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Unpacking a Generation: The Digital Natives that Need a Break

In the third part of our series “Unpacking a Generation”, we look at Gen Z and how they turn strangers into friends (or foes) through tech. Technology has been a key part of Gen Z’ers’ life from a younger age and faster rate than any previous generation. And while these digital natives have grown up globally connecting with any possible answer at their fingertips, their dependency on interconnectedness has a cost. We continue to lean on spectrums to illustrate how Gen Z’ers are grappling within a range of online and in-person interactions as they navigate their lives. 

Despite being digital natives, Gen Z’ers are finding ways to power down phones and screens for face-to-face contact. Gen Z appreciate technology because it allows limitless independent learning, exploration and connection to communities. They are also coming to terms with the pressure to be constantly connected while managing impossible expectations of perfect lives and perfect bodies. As they embrace these dualities, many are choosing to turn off tech or be more intentional about how they stay connected, from temporarily deleting apps, turning their phone off around friends or family or leaving devices entirely out of sight.

The conscious realization of their tech dependency has impacted other aspects of their lives as well. In social settings, Gen Z is more comfortable in 1:1 interaction, which allows them to deepen connections in their inner circle. Gen Zers are less comfortable socializing in unfamiliar settings, particularly when the dynamic is transactional (i.e., service representatives, doctor offices, etc.).  In these spaces, they would prefer to interact online, or even on the phone, instead of having to interact with a person.

“If I’m calling to see how much money is left on a card… If a real person answers, I’ll hang up, I’ll go to the website instead.” 

Male, 15 

This has not only impacted how they socialize, but also who they socialize with. Today, if Gen Z can’t find their “group” in the cafeteria, they have access to millions of other people that align with their hobbies, interests, and values around the globe. As expansive as their worlds can be, they are still subjects to the algorithm of social media. Gen Z’ers are discovering their community in niche ways by finding friends across the globe that share their interests, whether that means being fans of the same boy band or caring about the some social causes like defending climate change. 

Gen Z’s ability to find friends outside the classroom has been transformational. However, there are downsides that Gen Z’ers are already starting to identify in themselves. While admired for their empathy, Gen Z is surprisingly quick to isolate those with differing beliefs. 

They are generally more accepting than previous generations, especially towards marginalized groups and minorities. This generation believes in creating space and protecting everyone’s right to individuality and self-expression, albeit to a certain extent. When someone’s values, beliefs and/or politics don’t align with their own, they’re less likely to be accepting. 

This also impacts their view of cancel culture online and in person. Although deemed “unkind” by Gen Zers, cancel culture plays a role in how they interact. Causes, ethics, and morals are hard boundaries for them, and if crossed, it’s likely to result in cancelling or removing themselves from situations or people they don’t agree with.  This leaves Gen Z’ers between a rock and a hard place – they are often guilty of cancelling others, while also afraid they will be cancelled if they misstep or are misinterpreted online. 

While their digital lives give them freedom to connect with others and express themselves, living so much of their lives online creates an echo chamber of their own views, identities, and experiences. At the same time, they worry about being cancelled themselves if they say or do the wrong thing. This creates a fear of misstep during a stage in their lives that is critical to learning, growing, self-discovery, and even making mistakes. This is demonstrated through social media platforms such as TikTok.  

Category Spotlight: Social Media Creating Silos

We would be remiss not to discuss the impact TikTok has on Gen Z and their relationships with brands. Known for its algorithm, TikTok silos users into specific niches of interest and values, blinding them from the broader reality of the world. The saying “wrong side of TikTok” – which refers to when a user’s feed begins to fill with content outside their beliefs or attitudes – captures this phenomenon. 

This is also true for brand content. In today’s world of hyper-targeted digital ads, consumers have come to expect brands to serve ads that are very specific to them and their interests with an ever-increasing expectation of relevancy.

But this currency can come at a cost. When what’s trendy has a shorter cycle than ever before, brands must decide what trends to engage with and what’s not worth the effort. The need to be authentic in the social space continues to ring true for Gen Z’s. Brands must be authentic to their brand and embrace a casual nature and aesthetic indicative of the TikTok platform.

How brands can resonate in this space: 

  • Be intentional about the trends you jump on; you don’t get points with Gen Z if you hop on a bandwagon that feels disconnected from the brand itself
  • In spaces that are new territories for this cohort (from cars to alcohol to finance) provide digital engagements that allow them to explore your category independently 
  • Don’t be afraid to experiment with your audience on a platform like TikTok –brands that take risks and show a bit of the behind-the-scenes magic can go viral.

While there’s good that’s come from Gen Z coming of age in the digital world, they’ve identified the need to find a balance. They have the power to decide when and how they want to interact with technology and brands digitally and to determine the power it holds over their daily lives. 

We’ve now examined Gen Z’s identity as a group, how they view their goals for the future, and their digital behavior. In our final article for the series, we’ll share how all of these elements manifest in their choices as consumers.