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Intergenerational Cross-Talk: How Can Marketers Connect with Gen Z?

January 23, 2021


Intergenerational Cross-Talk: How Can Marketers Connect with Gen Z?

Every ten to fifteen years, we get a new generation coming up through the ranks. In the early aughts, it was the Millennials coming into their own. This was the first online generation, who grew up right alongside technological change. Before them, it was Gen X. And now, in 2020, we’re looking at Gen Z.

A lot of people make this generational change out to be a time of massive shifts—and it sure can be. Every generation has their own understanding of the world around them. They’re unique, because they grew up and were shaped by the world in unique ways. Most Gen Z’ers were babies (or not even born) when 9/11 happened. Millennials experienced it in their teens and early twenties. Gen X experienced it differently again, because they were older than Millennials. The same is true of the Great Recession in 2008-09. If Gen Z’ers remember it, they didn’t experience it directly, but through their family members.

Gen Z is the first generation to have grown up online—they’re known as “digital natives.” They’ve never really known a world without Internet or social media. Millennials might be used to technological change and adaptation. Most of them started off without the Internet or social media or cellphones—very different from Gen Z.

When we look at this from the outside—as Marketers who are in our 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s, part of different generations, with different understanding and perspectives—this can seem like an enormous shift. We wonder how we can “connect” with today’s youth. I think, at the core, what Gen Z wants is the same—but how we deliver it is the key.

Let’s take a look at Gen Z’s values, how they stack up against their predecessors. Then we'll think about how we, as Marketers, can really connect with them.

What Makes Gen Z Unique?

When I say there are universals across generations, I’m not trying to downplay differences. There are differences in every generation, because the world they grow up in and are shaped by is different. The world Millennials grew up in is very different from that of their parents, the Baby Boomers. As a result, these two generations have very different outlooks!

The same is true of Gen Z. They were born between 1997 and 2011. The oldest are now just graduating college and entering the workforce. This is a period of growing independence, when Gen Z can start exercising their own beliefs about the world.

So, what does Gen Z believe? Until last year, they were much more optimistic than their Millennial predecessors. They were going to inherit a strong economy, and they believe in their own power to shape the world around them. To that end, they’re looking for a more fair world. For brands, that translates to a desire to partner with or team up with companies, versus buying from them or working for them.

It’s not hard to see where this outlook comes from: Gen Z has never known a world without the Internet. Most don’t remember a world without social media. Both have given people access to a larger platform to voice their concerns and an easy way to access knowledge. So, Gen Z tends to be highly informed as well as vocal. From there, they believe they have the power to reshape the world, and they’re also aware of the issues they want to act on.

They also watched the Great Recession affect parents and other family members. This was life-shaping for Gen Z, who tend to be even more frugal than previous generations. They question materialism and consumerism more.

So: Gen Z loves great deals, but they’re also willing to do more with less. Brand names may not hold as much weight with them. They do exhibit some brand loyalty if a brand acts on social issues that are important. That comes packaged as a desire to partner with a brand, versus being a customer. In short, Gen Z wants to develop deep, honest relationships with brands. They’ll give you their loyalty, but they’ll also hold you accountable by using their voice on social media.

The More Things Change …

Think back to 2010, when Millennials were coming into the workforce en mass. There were tons of think-pieces about how workplaces had to get ready for Millennials. They were going to turn everything upside-down and inside-out.

They believed in their own worth, and they wanted fair pay. They wanted to buy from brands that had stances on social justice. They wanted to work for brands that they loved. Yet they were also skeptical and, as a result of the Great Recession coupled with student debt, more frugal.

Some of this sounds familiar to Gen Z right now. They're more informed, skeptical of brands but willing to give loyalty when they connect on social issues, frugal, etc.

That’s not to say Gen Z and Millennials are the same. What appeals to Millennials doesn’t appeal to Gen Z. (In fact, just look at how Gen Z drags Millennials for their love of wine, coffee, and Harry Potter.)

If we look at it though, we can see similarities across all generations—and a similarity at this age or life stage. So, Gen X and Baby Boomers also wanted from the workplace what Gen Z and Millennials want. That's a fulfilling and exciting career, some semblance of stability, decent enough pay, and benefits.

