As Gen Z begin to enter the workforce and surpass millennials in terms of the overall world population, marketers are trying to get a handle on who they really are. With social media being a primary channel of interaction for Gen Z, it’s crucial for us at We Are Social to get under the skin of this audience - what they’re really like, how they form and maintain connections, both online and offline, and understand what is really meaningful to them.

We’ve seen the headlines and the studies labelling them as entrepreneurial, activists devoted to social good and more clean-cut than previous generations — in that they don’t drink or do drugs. They seemed a little too good to be true.

So we wanted to explore the truth for ourselves. We identified 12 Gen Zs from all over the UK, met them, their families, friends (and pets) and immersed ourselves in their day-to-day activities. We went around to their houses, hung out in their rooms, had a peek in their wardrobes, met their mates and had a good old chinwag.

Our report We are Gen Z: Their Power and their Paradox captures what we uncovered and provides a practical guide for brands to understand and reach this financially powerful and diverse generation as they come of age.

We didn’t know Gen Z at all
As with most things in life, we found the reality isn’t as simple as the headlines suggest. Yes, we found things to back up some of the previous perceptions of the demographic, and, at the same time, we found things that challenged the preconceptions.

This is a generation that’s making sense of the polarised world they find themselves in: a hyper-connected world in which they can communicate in an infinite number of ways while forging new identities by fracturing those cultures that came before them. What’s most surprising is that it often feels we’re more divided than ever. But this comes about from uniting and coalescing around more niche subcultures while old habits such as our tribalistic instincts kick in.

During the study, we uncovered six main themes:

  • Conscious contradiction - Gen Z can see both sides of an argument. They might say they ‘hate’ a brand, but a moment later proudly show off a product from that same brand. Interestingly, they know they have paradoxical viewpoints, and it doesn’t bother them in the slightest. They’re actively switching, not absentmindedly contradicting.
  • Learn / Unlearn - The internet has provided Gen Z with innumerable sources and methods for learning almost anything. Growing up with fake news means that for them there’s no one, single version of the truth, and they use social media and the internet to explore new directions, interpretations and truths not taught by the ‘establishment’.

“They don’t really teach you British Black history in this country at school. That’s why I felt I had to go online and look for it myself. I started finding Black British female activists on Instagram” (Afua, 18 years old, student, Bristol)

  • United and divided - We’ve never been more open to discussions around diversity and inclusion. Yet, the potential for conflict has risen. Division exists at a high level for Gen Z (race, equality, socio-economic) and so their response is to look for unity in smaller, easier to reach places. These places can be physical (local community) and digital. Finstas (unfiltered private Instagram accounts shared only with close friends/family), private Facebook groups, and “niche memes” are a manifestation of Gen Z’s digital world.
  • Ephemeral vs permanent - Our world is a transient place. The likes of Spotify, Netflix and Kindle have toppled their physical counterparts. Gen Z is part of this rush towards impermanence. They’ll purge their Instagram account when they get bored of it or when something changes in their life. And yet they value physical things they can touch, keep and surround themselves with. These tangible pieces of their past help them to feel grounded in a fast-paced, hyper-connected life. Permanence is an idea, a value, and a status for them.

“The pictures of my friends and family on the wall…I look at them when I’m in bed at night and I feel as if they are here with me. I feel safe.” (Afua, 18 years  old, student, Bristol)

  • Inverse influence - Our obsession with influencers appears to be reaching its peak, but their influence over Gen Z is limited, and influencers with mega popularity tend to be unappealing. Gen Z actively favour and follow those they see as having a more hard-earned credibility: people with genuine skill, an established talent, an interesting perspective, or those who are taking direct action.

“I have a disposable camera, to capture those special moments.” (Zack, 20 years old, student/food blogger, Manchester)

  • Hyper-hybrids - Gen Z is the most fluid generation. They don’t see themselves in binary terms anymore - they can be many things all at once. This fluidity doesn’t just apply to sexual orientation or gender, but also to their wider interests. As Gen Z has embraced hybrid identities, it’s made them more receptive to and eager to embrace combined messaging from brands e.g. spontaneous and unexpected collaborations between talents with different skills.

Details of each of these findings can be found in the We are Gen Z: Their Power and their Paradox report alongside topline recommendations for how brands can create meaningful connections with Gen Z.