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Generation Z

Generation Z: Young, Wired, Smart, And Sassy Consumers

Much attention has been given to Generations X and Y, the current teen and young adult population ranging in ages from 13 to 43, who entered the world with substantially different wants, needs, values, and interests than their Baby Boomer and older predecessors.

Much attention has been given to Generations X and Y, the current teen and young adult population ranging in ages from 13 to 43, who entered the world with substantially different wants, needs, values, and interests than their Baby Boomer and older predecessors.

But what generation will come next, and how are they likely to be different?

A number of different traits have been ascribed to Generation Z, currently ages 12 and younger. As the Zs approach teen status, we will begin hearing more about them.

But we can begin to draw conclusions about this generation based on what's happening in society — as well as the most popular toys that arrive each holiday season.

First, society.

Generation Z has grown up in a world with widespread equality of the sexes at work and at home, and where single-parent or same-sex parent families are commonplace, as are two-income families.

Members of Generation Z are already very active consumers, with a high degree of influence over their parents' purchasing decisions. From Baby Gap to salons for kids, to Dora the Explorer canned corn and Disney themed SpaghettiOs to Chuck E. Cheese – Generation Z has been marketed to and raised with a prominant purchasing position from the time they were infants.

While Baby Boomers are being accused of being overly nurturing and attached helicopter parents to their Generation Y children, Generation X is being accused of parenting from a place of guilt and fear.

As children, Xers observed skyrocketing divorce rates among their parents and an influx of women entering the workforce. As a result, they were the first generation of latchkey children — evidently an characteristic we don't want to define us or our children.

Many Xer moms checked out of their careers to raise their children themselves, partaking in organized playdates, early childhood education classes, and enrolling their children in organized sports and activities at a very young age.

Xers are very active in their children's lives and very protective of their children, with some going so far as to not allow their children to play outside.

By the same token, Xers have befriended their children, allowing them to stay up late, sass their parents, and giving them certain indulgences — like pop, manicures, having their own televisions, DVDs, and computers and iPods, and going to the movies and nice restaurants — which were once opportunities reserved for older children and adults.

You only have to watch a single episode of Nanny 911 to realize that Xers are struggling with the parenting role and detest the idea of being disciplinarians. Perhaps we didn't have enough parent involvement as latchkey children or we felt our parents didn't do enough for us.

In any case, whether we realize it or not, today's parents are trying desperately to skip the inconveniences of childhood and raise little adults who are well-educated, well-rounded, talented, and mature for their age. (I know, because I'm an Xer parent myself.)

Yet, when we were children, we could leave the house after breakfast and come home at dinner, and we could play outside and actually get dirty — two concepts that are inconcievable for our own children.

And let's not forget the influence of technology on the next generation. Zs are already highly connected, having had lifelong use of communications and media technologies such as DVDs, iPods, cell phones, and social networking and gaming sites like Club PenguinBuild-A-Bearville, and Webkinz.

Which leads me to the toy list. Undoubtedly, Generation Z will be the most tech-savvy and virtually-minded generation in history, considering that nearly every toy out there has a virtual component to it.

It used to be that stuffed animals, dolls, games, scooters and bikes topped children's wish list. Today's children wish mostly for technology. Just take a look at a few of the top toys for 2008:

  • Tickle Me Elmo Live does a lot more than its predecessor to provide your child with continuous hours of entertainment with its life-life advanced technology and interactive abilities.
  • Playskool Dance Cam – This kid-friendly camera console plus into your TV and the camera projects your little one onto your TV screen so they can dance along to kid-friendly tunes and adorable preschool characters.
  • LEGO Mindstorms NXT — This robotic intelligence toy with built-in sensors will react to commands given. It comes with a quick-start guide, building instructions and tips and tricks to help you build a robot ready-for-action within 30 minutes.
  • Bakugan Battle Brawlers – Voted the hottest new toy by Time magazine and Newsday, the plastic balls (the Bakugan Battle Brawlers) are rolled across game cards and open to reveal monsters ready to take one another on when two players land on the same card. Trading cards that help trigger the magnetic latches that open the spheres also help determine the strength and strategy of the brawlers.
  • Webkinz – The stuffed animal that comes alive online in Webkinz World and its backpacks, purses, and accessories are expected to sell out this season.
  • Nintendo Wii – The family-friendly social gaming system sold out last year. Sales of the Nintendo Wii Fit, featuring more than 40 activities and exercises, is expected to top 3 million this year.
  • Nintendo DS Lite — The handheld gaming system revolutionized handheld gaming in 2007 and remains in high demand. Its two ultra-bright screens feature 3D graphics and wireless communication, so you can challenge your friends anywhere, anytime.

