wissink, co-director of research and a senior research analyst with investment bank Piper Jaffray. “They want to do something real, and they have the digital tools to make it happen now. They’re starting businesses with Kickstarter, raising money to draw attention to a cause or fight an injustice, and at the end of the day, they want to share it with everyone they know.

“This generation is breaking down barriers. And if the tools don’t exist to implement their plans, they’ll invent the app.”

The New Realists also will be defined by their embrace of diversity. This will be the last generation in the United States where Caucasians comprise the majority race. Their generation will be the first to know that it’s normal for a person of color to serve as president of the United States (and to grow up with an African-American family in the White House). With the 2016 presidential race just around the corner, this generation may be the first to witness the first female president. As America becomes more racially diverse, Generation Z also will embrace other forms of diversity – they’re more accepting of gay culture (“Of course it should be okay for gays and lesbians to marry!”) and because they’re more likely to be a “None” (not affiliated with an organized religion), their social circle tends to include friends representing many faith traditions, or none at all.

Generation Z Media Trends

Because American culture gravitates toward youth, at some point companies, government agencies and nonprofits will move on from all things Millennial to the Realist Generation in search of the next hot media trend. When they do, those Gen Xers and Millennials in control of today’s marketing budgets will encounter a seismic shift in how New Realists are using media.

According to Karen Murray, principal of Cottage 8, a Minneapolis-based media strategy firm, “Generation Z is all about mobile – media on their terms, where, what and when they want it. Compared to Millennials, they were not raised on traditional media and are using technology much earlier and faster to communicate whatever and wherever they want.”

The key here isn’t so much about the prevalence of technology, it’s about easy access to information. According to the Pew Research report, “Teens and Technology 2013,” 78 percent of today’s teenagers have mobile phones, of which 74 percent can access the Internet.

Along these same lines, while Generation Z still reads traditional printed books, now they’re just as likely to download a book from Kindle or to access textbooks from school-supplied iPads. During my 12-year-old’s recent birthday party, I asked the 12 girls in attendance what were their favorite TV shows (this is how I get in trouble with my kids!). Many of the girls responded that they liked to watch videos created by other kids on YouTube and access TV programs such as Phineus & Ferb and other Nickelodeon and Disney favorites on their smart phones (67 percent own iPhones) and tablets.

However, easy access to information may be coming at a cost. According to another Pew Research study of more than 2,000 middle and high school teachers, today’s teachers “worry about students’ overdependence on search engines; the difficulty many students have in judging the quality of online information; the general level of literacy of today’s students; increasing distractions pulling at students and poor time management skills; students’ potentially diminished critical thinking capacity; and the ease with which today’s students can borrow from the work of others.”

In terms of social media, my 14-year-old and 12-year-old daughters, as well as my Generation Z nieces and nephew, tell me that Facebook is dead. Instead, the cool social media platforms today are Instagram and Twitter. These reactions correspond with a recent Piper Jaffray study of the purchasing and media habits of 7,200 U.S. teens, “Taking Stock With Teens,” which noted: “Instagram and Twitter are the two most used social media sties, implying teens are increasingly visual and sound-bite communicators.”

Wissink adds that what’s important about today’s teens and their use of mobile media and social media is “this generation of teens are moving beyond media that is fed to them. They have the digital tools to create their own media based on their shared experiences and purchases. In other words, ‘Individuality’ is the new cool.”

Communicating with the New Realists

Here are some additional tips on how your organization should consider communicating with Generation Z:

Speak in Terms of Value: Based on their experience with the Great Recession, New Realists want to know that they’re getting a good value for their dollar. While they may be ready to upgrade to the next iPhone, Generation Z will shop hard, both at retail and online, for the best deals.

They Won’t be Caught Flat-Footed: The New Realists are under immense pressure from their Gen X and Boomer parents to get professional work experience sooner. They’re being pushed to participate in Model UN, Future Cities, forensics, robotics and other extracurricular activities that build work-related skills. They’re being urged to take advanced placement (AP) classes to get a leg up on college. And they’ll be seeking internships and mentorships much earlier than Millennials did.

Get Your Act Together: The New Realists believe that global climate change is real. According to a study, 76 percent are concerned about mankind’s impact on the planet. They expect institutions, from their schools to future employers, to take measures to reduce carbon footprint. Because this generation has been mandated since kindergarten to take science courses, they expect leaders, including politicians, to use facts to back-up their claims.

Snackable Content: Speak to Generation Z in bursts of communication that can easily be shared with others. Use symbols, video and graphics to tell a story to complement the story. Look for opportunities that allow Generation Z to express themselves through your brand with self-made videos using their Go Pros. Be prepared to tell your story across multiple screens.

The Next Generation of Great Social Entrepreneurs: The Great Recession has also taught Generation Z to be independent. This isn’t a bootstrap type of independence. Because they regularly collaborate by using Google Docs and Google Drive in school, Generation Zers understand how to work together. But at the same time, New Realists have an entrepreneurial streak that’s been informed by seeing their parents and older siblings struggle in the work force. And for many, entrepreneurship means an opportunity to something good for the world based on examples such as Feed My Starving Children or Toms shoes.

Honesty and Transparency – The New Realist Generation wants their news straight. Having watched older siblings graduate from college and move back home, Generation Z abhors corporate spin and gov-speak. They also roll their eyes at “oldsplain,” when Millennials, Gen X’ers and Boomers tell them about how things used to be. Dan Schawbel, author of Promote Yourself: The New Rules for Career Success, noted recently in a CBS News interview (“Get Ready for Generation Z at Work,” Sept. 16, 2014) that the top leadership qualities that Generation Z seeks are honesty, transparency and an authentic workplace environment.

Stephen Dupont, APR, is VP of Public Relations and Branded Content for Pocket Hercules (, a brand marketing firm based in Minneapolis. Contact Stephen Dupont at or





Written by Stephen Dupont

Stephen Dupont, APR, Fellow PRSA, is vice president of public relations and branded content at Pocket Hercules, a Minneapolis branding and creative firm. He blogs at