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Are the Kids Alright? The Search for Gen Z at TMRE

Because I’m a market researcher, when I want to find something out, I ask people. I went around the exhibition hall of TMRE this afternoon and asked a simple question of anyone I could find whose booth mentioned Gen Z. “What’s the upper age bound?”

I asked three different companies and got three different answers. 17 – meaning the cohort starts in 2001. 21 – a 1997 start-date. And 24, dating Gen Z from 1994.

(At least two of these definitions imply that nobody born at the millennium is a Millennial, which is surely one more reason for ordinary people to hate marketers.)

So – all middle and high schoolers right now are Gen Z. College students probably are. People in their first post-college years? Maybe, if you squint. Does it matter? I think it does. This year’s TMRE program sees a tipping point – more than twice as many talks on Gen Z than on Millennials (and one of the latter was on “Millennial parents”). Everybody’s talking about them. Nobody’s defining them.

If Gen Z is being talked about, then Gen Z must be selling. Which incentivises researchers to spread the net as widely as possible, so you can make claims like “Gen Z are even bigger than Millennials” (as one speaker did). Sure, they are – because you’ve trimmed three years off Millennials and handed them to Z! The highly respectable Pew Research gives us the 1997 boundary definition, which will probably stick – but only 3 years ago, Pew was starting the definition in 2000.

Generational boundaries are market-driven – if Gen Z are mostly sitting in their bedrooms playing Fortnite, they’re a less sexy commercial prospect than if they’re entering the workforce right now. But extend the definition too far and you’re scrabbling with trying to find the common ground that includes 14 and 24-year olds and doesn’t include a 30-year-old. You end up, inevitably, stressing social media and smartphones at the exclusion of everything else, which is unfortunate, because that’s precisely how you were defining the last lot.

These were traps the presenters at TMRE couldn’t entirely avoid. I spent the afternoon of Day 1 checking out three presentations which focused on teens and young adults – though “adults”, as BuzzFeed’s Gene Cho revealed, may not be quite the right word.

First up was Synchrony Financial and CMB, who had created a beautiful audiovisual “lookbook” to explain Gen Z. Lovely aesthetic – but some of the insights shown felt like squeezing the data to fit the narrative. One slide, about Gen Z and digital financial products, used “highly connected” to describe penetration rates of 61% and 21%. The presenters hopped around from fidget spinners and sour candy – the fads and preferences of Gen Z’s younger edge – to verbatims from 24-year olds, with concepts like “digital natives” bundling it all vaguely together.

BuzzFeed’s presentation, on the idea of “adulting”, was stronger – an interrogation of a particular trend and how it affects a particular cohort – that vexed 18-24-year-old segment which have a foot in both Y and Z, as things stand. Cho had a great set of one-liners – being an adult these days, he said, is just looking stuff up on Google.

Young people are physically adults but feel entirely adrift from the actual competencies they associate with being ‘an adult’, was the core finding. They are highly confident – they think of themselves as mature – but at the same time feel entirely incompetent at the basic skills and survival abilities they assume adults should have. Being an adult has stopped being a goal and become instead an endless process.

It all rang very true – though I, a cynical Gen Xer, remember feeling the same thing at 18, and most of the time since. The trend is genuine but not new. Sociologists like Richard Sennett have identified it as a fallout from the post-1970s wrecking of the socio-economic concepts – a lifelong secure career – that were the foundation for ‘adulthood’. Or maybe being an adult has always been about faking it til you make it.

Finally, and most refreshingly, the experts surrendered the stage to the ‘natives’ themselves – four students from the University of Arizona who very gamely agreed to act as Gen Z examplars for an audience of olds. Were they typical? Who knows. But they weren’t selling anything, at least. Inevitably the questions, from Tiffany Zhong of Zebra Intelligence (age 21), focused on life online and social media. But the students gently deflated most of the prevailing narratives – no, they didn’t follow influencers. Yes, YouTube is pretty much just another clogged-up big media channel. No, they don’t feel stressed enough by social media to want to detox.

What did I conclude? Generations are literary constructs – stereotypes with enough recognisable truth to live as characters. The unfortunate reality is that it takes a few years of sifting and settling not just for boundaries to fall into place, but for the defining narrative characteristics of a new generation to emerge.

Millennials, for instance, were by turns claimed as conservative, apolitical, hopeful and disaffected. They were the generation who “craved relationships with brands” … and then they became generation Ad Blocker. It took a while for the broad trends – artisanal over corporate; experience over ownership – to settle, and a while longer for the semiotic markers of millennials (beards, avocado toast, selfies, craft beer) to fix themselves. The Gen Z that comes to mind in ten years will be unrecognisable from 2018’s fumbling definitions.

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