Over the last few weeks, there’s been a wave of attention given to Gen Z, a group that’s between 2 and 19 years of age. As students from Parkland continue to impress on cable news and at marches across the country, more Americans are wondering just who is Gen Z and how are they different from Millennials. Simply answered, Gen Z is very different. And these are not just life-stage differences. These are generational divisions, borne out of changes in tech, politics, and a culture that has become more connected, open, and accepting.
Based on “Generation Nation,” a groundbreaking study by 747 Insights in concert with Collaborata, here are five critical differences between Gen Z and Millennials.
Gen Z is the most diverse generation in U.S. history. The trend toward a more diverse America has been long in the making. Just 52% of Americans under 18 are white, compared to 75% of Boomers.
A 2015 study by the Brookings Institute argued that, “…the Millennial generation is ushering in the nation’s broader racial diversity. Overall, [M]illennials are 55.8 percent white and nearly 30 percent ‘new minorities’ (Hispanics, Asians and those identifying as two or more races).”
So while Millennials grew during a time of profound change in the nation’s ethnic makeup, Gen Z is the first to experience that change as the new normal during their formative years.
According to Christopher Wolf, a Goldman Sachs Research analyst, “the Census Bureau is actually forecasting that over half of kids in America will belong to a minority race or ethnic group [by 2020], so diversity in the traditional sense of the word has actually become the norm.”
And since diversity is the norm for Gen Z, it’s not a value that they particularly celebrate or even think a whole lot about. So while 69% of Millennials believe “diversity and inclusion” are important values, only 61% of Zers do. Be assured, though, that this doesn’t mean that Gen Zers don’t appreciate diversity as much as Millennials do; instead, this difference reflects diversity as the “new normal” and that normality isn’t something that stands out for young people — even if it marks an overall cultural change.
As a reflection of this new normal, more than 80% of this youngest cohort has at least one friend of a race different than their own, compared to 69% of Millennials.
Although North America has experienced waves of immigration since well before the Mayflower, the pace of assimilation has drastically quickened. And while we find ourselves in the midst of a national debate around immigration policy, the reality is that growing up in more diverse neighborhoods and classrooms — as well as the ability to easily connect with different people and cultures online — profoundly impact one’s attitudes and behaviors around ethnic origin.
Fewer than half (47%) of Gen Zers say they’re content with their lives compared to 60% of Millennials. And, 67% of Millennials believe that their life is full of purpose compared to only 53% of Gen Z. In fact, this youngest cohort reports enduring more “extreme” stress than other generations and, overall, 58% say they’re at least moderately stressed, which is a really telling number (and, this study was taken before the tragedy at Parkland).
As a time-told truth, the teen years are a tumultuous life stage, marked with stress associated with all the awkwardness and uncertainty of adolescence and searching for belonging and identity. Gen Z’s resume is measured mainly by academic and extra-curricular achievement, often to the point of obsession by their family, peers, and themselves.
Not only is Gen Z the cohort that most says that the future is one of their top concerns, they also worry more about friendship and relationship issues, their appearance, their safety and emotional or physical abuse more than other generations.
Adding fuel to the fire, their constant connection to the Internet brings Gen Z in close contact with “cool people doing cool things” that they’re most likely not experiencing themselves, in many ways simply because of their age. Plus, in order to fit in, it’s become increasingly important to be not only authentic but also unique, which is indeed quite a high bar. So, if you’re average or “too basic,” beware.
As a result, Generation Z is all about finding ways to relieve stress. From going to the movies to hanging outside to making new friends, the youngest generation is considerably more active and adventurous than older generations. For teens and young adults, new experiences are their oxygen. Not only are these experiences a break from reality, they also qualify as social currency — something to share and get credit for on the likes of Instagram or Snapchat.
3. Gender and Sexuality
There has been an enormous sea change in how the country views sexuality. According to “Generation Nation,” while more than 90% of Boomers, Xers, and Millennials report they are straight, only 73% of Gen Z identifies as such, a shocking difference that reveals a tremendous amount about both Gen Z and how the country is evolving in terms of gender and sexual norms.
A 2016 survey by the J. Walter Thompson Innovation Group found that only 48% of Generation Z identifies as “completely heterosexual” compared to 65% of Millennials.
With the legalization of gay marriage, differences in sexual preferences have become more accepted. One significant result is that many members of Gen Z don’t subscribe to specific (or single) categories of sexual orientation and are comfortable sharing their beliefs with family, friends, and well, everyone.
Lily-Rose Depp, Johnny Depp’s 18-year-old, has said, “You don’t have to label your sexuality; so many kids these days are not labeling their sexuality and I think that’s so cool.”
In a broader sense, gender norms have also evolved over the last decade. At 19 years old, Jaden Smith told GQ Style, “I feel like people are kind of confused about gender norms. I feel like people don’t really get it. I’m not saying that I get it; I’m just saying that I’ve never seen any distinction.”
Smith, who often wears gender-neutral clothing, reflects a more common sentiment among Gen Z.
So it’s not a surprise that nearly six in 10 Gen Zers support protecting the rights of those who are transgender, 10 percentage points higher than Millennials (57% vs. 47%). They also support marriage equality (66%) and marrying someone of a different race (77%) more enthusiastically than do Millennials (who support these measures at rate of 58% and 66%, respectively. It’s an openness that would never have been widely accepted even a decade ago.
