NEWS26 January 2018

Gen Z: realness, gender fluidity and in search of balance

Mobile News Technology Trends UK Youth

Brands and researchers gathered at the Kids and Youth Research summit organised by the MRS to discuss the issues facing children and young people and highlight the role research can play in better understanding this hard-to-reach group.

Teenagers diverse_crop

Discussions at the conference focused on understanding and inspiring Generation Z. Currently aged 13- to 20-years-old, Gen Z comprises about 18% of the population – a smaller cohort than millennials, according to research from Buzzback and Faith Popcorn. Yet this group is the first to have been born into digital, and as such has the potential to affect major societal transformation.

Here, we take a look at three of the takeaways on Gen Z from the conference.

‘Real’ brands and media resonate

Media-savvy teens increasingly demand authenticity from brands and media, and are adept at spotting when something is fake. During a panel session with Hook Research, Channel 4, Turner and Radio 1, Ben Marsden, head of audience research and insight at Channel 4, said that the proliferation of social media is sharpening young people’s ability to distinguish between – and juggle – artifice and reality.

“From a very young age, kids are having to think about self-expression, forcing that generation to understand the difference between what is an image and what is real. So, you can’t expect them to watch something artificial and go with it.”

The panel discussed the success of Love Island, agreeing that it has worked so well because it embraced the artificial and didn’t try to be ‘real’.

A more complex media distribution landscape also means that teens have greater access to content that would have been considered too sophisticated for them via traditional broadcast. Marsden cited Netflix original series 13 Reasons Why, a show tackling teen suicide, as an example of a programme that would "never be allowed in front of a teen audience in a broadcast environment". But as young people consume content with more adult, sophisticated themes, their tastes become more multifaceted.

Gender is increasingly not a binary issue

Gen Z have a more fluid, less binary approach to gender than previous generations, as cultural norms shift and gender fluidity becomes a more recognised concept.

Discussing gender in terms of residual, dominant and emergent codes of culture, Emily Porter-Salmon, project director for commercial semiotics at Sign Salad, said: "Over the past 200 years or so, by and large we have still been linked to binary opposition of male and female, masculine and feminine. So many of our daily decisions are going to be made through this binary frame of gender – whether we notice it or not. Increasingly, members of Gen Z are not picking one or the other."

Gender equality has historically been about leaning towards or assimilating towards masculinity, she added – but culture is moving towards gender neutral codes, shown by John Lewis’ introduction of a gender-neutral children’s clothing range and Clarks launching gender-neutral shoes.

She said: "In the emergent space [gender] is more about a two-way street, it’s not about picking one side." Citing a recent Maybelline makeup campaign featuring influencer Manny Gutierrez, she added: "He’s not a drag queen – he’s a man who happens to like wearing makeup. This is something that a lot of Gen Z kids are taking for granted as perfectly fine."

Moving away from ‘tech for tech’s sake’

As a generation, Gen Z experiences high levels of anxiety, with 42% of Gen Z-ers listing calmness as the most important wellness goal, compared with 32% of millennials, according to Buzzback/Faith Popcorn research. They are seeking balance in their life and are less evangelical about technology than millennials – 66% of Gen Z think technology will save us, compared with 80% of millennials. As one respondent put it: "We don’t want more tech – we want better tech."

They also want to be able to disconnect from technology easily; 53% prefer in-person communication over tools like instant messaging, according to the study.

Martin Oxley, managing director at Buzzback, predicted: "Gen Z will press ‘pause’ on device addiction as apps, AI and connectivity seem to pose a threat to them."

Citing Professor Klaus Schwab’s observations about experience and authenticity being more valued in the ‘fourth industrial revolution’, Oxley said members of Gen Z are expected to look for experiences over material possessions.