The question is what any of those things look like. Baby Boomers might have asked for a “traditional” arrangement: nine-to-five, Monday to Friday, with a guaranteed salary, two weeks’ vacation, and dental benefits.

Gen Z is more willing to work less “traditional” hours, but they want better work-life balance. Lines between “time off” and “working hours” have blurred thanks to email and the smartphone. Gen Zers realize they can be “on” at any time, but they also want more “off” time.

They want benefits too. But those benefits might look less like “dental care” and more like help with student debt or finding affordable housing. They still want a fulfilling career—but the definition of what’s “fulfilling” has shifted a bit. Many Gen Zers saying being an influencer is their top career goal. Some people assume that means they’re lazy or want it easy. But most influencers put in quite a bit of grind to get where they are (because algorithms favour people who post high-quality content many times a day).

Finding an Identity

There’s a similarity across generations that has to do with life stage. Gen Z is where Millennials were ten years ago or so. They’re in college and graduating, getting their first jobs. They’re experiencing more autonomy and independence than ever. They are young adults, with all the freedom that entails. They’re away from their parents and living on their own for the first time.

And I think this is what goes on at this stage: forming relationships and carving out an identity. Gen Z is, in effect, figuring out who they are. They’re using this moment of freedom to test the waters, to showcase their power, to really flex their generational muscle in society for the first time ever.

That’s why they’re dragging Millennials—they want to establish themselves as “different” from their predecessors. Which is precisely what Millennials did in the early aughts. It's what Gen X did in the 1980s and 1990s. And it's definitely what the Baby Boomers were doing with their cultural revolution in the 1960s and 1970s.

So, we’re seeing Gen Z rebel against the “Millennial” ethos to an extent, but also against their own parents (Gen X). Gen X is characterized by nihilism—they were raised in the shadow of Mutually Assured Destruction in the dying days of the Cold War. Millennials and Gen Z don’t understand that sense of foreboding. That may account for Gen Z’s positivity and confidence about their ability to change the world. They were also given tools that gave them voice at a young age—Gen X was into ‘zines, but they didn’t have Twitter or TikTok.

Gen Z’s online presence has allowed them to be more connected. It's allowed them to be more exposed to social issues than even Millennials. Gen Z is more diverse than ever, and they’ve also seen first-hand the impacts of cyberbullying. They’re attuned to all these things.

So, How Do You Connect with Them?

Gen Z is unique, but they’re also the same as every generation before them in that they want an identity that showcases that uniqueness!

To that end, Marketers need to understand what makes Gen Z unique. But we also have to understand their human needs. They are searching for an identity—and their current identity makes them believe it’s possible to change the world in positive ways.

It's not enough for us to jump on social media and adopt current slang. We have to understand the deeper needs. Yes, we should be talking to Gen Z in their own language (so that means figuring out what emojis are cool to use, which ones aren’t, and what’s hidden code, along with GIFs and slang). We need to use their preferred platforms (Insta, Snapchat, and TikTok).

We also have to address their generational concerns: brand skepticism, but the desire for deeper relationships and community. We need to take stances and show real action on issues that are dear to this generation, like climate change and human rights. And we need to give them messages that address their need for identity.

We can’t tell them we “get them.” Have you ever told a young person that? Almost nothing will get you dismissed faster—because they’re quite convinced you can’t understand them.

And in some ways, we can’t—because we weren’t raised the same way, in the same time, with the same perspective on the world around us. So, how do we reach out or connect to Gen Z? Instead of trying to prove we “get” them, let’s prove we hear them. That we see them! And that we want to work on building those deeper relationships, just like they do. We can definitely showcase a desire to understand them better—and to let them do the talking.

In short, we need to let our Gen Z customers guide us! Do research with them, talk to them, and really listen to what they have to say. Then act on what you’re hearing from them in a way that mirrors what they see your brand standing for, what they want from you, need from you, and expect from you.

So, like always, remember to start with the why!


Here to inspire and create conversation!

I am a business person who has excelled in driving a competitive edge through marketing, strategy, innovation, building irresistible brands and unlocking the genius that exists. I am writing to inspire or create new consideration. If you have ideas or questions that you would like me to put a pen too, I would be delighted.

I would also be grateful if you shared this or any of the articles I have written to inspire others.

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