4. Tech and Social Media
Using social media has become ubiquitous for everyone from grandparents to grandkids. Social media, we first thought, was youth territory. Although this perception was technically true in 2006, those young people (i.e., Millennials) are now in their 30s and still using Facebook at the highest rate around, while the younger generation posts and tweets with less enthusiasm.
Zers not only use social media less often than Millennials, they use it differently. It’s not as new and shiny and exciting; after all, many members of Gen Z have parents who created Facebook accounts for them while they were still in the womb and have known how to buy apps on their parents’ phones before they knew how to spell. As a result, Zers feel that a lot of social media is too public.
Gen Z is moving away from Facebook and toward platforms like Snapchat that allow more insular and contained levels of communication. While posting a photo on Facebook alerts all of your connections, it’s much easier to communicate with a select few on Snapchat. For this generation, Instagram can even be too public, resulting in teens using multiple accounts including a public Instagram that their parents and classmates know about and a “Finstagram,” their secret (fake Instagram) profile only accessible to a choice group of friends. Even apps that allow group texting (and sharing of pictures) are becoming more popular with this generation than the behemoth social-media platforms.
Millennials converse online at a higher rate than other generations. And if you’re not a Millennial, there’s a good chance you’re receiving advice online from one. More than half of Millennials consistently post updates online compared to only 32% of Gen Z. About a third (31%) of Millennials post reviews vs. 15% of Zers.
Even if members of Gen Z are spending less time on Facebook, they are not at all anti-technology. In fact, 45% of this generation consider themselves “gamers” and “tech-savvy.” Although roughly the same percentage of Millennials boasts about their tech-skills, only 35% identify as gamers.
Millennials grew up as social media did, forever connecting this generation with this technology. Gen Z, on the other hand, grew up when social media was already an established platform; so these young people, who have been “plugged in” their entire lives, simply see social media as another established communication tool, much like their parents’ landline.
Helicopter parenting might be going out of style. The stereotype of middle-class parents of Millennials is one that combines the often-conflicting desires to treat one’s progeny like helpless toddlers while also longing to be their best friends. This dichotomy has resulted in intense, yet complex, familial relationships. But parents of Gen Z kids are loosening the reigns, for better and worse.
Even though both generations’ parents were at home for them at the same perceived frequency, Gen Z seems to be spending more time away from their parents compared to Millennials. While 64% of Millennials say they regularly ate meals together as families as they grew up, that percentage drops to 52% for Gen Z. (And for comparison sake, 84% of Boomers and 70% of Gen X reported eating family meals together as kids.) So, families are not spending as much time together. Afterschool practices, homework, work, and other obligations often relegate this once time-honored tradition to the backburner. Parents and kids are also busier; and, of course, there are more single-parent households and homes with two working parents, or parents who are working two jobs.
Parents of Millennials were quite a bit more active in overseeing their kids’ academic and social lives compared to parents of Gen Z. Almost half (47%) of Millennials report having received homework help from a parent compared to only 26% of Gen Z. And one in five Millennials say they have a parent who has lied in order to get them out of a school assignment. According to the “kids,” more than half (55%) of Millennials’ parents want to always know what’s going on in their kids’ lives compared to only 44% of Gen Z parents. So these parents clearly want their kids to do well in school (looking ahead to college acceptance and even to career advancement), even if they ended up teaching them a wrong lesson or two along the way. And, of course, all of this doesn’t discount the desire of Gen Z’s parents for their kids to do well in school. They are just busy and more comfortable not knowing every detail of their kids’ lives. (And by accessing online grade portals and tracking their kids’ GPS from their phones, today’s parents have it easier than ever to literally keep an eye on their kids.)
A full quarter of Millennials claim they consider their mother and father more as “friends” than as “parents,” while only 19% of Gen Z feel the same way. Parents of Millennials (most of whom are Boomers) clearly want a closer relationship with their kids than they had with their parents, even if their relationship is more permissive than authoritative.
One of the clearest generational patterns uncovered in this section of “Generation Nation”was around the issue of discipline. Fewer than half of Zers said their parents follow through with some type of discipline if they break the rules, compared to 59% of Millennials. And, only 30% of Zers say their parents are strict vs. 40% of Millennials.
And here’s a shocker: about a third of Boomers, Xers, and Millennials all report being spanked as a child. Only 8% of Gen Z report physical punishment. If this shift away from physical punishment continues, it will represent another significant sea change that has occurred during the maturation process of Gen Z.
Gen Z has grown up watching certain cultural norms crumble at a rate faster than any generation since the Boomers. Instead of burning bras and draft cards, these kids are launching Internet campaigns against gun violence and spreading their message that love trumps hate across the country.
Instead of deferring to authority figures by rote, this group connects and communicates directly with celebrities and politicians on Twitter. Parkland student Cameron Kasky, in a recent interview on “Real Time with Bill Maher,” succinctly pointed out how his generation is different.
“I think the best thing about our generation — people think we’re lazy and on our phones all the time — and sure, that’s me. But we don’t respect people just because we have to. We don’t respect you just because you have ‘Senator’ in front of your name…we don’t let people steamroll over us. We have voices and use them for good.”