OPINION7 June 2022

Are Gen Z the same the world over?

Opinion People Trends UK Youth

Many stereotypes and assumptions exist about the younger generations. How many are accurate? And how many fail to stand up to scrutiny? By Parves Khan.

Teenagers taking selfie

Over the past few years, many brands have started shifting their focus from millennials to the younger kids on the block: Gen Z. What makes this generation so intriguing is the fact that they have never known a world without the internet. Born into a digitally connected world through social media networks and mobile systems, many have argued that with these young people, generational shifts play a far more important role in setting behaviours and attitudes than cultural ones.

It follows therefore that the defining characteristics of this generation when it comes to buying behaviours, consumption patterns and brand preferences should be similar right? Well, not really. As with most things in life, it’s much more complex than that.

The problem is we are awash with ethnocentric narratives around what GenZ’rs are like. Recent studies I’ve led reveal that the assumption “if you see one Gen Z, you have seen them all” is damaging strategies to build brand and product engagement with an audience that now accounts for 30% of the global population. I believe market research needs to play a greater role in re-balancing the narrative and leading the discussion with an evidence-based approach.

While my recent studies focus on education, the findings are instructive for all sectors. One study I want to share involved a survey of learners across the globe*. When I segmented the results by age, and took a deep dive into 16 to 18-year-olds, I found that while many in Gen Z were similar on some value dimensions, there were many important differences as well. 

First some of the similarities. As a digital generation, young learners across all countries were found to be using a range of digital learning tools. For this cohort, technology has always been a fully integrated experience in every part of their lives, and they don’t expect education to be any different.

We also found that though they like tech in the classroom, they still like having teachers too. They are not at the stage where they want courses to be completely self-directed. The teacher remains the key educational influencer in their lives. This is consistent across all countries.

Also consistent is the role they assign to teachers in making school life an enjoyable experience for them. Learners across all countries put ‘boring teachers’ as the main reason for disliking school.

Now some of the differences. Young learners in China, India, Brazil, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and South Africa placed a much higher value on education and on its role in their future career success. For example, 87% of 14-18 year olds in China, compared with 56% in Australia, believe doing well in school is important to getting a good job. 

Young people’s sense of personal achievement in the UK, US, Canada and Australia was not linked so strongly with their schooling and more were likely to consider alternatives to going to university – a third of British and four in 10 Canadian, American and Australian Gen Zs expressed their intent to go onto university. In contrast, going to university was found to be very much a rite of passage for young learners in India, the UAE and China; three-quarters or more said they would be going onto university.

Going to an elite, highly-ranked university, even if it was more expensive, was very important to 77% of Chinese and 64% of UAE GenZ’rs but only 24% of Australian and 32% of Canadian GenZ’rs. 

Of course these differences reflect cultural attributes that are intersected by social and economic disparities between the global south and the global north as well as across individual countries. But the findings highlight that marketers need to be careful in executing a global strategy.

There is a need to understand both generation-based values as well as cultural values in designing products and marketing strategies targeting Gen Z across countries, whatever business you’re in – from education to breakfast cereals. 

*The survey was conducted on behalf of Pearson in May 2019 by The Harris Poll. A 20-minute online survey was completed by 11,083 people aged between 16 and 70-years-old across the UK, US, Canada, Australia, China, India, Brazil, South Africa and UAE. The results presented in this thought piece are based on a sub-sample of 16 to 18-year-olds. 

Parves Khan is vice-president, global market and human insight, at Into University Partnerships.