How Gen Z Is Redefining Their World Through Technology
By Stacy Rapacon
For Baby Boomers, it was the personal computer; for Gen X, the World Wide Web; and for Millennials, the mobile technology explosion. Each of these generations saw their lives transformed by new technology. For Generation Z, born between 1997 and 2012 — seemingly with smartphones in hand — there is a twist. Instead of a key wave of technology defining a generation, this first generation of actual digital natives is redefining technology.
Gen Z expects tech to be integrated in their daily lives in a way that’s different from any other generation before them. Why? Besides Gen Z, also known as Plurals, consider what else was born in 1997: Google (along with many other now-defunct search engines) and Netflix (then a DVD-rentals-by-mail service). Amazon went public that same year. By the mid-2000s, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Hulu and Instagram were beginning to disrupt consumption habits forever. None of these were new to this generation, they were just always there.
“With Plurals and technology, there’s almost no division,” says Jack Mackenzie, executive vice president of market research firm PSB. “I don’t even know if they think of it as technology. They just think of it as the way it is. It’s just ingrained into their minute-by-minute behaviors.”
Fluid, global, connected
Now the largest age demographic, Gen Z stands 2.6 billion members strong. With the oldest among them turning 22 this year, they are just beginning to make their mark, but it’s already substantial: Globally, they hold purchasing power of more than $500 billion and mobile buying power of $143 billion. By 2020, they will account for 40 percent of all consumers, as well as 10 percent of eligible voters in the next U.S. presidential election.
As powerful as they are as a group, they support and embrace the individual, tossing aside definitive labels made standard by generations past and disregarding the status quo in many areas, from gender identification and sexual orientation to race and religion. For example, nearly half (48 percent) of the generation is nonwhite, compared with 39 percent of Millennials and just 18 percent of early Baby Boomers, according to the Pew Research Center. A report from the Gen Z-focused think tank Irregular Labs found that a quarter of Gen Z expects their gender identity to change throughout their lives.
That’s why market researcher Mackenzie dubbed the generation Plurals — because their identities are so fluid and individualistic. They are the first generation with no clear majority.
And the digital connection is inherent to that sense of fluidity. Thanks to the 24/7 news cycle and always-on social media, the world’s biggest problems — from structural inequality to the refugee crisis to climate change — are top of mind for Gen Z and also right in the palms of their hands.
“Gen Z is really the first global generation,” says Jennifer Wang, director of customer insights at HP. “In previous generations, Gen X, for example, in the U.S. was very different from Gen X in China. But we don't see that differentiation with Gen Z. They have grown up with access to the same information and they have all that information at their fingertips, regardless of where they live, as long as they have internet connectivity.”
Integrating tech IRL
More than half of internet users around the world are under the age of 24, and this generation spends more than 70 hours a week on their devices, more than any other generation, according to a 2018 study from Metafacts. And that heavy usage begins at increasingly younger ages, with the average Gen Z-ers getting their own first phones when they’re just 12 years old. As teens, a whopping 95 percent have access to a smartphone, and 45 percent say they are almost constantly online, according to 2018 Pew research.
Clearly, they see technology not just as devices and tools, but as essential to living their lives. Ninety-one percent of Gen Z members say they even keep their devices in bed with them, according to a study from consulting firm sparks & honey.
This intimate relationship with technology is blurring virtual and actual realities, creating a new sort of existence that older generations may have trouble understanding. For example, despite their affinity for digital connections, 84 percent of Gen Z-ers say they prefer face-to-face communication — more than any other demographic HP surveyed. But they count using FaceTime and other video conferencing services as modes of face-to-face communication. They’re redefining what constitutes interpersonal communication.
They’re even redefining what a relationship is. Boomers and even members of Gen X might see young people engrossed in their devices and lament that they're not with family and friends. But that phone time is exactly how Gen Z is spending time with their favorite people. In fact, according to HP’s survey, this generation ranks developing and maintaining “positive relationships with loved ones” as one of their top three priorities in life, second only to financial security and just above good health.
Baby Boomers listed the same top three priorities, but put positive relationships just below good health and financial security.
But there is a downside to the rise of connectivity: “We've learned a couple of things pretty clearly about kids using technology,” says Kit Yarrow, consumer psychologist and author of Decoding the New Consumer Mind. “One is that they do think differently. They have shorter attention spans and get frustrated more easily, if things aren't easy to understand.”
Generation Z seems to at least recognize this issue and understand the importance of disconnecting, as do all generations. In fact, 49 percent of HP survey respondents across all ages say they purposely shut down their tech to give themselves a round of digital detox. “Gen Z is highly self-aware,” says Todd Horvitz, senior customer insights manager at HP. “While overall they see technology as a positive proponent of change, they recognize that too much can add to their stress.”
A new campaign from HP highlights the role laptops and tablets play in Gen Z’s daily lives and the challenges it can create, tapping into an idea that resonates with them: Technology is personal. It shouldn’t diminish or replace humanity, it should enhance it.
They don’t just like and follow — they lead
Mackenzie notes that Gen Z’s use of technology differs greatly from how Millennials use it, and cites YouTube as a prime example: “YouTube for Millennials was a passive viewing platform,” he says. “Plurals think of it as their platform to express themselves. They don't want to watch videos. They want to make videos. They're more of a creator class while Millennials are more of a consumer class.”
And what exactly are they hoping to create in the grand scheme of things? Change. Indeed, according to data from sparks & honey, 54 percent of Gen Z-ers say they want to make an impact on the world. Among Gen Z small-business owners, 57 percent say a goal of their entrepreneurial efforts is to make a significant mark on the world. “This generation is very interested in addressing the root causes of issues rather than the symptoms of the problems,” says Corey Seemiller, co-author of Generation Z Leads.
For example, in her role as an associate professor in leadership studies at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio, Seemiller saw Millennial students enter college wanting to volunteer by, say, putting in a few hours serving food at a local shelter. When Gen Z students matriculated, they approached the same cause in a new way.
“They were asking different questions,” Seemiller says. “They said, ‘I want to create a business that might solve this problem. I want to create an invention or research solutions. I want to give back in a way that’s going to change these issues so that we’re not constantly playing catch-up.’”
And they are doing it. From activists Malala Yousafzai and students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, to entrepreneurs like Alina Morse, the 13-year-old CEO of Zollipops, a $6 million candy company that makes lollipops that are good for your teeth, the kids are doing more than all right. Using technology, Generation Z is creating solutions to the problems they see plaguing the world, and they’re just getting started, says PSB’s Mackenzie.
“Technology has always proven to be a fuel,” he says. “They use it in a way that makes sense for who they are.”