Being in the field on a regular basis with young consumers, we provide an ongoing data feed related to Gen Z and Millennial (Gen Y) behaviors, attitudes, lifestyles, passions, and brand relationships. We study Gen Zers from 13- to 19-years old, and Millennials from 20- to 36-years old.

One key insight that emerges from the research is how important it is not to confuse these generations. The marketing world has been obsessed with Millennials for so long that everybody is using “millennial” as a synonym for youth. That’s really the wrong approach.

Companies often think they know everything about youth because they spent so much time learning about Millennials. The truth is that some of the “common knowledge” about Millennials is not true, and also that many of the things that are true about Millennials are not true about the current “youth generation” — Gen Z. We’ve learned that in some ways Gen Z are “amplified Millennials,” taking some of their traits to the next level, but in other ways, they are absolutely Anti-Millennial. In fact, they actually blame Millennials for much of what’s wrong with the world today, and they’re making an effort to act differently from their older siblings in the generation ahead of them.

Everybody talks about Millennials as tech natives, as are Gen Zs, who have digital in their DNA. So much so that eight out of ten Gen Zs literally show signs of emotional distress if you take their electronics away. Kudos to Pokémon Go as the first mainstream commercial incarnation of Gen Z, embracing the fact that their digital life is a real part of their real life.

Gen Zs are also amplified Millennials in their social consciousness. Young consumers are impassioned. They care about causes and expect brands to care about causes too. In fact, eight in ten Gen Zs volunteer for causes.

But they differ from Millennials in that Millennials are ‘The Shades of Grey’ generation. I’ve studied Millennials in-depth since they were in their teens, as a research lead for MTV. We called Millennials the “pro-soldier, anti-war generation.” They would take a stance but were cool with your stance being different. Think ‘Jesuits for gay marriage.’

While they wanted to make a stand, they were also happy to say, “You feel differently, and that’s okay. We can both still love one another and make a difference.” Very shades of grey.

Gen Z, though highly socially conscious, are more likely to say, “I am right, you are wrong.” They are very black-and-white. They will tell you that you are absolutely wrong about what you’re thinking.

Gen Zs are amplified Millennials in their diversity. While Millennials were the most diverse generation to date, Gen Z is the most diverse generation ever. They will be the last generation to be “majority white” — but only at 51 percent. Their diversity goes beyond race to gender fluidity, and even the way they think about their sense of self.

One interesting way they take diversity to another level is in how they deal with time — based on their passions. For instance, they’ve moved from the Millennial norm of having one core group of friends, where you bring your individuality to the table. Zers will have multiple different groups of friends, each based on individual passions, from soccer to piano, gymnastics, or music.

We found that more than 6 in 10 Gen Zs will tell you, “I have many different groups of friends.” When you think back to when you were that age, I wouldn’t have said that I had many different groups of friends, but that’s how their world is constructed.

Gen Zs are Different

Though Gen Zs “amplify” some Millennial realities, they are also intensely different. One difference we see in Gen Zs is in their relationship with their passions. Millennials are a generation of passion for passion’s sake. They were the first generation that moved from defining themselves by career — partly because many college grads didn’t get the job they wanted or didn’t get a job for a while during the recessionary period in which Millennials were coming of age. Rather than define themselves by how they were moving up in their careers, they would say, “I’m a DJ, but I work in accounting during the day.” Social status — but not salary — came with that DJ or blogger or recipe writer role.

Gen Zs, on the other hand, want their passions to pay out. They’re pragmatic, even cynical. As a generation growing up in a time of crisis, they do not see the glass half-full, but as three-quarters empty. They constantly think, “What can I do to ensure that my future is more secure than the kids ahead of me that I looked up to? They were in the National Honor Society. They were the team captains. But they couldn’t get into the college of their choice and couldn’t get the job they wanted. I don’t want to be like that.”

As a result, they are keenly focused on making their passions pay. Eight in ten Gen Zs say that a successful career is one of the most important things in life. Almost seven in ten think making a lot of money is one of the most important things in a career. It’s a stark difference from Millennials as teens, who would say, “I’m going to be famous — I don’t know, but I am.” Millennials didn’t talk much about money but talked a lot about fame. Gen Z talks about money.

A Gen Z guy is likely to say, “I’m going to make money and I really want to do this photography thing, but as it may not work out, I’m probably going to have to go the route my mom wants me to and become an accountant. But I’m keeping photography going on my Instagram so at some point maybe I can do that.” They often have a plan A, B, and even C — pragmatic, and wanting their passions to pay.

Never too Early to Specialize

As a result, early specialization is the new norm. Many studies show that young people of today spend much of their time doing productive or creative things. They want to find the thing they’re incredibly good at as fast as possible and then get great at it.

Parents of younger children find their kids dropping out of things early, like soccer, if they’re not on the travel team by second grade. There’s a lot of early specialization with a focus on a successful future.

It’s shocking, but over half of 13 to 16-year-olds say, “I have many plans for my career in case one or more doesn’t work out,” and that rises to 63 percent by the time they’re in their late teens.

Resurgent Gender Differences

Another stark difference between Millennials and Gen Zs is the resurgence of gender differences. Millennials were a very pro-girl generation. Girls were told, “You’re as good as boys. In fact, you are better.” Guys were told, “Girls are as good as you and can do anything you can do.”

As a result, a generation of guys fell behind. Girls began to do better academically, even in math and science. If you look at working Millennials today, 46 percent of girls have a college degree while only 36 percent of guys have a degree.

