You’re probably familiar with generational monikers like “Baby Boomers” and “Gen X,” which are frequently thrown around by marketers, the media and trend spotters. In particular, you’ve likely heard about “Millennials,” and, if you happen to know one or two personally (or, maybe even happen to be one, gasp), then there’s a good chance the word elicits strong feelings. Perhaps even rage.

Of course, just as it felt like we were really starting to get to know these Millennials and be able to categorize them somewhat (digitally savvy, narcissistic and entitled, or so their reputation goes), we learn that there’s a new sheriff in town. Or at least on the way.

Say “hello” to Generation Z. These emerging up-and-comers are the next big thing. While most of them are still young, before long, they’ll be entering the workforce in droves. Before you know it, these younguns will be your employees and target consumers. So take note.

“But wait,” you might be saying, “I’m not a marketer or a cultural anthropologist, why do I need to know about these Gen Zers, and why should I care? I’m still trying to get rid of all these Millennials I hired!” 

While most of them are still young, before long, they’ll be entering the workforce in droves.  

Well, while most of Generation Z is still in high school, in a few years, these young people will be our future. And more importantly, they’ll be the future of your business. Businesses are likely going to need to change their strategies to adapt to this new generation, which is already starting to create waves. It won’t be long before they’re launching careers, starting families and taking over a company near you.

So here’s a look at eight things you need to know about Gen Z.

1. The Numbers (Whoa, There’s a Lot Of Teens)

This group, roughly defined as anyone born between 1995 and 2010, already make up a whopping 25 percent of the U.S. population. That, my friends, makes them a larger demographic than both those lazy Millennials and those hippie Baby Boomers.

In fact, according to Fast.Co, by 2020, Generation Z will constitute 40 percent of all U.S. consumers. Let that sink in. This means that, like it or not, it will be imperative for any business, corporation or institution looking to stay around (let alone flourish) in the years ahead to understand who Gen Z is, and what they want.

2. Don’t Call ‘Em Millennials

First and foremost, don’t lump them in with their elders. They’re not Millennials, and any business that chooses to see them as one, homogenous group of smartphone-carrying whippersnappers risks alienating the whole lot of ‘em. While they share some of the familiar traits of their older, Millennial siblings, there are a number of important differences.

Although it’s not easy to glibly distill any generation’s DNA into a handful of defining characteristics, the best way to begin to understand Generation Z is to understand the time in which they’ve come of age.

Gen Z will constitute 40% of all U.S. consumers by 2020. Let that sink in.

Compared to Millennials, who grew up in the relative peace, prosperity and “Boom Times” of the 1990s, Gen Zers have grown up in far more “uncertain” times. And, perhaps more importantly, they’ve grown up as digital natives during uncertain times, two ideas which have had a huge impact in shaping their generational mindset.

They are the children of Gen Xers, who themselves grew up in times of economic uncertainty, global conflict and change. They, like their parents’ generation are obsessed with safety, writes Alex Williams in The New York Times.

3. They’re Entrepreneurial, But Pragmatic

That’s why, unlike Millennials, who are often seen as optimistic (and maybe even delusional), Gen Zers are more pragmatic. Its representatives are risk averse.

Like Millennials, Gen Z has been labeled as “highly entrepreneurial,” and, according to global research fleshed out by Forbes, more than half of Gen Zers have expressed interest in starting their own companies. Whitney Johnson, the author of Disrupt Yourself: Putting the Power of Disruptive Innovation to Work, found that 70 percent of teens under 17 are “self-employed,” meaning they’re selling jewelry on Etsy or starting a tutor services business instead of working in retail or at restaurants.

A study by Goldman Sachs, in turn, showed that 42 percent of Gen Zers expect to “work for themselves one day.”

That said, Gen Zers have been shaped by their self-reliant and risk-averse parents and by those free-wheelin’ Millennials before them. Another study showed that the generation prefers to be “mature and in control,” not free and improvisational.

Furthermore, while Gen Z is entrepreneurial, Fast.Co posits that they have a different version of entrepreneurship, especially when compared to Millennials. Gen Z’s version is geared toward being financially independent and, as opposed to Millennials, will “likely be focused on sustainable ‘singles and doubles’ ventures, rather than Silicon Valley ‘home runs.’”

More than 50% of Gen Zers have expressed interest in starting their own companies.

4. They’re Worried About Money

Not surprisingly, they’re not only interested in being mature and in control, but, while they hope to work for themselves one day, they’re more worried about money than Millennials. Born in the fallout of the financial crisis, the aforementioned Goldman Sachs study found that nearly half of Gen Zers are worried about student loan debt.

