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Beyond Generations: Why the Term 'Gen Z' Doesn’t Belong in a Brief


Amelia Markham, senior strategist at Five by Five, on why it's time for the industry to move beyond generations

Beyond Generations: Why the Term 'Gen Z' Doesn’t Belong in a Brief

“Improve perceptions of our product among Gen Z”. 

“Create content that will engage Gen Z”. 

“Get Gen Z to buy our brand”. 

Whether you’re agency-side or client-side, you’ve likely seen a brief similar to the above. Maybe you’ve even written one. But it’s time for that to change. In fact, it’s time for us as an industry to move beyond generations entirely.

Skip the stereotypes

Part of the problem with using terms like Gen Z in a brief is that they’re so often associated with stereotypes. And they’re usually not good ones. Until recently it was Millennials like me who bore the brunt of cultural ire. We’re the so-called “snowflake” generation, emotional and easily offended – or so the sensationalist headlines suggested.

Now it’s Gen Z’s time to take the slack. And slackers they are, or, sometimes, “hyper-woke” activists hell-bent on changing the world, depending on whose opinion you’re tuning into today. The point is, it’s hard to move two inches online without bumping into some kind of generalised criticism aimed at particular generations.

It’s an easy trap to fall into. The entrepreneur Steven Bartlett, for example, recently referred to Gen Z as “the least resilient generation I have ever seen”. 

At Five by Five, we partnered with research agency Flume to get to the fact behind the fiction. We found that, when it comes to Gen Z, the reality is that most of them aren’t remarkably resilient. Many are struggling with their mental health and some are anxious about the future.
But they’re not weak, either, as Bartlett would have us believe. Indeed, there’s a sense that they’ve prevailed even though their “whole lives have been unprecedented times”, as Georgia, 24, told us. So, the truth is somewhere in between. 

In fact, we explored several different dimensions, digging into each of the myths and misconceptions surrounding Gen Z. And each time we found a similar story. One in which the truth is much more multifaceted, more complex, more nuanced – and potentially more interesting – than you might have anticipated.

Another well-worn claim is that they’re eco-warriors. This, too, might be a misrepresentation. While some of them clearly care about the climate, many of the members of the group we spoke to said that, when buying products, they’re much more concerned about more practical factors, like whether they can afford it, and whether it’s easily available to them. 

Whether we do so consciously or not, every time we use the term Gen Z in a brief, we are biassed by these stereotypes. We may think we need to create communications that appeal to their eco-mindedness, for example, when in reality we’d be better off leading with a personal product benefit like cost, convenience or quality.

Don’t overlook diversity

Another issue with generational groupings is that they describe vast and varied groups of people.

The most widely accepted definition of Gen Z is anyone from the age of 16 to 25. In England and Wales, this is equivalent to just over 7m people, or 12% of the total population. Within that, of course, there’s huge diversity, not only in terms of demographics but in attitudes, behaviours and lifestyles. 

As part of our research, we conducted in-depth interviews with 10 members of Gen Z. Even with our small sample, we got a sense that Gen Z isn’t a single and easily defined cohort.

For example, we met with a 16-year-old who still lives at home and whose main concern was deciding what he wants to study at college next year. For him, life felt as if it was yet to begin. But we also spoke to a 22-year-old who’s very much settled into his. He’s already been working for six years and is saving up to buy a house with his long-term partner. 

These two people probably look pretty similar on paper. They’re both male members of Gen Z living in the West Midlands. But they live very different lives and so their day-to-day behaviours, decisions, their priorities and product repertoires are likely different too.

Clearly, some campaigns need to speak to big groups of people, but using generic terms to define those groups can conceal their diversity and differences. And it’s these we need to consider when creating communications.

Beyond generations

It’s become clear to us that, at best, Gen Z is a vague and unhelpful term used to describe a diverse group as if it was some sort of single, shared entity. It’s a shortcut that characterises this cohort as a collective and tells us nothing of their individual pains and passions.

At worst, when used in a brief, it can cause us to create communications based on myths and misconceptions, and can distract from the true nature of the audiences we’re targeting, resulting in work that’s anything from ineffective to downright damaging.

As Jon Steel so rightly said, briefs should be grounded in an “intimate understanding of what makes these people tick”. It’s the job of planners to produce a portrait that’s “qualitative, descriptive, emotional, and creative”, he argues.

And we’re never going to get there if we keep using terms like Gen Z.

To view and download Five by Five's research report on the death of Gen Z, please click here.

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Five by Five UK, Wed, 24 May 2023 08:42:00 GMT