Of course, we know that girls still have a long way to go. But Gen Z guys saw how Millennial guys became the “Jackass Generation” who were told, “Don’t try too hard,” while the girls studied hard — and it paid off for the girls.

So, Gen Z guys are pissed off. They agree that girls are their equals. We’ve heard teen boys say, “I want to marry a girl who makes as much, if not more, money than I do so together we can have a dynasty.” They’ll also say, “I’ll change diapers.” But they’re not cool with being considered lesser, and they think Millennial guys were.

Our research shows that Millennial males and females agree on almost everything. Millennial guys are even more pro-women than Millennial women. But an end-case analysis of Gen Z shows something very different. It’s red and green all over. Guys and girls have diverged. They over and under-rank each other on many measures, because they disagree on so much. Maybe it’s because guys are panicked that they’ve lost so much that they’re irrelevant.

Gen Z guys are highly conflicted. On the one hand, 75 percent of them say there’s nothing wrong with guys acting sensitive. On our party bus focus groups (yes, that’s a thing), we’ve talked with young guys about their relationships and they’ve actually cried about how strong their “bro love” is.

On the flip side, they love video games that express this hyper-masculinity, oftentimes depicting aggression against women. Forty percent say romantic relationships should not be monogamous. Their favorite thing to talk about is how they lost their virginity. They are confused and figuring out “How to be a guy in today’s modern world.”

Hard to be a Woman — Hard to Be a Man

Two out of three Gen Z girls agree that it’s hard to be a woman today; less than one in three Gen Z guys agree with them. “Try being me,” they think. Almost half of Gen Z guys say that it’s hard to be a guy today (and only 20 percent of girls agree).

On the political front, Millennial guys tie with the girls, with the vast majority say they’re middle of the road and a huge percentage saying they’re liberal.

But Gen Z guys trend conservative. Thirty percent say they are politically conservative, and a slightly smaller number say they’re middle of the road. An even smaller say they’re liberal. It’s just the opposite for Gen Z girls, who are more liberal, followed by middle of the road, with the fewest being conservative. Gender-wise, it’s an absolute swap of political opinions.

Millennials are a very accepting, all-inclusive generation. They ushered in “Geek Chic,” the whole idea that geeking out about sci-fi, music, whatever, was awesome. “Bring your weird obsession and we can all be friends.”

Gen Z says, “That sucks.” They’re more snarky, exclusive, and very image-aware. In this way, they’re reminiscent of Gen X, but living in a digital world. They’ve got Gen X dynamics (think “Breakfast Club“) — don’t wear something wrong; make sure you do exactly what your crew says. But add what the internet teaches you — three of four think it’s right to stress their individuality. Combine the two and you get snarky exclusivity while trying to embrace your individuality. As a result, they’re incredibly anxious. Imagine how hard it is to figure out what face to put forward in this environment.

It’s not surprising that the National Institute of Mental Health reports that one in four 13 to 18-year-olds develops an anxiety disorder. Our surveys show seven in ten Gen Zs worry a lot; eight in ten Gen Z girls. More than six of ten Gen Zs say they’ve been bullied; more than seven in ten Gen Z girls say they’ve been bullied. They feel social media has a direct impact on how they feel about themselves, and that it has a direct impact on how other people feel about them.

So what happens to a generation trying to manage that? They are taking a much more crafted, curated, a more careful approach to social media. We see 71 percent of Millennials use Facebook daily, versus 44 percent for Gen Z. They see Facebook as a place to post about every aspect of your life and see two problems with that:

  1. “I’m going to post something and wish I could take it back tomorrow.”
  2. “Sometimes you didn’t get into college because you posted that embarrassing photo.”

To protect their future and their image, Gen Z much prefers social networks like Snapchat, where messages disappear. People say, “Are they dumb enough to think it actually disappears?” They’re not dumb. But they don’t think future hirers will be tracking that. The real problem, to them, is that other social networks don’t let you be relaxed about who you are.

If they send a picture with their tongue out to their friends nobody will think much about it. Snapchat is like telephone conversations for Gen X — “I said it, she laughed, it’s over. Forget about it.” They want social networks to allow them to connect in a way that won’t impact their image forever. Eighty-two percent say they’re very careful what they post on social media.

What It Means to Brands

We’ve looked statistically at what makes a difference in how much Millennials and Gen Z connect with brands. These two very different generations share three things that drive high brand engagement. The elements go beyond how much they like or even “love” a brand to what really makes them connect:

  1. Does the brand “get me?”
  2. How “on-point” is the brand — is it aware, up-to-date, in touch?
  3. Is the brand “legit”? — How good is the brand at doing what it’s supposed to do?

Factor analyses demonstrate that these factors drive brand success with youth. But when you look under the hood at Gen Z, not surprisingly, they interestingly emerge that are driven by differences in gender. Girls are very much into brands that help them express themselves; help them be trendy, edgy, etc. After all, they’re trying to balance fitting in while expressing themselves in a unique way. Guys are into high-tech, top-of-the-line brands that have a sense of humor. Guys, in general, are more laid back, but highly attracted to entrepreneurial, successful brands.

Many companies wonder about brand loyalty among youth. We’ve learned that when you win Gen Zs over they can be very loyal. Three in four have followed a brand on social media. Seven in ten say, “It’s important that a brand is one I can be loyal to.” Two in three found “my brand” in a category and stuck with it. Three in four say they like brands that value their opinion.

Gen Zs are snarky, but if you are in with them they might be in for life. Marketers will find it worthwhile focusing on these emerging consumers and understanding how to help them navigate this tricky world they’re living in.

Image source: Yoel Peterson