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David Staley David Staley Next: Generation Z
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We barely had time, it seems, to prepare for the arrival of the Millennial generation, and now Generation Z is right on their heels.

As a futurist, I am frequently asked to identify the characteristics of different generations. This is done for one of two reasons: either companies want to develop plans to better market to them in the future, or they want to better grasp the kinds of employees they will be hiring. We have the Baby Boomers to thank for this: because the Boomers have long viewed themselves as such a unique generation and had such a dramatic social impact, we now seek out generational characteristics in all who have followed them.

Generational analysis must always be used with caution. Whenever I’m speaking to organizations about the characteristics of generations, I always warn that “I’m not speaking about anybody specifically in the room.” That is, while we may discern patterns of behavior in a large generational cohort—and even that is fraught with methodological problems–those patterns need not be ascribed to any particular person. So, just because Millennials as a group have shown a tendency to value the consumption of experiences over things doesn’t mean that my son demonstrates those behaviors.

With those caveats in mind, we can nevertheless discern some emerging characteristics and behaviors of this generation, most of whom are in their teens at the moment. Beyond marketing to them, we might use these observations to anticipate what sorts of consumers, employees, students, and leaders Generation Z will be when they reach their 20s and 30s.

This generation has grown up during the post-9/11 world. That terrorist act occurred when many were infants and small children, and the subsequent expansion of the homeland security state has been a regular part of their lives. Indeed, some are referring to this generation as the “Homeland Generation” as a result.  When they were reaching the age of 9 or 10, the Great Recession struck.  So, if the Millennials were an optimistic generation (optimistic before the Great Recession), Generation Z is more wary and cautious about the future.

The parents of Generation Z came from Generation X, the generation of latchkey kids who grew up during the malaise of the 1970s after Watergate and Vietnam. Coupled with the homeland security state, this generation of parents has tried to raise their children in a safer, more secure environment than what they experienced.

“I definitely think growing up in a time of hardship, global conflict and economic troubles has affected my future,” says 17 year old Seimi Park.

She had once dreamed of being a fashion designer, but now is thinking of a career in law “because it seems safer.” Generation  Z places greater emphasis on being “mature and in control,” meaning they exhibit fewer instances of behaviors that puts them at risk.

Generation Z are true digital natives, unaware of a time before smart phones or social media. Indeed, smart phones are their technology of choice—although not to the exclusion of television or console video games. Google has conducted surveys with this cohort of teenagers, and has discovered that getting their first phone is a significant milestone in their lives, on the order of graduating high school and getting a driver’s license.

“When I got a phone, it was really important socially,” reports Cyan, age 17.  “It was like, oh my gosh, you’re accepted now. Everyone wanted to be your friend because you got a new phone.”

Two-thirds make purchases online, and more than half of those purchases are from their phones. About 88 percent of Generation Z make in-store purchases, but this is a percentage much lower than Millennials, for instance. The most common purchases online are video games and apparel, not surprisingly. But, perhaps more surprisingly, books are also a common online purchase for Generation Z.  Does this mean that “the end of the book” is not nigh, as futurists have proclaimed for years now? As we see more and more shopping malls and big box stores close, these survey results should make one wonder about the future viability of brick-and-mortar retail.

Unsurprisingly, these teens are drawn to products because of their “cool factor,” and, not unlike previous generations, think products are cool if friends are talking about it or if they’ve seen an ad for it. Indeed, 64 percent say that online images influence their purchases. But what is striking is that young people find a product to be cool “if it’s something personalized to me.”  The future of commerce may well belong to personalized advertisements and personalized products.

70 percent of these teenagers spend more than three hours a day watching video on their mobile devices. While they still watch television, it may very well be that for this generation “television watching” will soon morph into “smart phone watching” in the very near future, with dire consequences for a cable television industry already reeling from arrival of Netflix and other streaming services.

In such a social media environment, members of Generation Z have developed what Fast Company calls an “8-second filter.”

“Online, they rely heavily on trending pages within apps to collect the most popular recent content. They also turn to trusted curators…to locate the most relevant information and entertainment. These tools help Gen Z shrink their potential option set down to a more manageable size.”

As an educator, I should start anticipating a cohort of students who will already be tuning out of my classes unless I can devise eight-second lectures. Perhaps university professors will be most effective if they can convince Generation Z they are trusted curators of knowledge and information.

The behavioral characteristics of any generation in their teens will inevitably change as they grow older, more mature, and accept job and family responsibilities. But if previous generations are any indication, the behaviors formed when they are young will nonetheless shape the characteristics of Generation Z as they reach their 20s and 30s, guaranteeing they will be different kinds of adults than the Millennials, Generation X or the Baby Boomers.

David Staley is president of Columbus Futurists and a professor of history, design and educational studies at The Ohio State University. He is the host of CreativeMornings Columbus.

The next Columbus Futurists monthly forum will be Thursday April 27 at 6:30 p.m. at the Panera Bread community room (875 Betel Rd.)  Our topic for the evening will be “The Future of the Evolving Worker.”

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