They’re also concerned about the rising costs of education, and are less optimistic than Millennials about finding the right job – one that’s a good fit for their strengths and personalities. According to Fast.Co, “they’re obsessed with developing contingency plans to help them navigate the dynamic job market … and are biased in favor of career and financial stability.”

5. They’re Digital Natives

Rather than being weaned on iPods, LimeWire, MySpace and AOL, Generation Z are the world’s first, true digital natives. Their lives are totally immersed in and permeated by technology and social media. They don’t remember what it was like not to have a smartphone or not be able to share their lives on Facebook. While Millennials on average use three screens, Gen Zers outpace them, using an average of five screens daily, including desktops, laptops, smartphones, TVs and iPads.

Furthermore, people in this age group can be found on networks that may be unfamiliar to their older compatriots. According to data from AdWeek, 25 percent of teens under 19 left Facebook this year. They’re gravitating instead toward newer social networks, particularly Snapchat, Whisper and Secret before it shut down last year. Their numbers are also in decline on Instagram. What does that mean? Well, it’s a sign that Gen Zers value their privacy and prefer more private or walled networks (hence their interest in Snapchat and Secret).

6.) They’re Digital Natives, But Their Attention Spans May Not Be So Short

Thanks to the fact that Gen Zers have grown up cocooned by technology, it’s no wonder that recent, eye-popping reports suggest their attention spans are remarkably short. Eight seconds short, in fact.

Gen Z prefers to be “mature and in control,” not free and improvisational.

Yet, while people of all ages would probably admit to some attention span shortening in our new, mobile-first digital world, one market resource, Altitude, found that, for Gen Z, it may not be so simple.

Having grown up immersed in digital technology, Gen Zers, in fact, have “highly evolved ‘eight-second filters.’” While the Internet has put an ocean of information at their fingertips, giving them almost infinite options, their time is anything but. This means that Gen Zers, perhaps more than any other generation, have adapted and are able to process and sort through huge amounts of data quickly to find what’s important to them.

According to Altitude’s research, Gen Zers “rely heavily on trending pages within apps to collect the most popular recent content,” and frequently gravitate toward “trusted curators” to identify “the most relevant information and entertainment.” This helps them reduce data, information and content into more digestible chunks.

As to their purported tiny attention spans, the data further suggests that, once Gen Z does find something relevant and time-worthy, they can “become intensely committed and focused.” Not surprisingly, with the ability to make sense of massive amounts of data, Gen Z is great at researching – and self-educating. According to CMO, “33% of Gen Z watch lessons online, 20% read textbooks on tablets and 32% work with classmates online.”

7.) No One-Way Messaging

Gen Zers are very attuned to being “sold to,” especially on the Web and on mobile devices, and are very wary of (and loathe to) one-way messaging. For that reason, it’s no easy task to get around their filters, and anyone hoping to do that will have to provide Gen Zers with “engaging and immediately beneficial experiences.” In other words, it’s all about “snackable content.” 

Gen Zers, perhaps more than any other generation, have adapted and are able to process and sort through huge amounts of data quickly.

8.) They’re Diverse and Socially Active

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 50.2 percent of children under 18 are expected to be part of a minority race or ethnic group by 2020. But, not only is Gen Z going to be more “diverse” than previous generations, according to the Goldman Sachs study, Gen Zers also “hold a more positive view of the rising ethnic diversity in America than prior generations.”

Resulting from their access to information and having grown up around technology and in a culture that is growing more accepting of diversity and social change, Gen Z is an extremely global-minded generation. And they want to make a difference, not only in their communities, but in the world at large. According to Marketo’s research, 60 percent of Gen Zers want their jobs to impact the world, while 26 percent of 16 to 19-year-olds currently volunteer and 76 percent are concerned about humanity’s impact on the planet.

“Snackable,” or By the Numbers

  • 25 percent of teens under 17 left Facebook this year
  • Gen Z already makes up 25 percent of the population, and is a more populous generation than Baby Boomers and Millennials
  • By 2020, Gen Z will constitute 40 percent of U.S. consumers
  • 46 percent of Gen Zers are worried about student loan debt
  • 70 percent of Gen Zers are self-employed
  • 50 percent of teens and children under 18 are expected to be part of a minority race or ethnic group by 2020

About the author

Rip Empson

Rip Empson

Before a stint at a venture capital firm in Silicon Valley, Rip spent four years as a staff writer at TechCrunch, researching and reporting on technology news and the exciting array of startups, entrepreneurs and technologies that are reshaping our world. He also loves The Boston Red Sox, drinks too much coffee, and wants to be an astronaut when he grows up.

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