Greta Thunberg’s recent speech to the UN capped an incredible year when a youthquake of activism shook up the global climate movement, and #FridaysforFuture demonstrated a new generation finding its voice on one of the most important issues of our time.
But Greta and the school strikers are not alone. Before them came the Parkland students - led by Cameron Kasky, David Hogg and Emma Gonzalez - who moved the gun-control debate forward in ways previous generations could not. Before them again was Malala, whose voice reverberated around the world, foreshadowing debates now dominant in popular culture about violence and discrimination against women.
Each in their own way reveal something of the wider sense of purpose of a new generation - Generation Z - that is beginning to make its power felt. This week in London, thousands of young changemakers will convene in London for the One Young World Summit - or ‘Junior Davos’ as it’s dubbed. As the meeting agenda shows, they are only just getting started.
With the oldest of Gen Z now entering adulthood, and the wider cohort set to become the largest global consumer and workforce demographic in the coming decade, it’s important to understand how and where their influence will be felt.
Born from the mid-nineties onwards, the Gen Z consciousness has been formed against a backdrop of the economic uncertainty caused by the financial crash, increased understanding and awareness of climate and environmental crises, and perhaps most significantly, they have never known a world without the internet and social media.
This combination of uncertainty, as well as real time access to unmediated information has shaped a particular set of views of business and brands among this cohort. Diversity, inclusion and tolerance are the hallmarks of Gen Z’s social views, and they expect this to be matched by the brands they consume. Right now, they don’t think many companies are doing a good job at this.
Research consistently shows this generation takes a dim view of many corporates and is more likely to spend its money in ways that align with its values. According to one US survey, by a 5-to-1 margin, Gen Z does not trust business to act in the best interests of society, and nearly one-in-four cannot name a single brand they consider to be purposeful.
The same research showed this generation also set the bar much higher in terms of how a good business should act. They are three times more likely than others to say the purpose of business is to “serve communities and society” rather than to simply “make good products and services”. Notably, this goes beyond day-to-day operations as well, with respondents more likely to call for brands to “use their voice to advocate or speak out” on pressing issues.
These are issues companies cannot ignore. Gen Z already has substantial spending power. By one estimate, in 2018, total direct spending by Gen-Z consumers was $2.4 trillion. Their indirect influence on household spending is even greater, with IBM showing that 70% of Gen Zs have influence over how their family spends money.
The implications for business are clear. If they meaningfully embrace the views of Gen Z, companies can combine significant and growing commercial opportunities, with a more positive impact on the world around us.
More than previous generations, Gen Z wants to be engaged in a conversation rather than talked to. They have a lot to say and multiple channels through which to say it. Prolific across social media, they are their own mini publishing houses, with members of Gen Z present on a greater range of platforms, and creating more content than older cohorts. They also show greater scepticism about messages being pushed out by brands, trusting peers and family over other sources of information.
These factors were central to the development of the new anti-obesity campaign led by the Jamie Oliver Group and children’s charity BiteBack 2030. Avoiding the old model of campaigning where public health experts and food ambassadors pushed out messages on healthy eating and the risks associated with obesity, we engaged a cohort of Gen Z ambassadors who are steering a new conversation around the topic. In just a few months this group has already made its impact felt, providing insights on strategy, content and tactics that are authentic to their peer group, calling for more honesty from food brands.
But this generation won’t just change the way business is done from the outside. As Gen Z reaches adulthood, they are bringing new expectations and attitudes with them into the workplace. For Gen Zers - who have seen the obliteration of the 9 to 5 job for life - job security is a greater anxiety than previous generations, but equally, they see “doing something meaningful” in their work as a higher priority too. And to achieve this, they are willing to be more discerning in the employers they choose. Companies that think deeper about their social purpose, and how they can engage their employees in defining, embedding and communicating this, will have a competitive advantage in the war for talent.
As the oldest members of Generation Z begin to make their social and economic influence felt, the challenges and opportunities for businesses are mounting. Born into a time of extraordinary and rapid social, economic and technological change, so they expect business to keep pace and contribute positively to further change. The implication for brands is clear.
Get on board, or get out of the way.