Stay tuned for more information about Generation Z, the oldest of whom will hit teen status in 2009. Something tells me those assertive, tech-driven Ys will pale in comparison to the wired, smart, and sassy consumers of the future.

Zs came of age in an era of disruption

In many ways, it’s symbolic that Generation Z is named after the last letter in the alphabet because their arrival marks the end of clearly defined roles, traditions, and experiences. After all, Gen Z is coming of age on the heels of what has been referred to as the most disruptive decade of the last century. America has become an increasingly changing and complex place.

For example:

  • ‍Zs were born into a “modern family era” in which highly involved dads help out at home, and the nuclear family model (two parents, married, with children) represent only 46% of American households.
  • ‍Zs are the first generation to be born into a world where everything physical, from people to places to pennies, has a digital equivalent.
  • From the time they were infants, Zs had access to mobile technology. As a result, their brains have been trained to absorb large amounts of information, and Zs are especially adept at shifting between skills and subject matter.
  • Zs tend to have crystal-clear memories of sitting up for the first time at six months old because they can easily and quickly reference the photos and videos their parents shared on social media or saved in the “cloud”. 

Members of this generation have undoubtedly been shaped by crisis and disruption. This generation will largely be responsible for confronting the aftermath of the Great Recession, high youth unemployment, the effects of climate change, terrorism, energy sustainability, and more. These dark events have undoubtedly made this generation more cautious and pragmatic, but they have also provided this generation with the inspiration to change the world – and their grit will likely allow them to do it.

Coming of age during disruption means that most Zs will be comfortable being the disruptors. While Millennials tend to be collaborative and innovative, this generation tends to be sincere, reflective, thick-skinned, and self-directed, and will likely approach work in much the same way.

Zs were raised to be competitive

In the era following World War II, Boomers (1946-1964) were born and eventually became the wealthiest, most prosperous generation in history. Raised to aspire for the American Dream, this very large generation moved into positions of power and influence, and served as the workforce majority for 34 years.

With the American Dream alive and well, Boomers had no reason to teach their children, mostly Millennials, about competition. Instead, they taught them to focus on academic achievement and to be team players because if everyone works hard, everyone can win.

Enter Generation X (1965-1981). In contrast Boomers, Xers came of age during a time when change and economic and political uncertainty began to take root. They have lived through four recessions, struggled with debt and economic decline most of their lives, and watched the best educated and accomplished generation of all time (Millennials) graduate during the Great Recession and become the most debt-ridden generation in history.

Gen Xers can be defined by their independence and anti-status quo approach to life, and they have taught their Gen Z children to be competitive, believing only the best can win. They have encouraged their children to be realists, finding something they are good at and aggressively pursuing it.

Xers have raised their Zs with an intense focus on competitiveness -- in academics, sports, and other activities. This approach to parenting has many implications, but one stands out in terms of business: Gen Z is likely to lead.

Millennials in the workplace created and aggressively advocated for collaborative work environments. In fact, their aversion to leadership has been so strong, some Millennials sought out companies that boasted boss-free or team-managed workplaces.

In contrast, Zs have been raised with an individualistic, realistic, and competitive nature. They have been taught the skills to successfully defy the norm. This means we’re going to see the pendulum shift away from collaborative workplaces towards a widespread demand for, and pursuit of, leadership development.

Zs are career-focused.

While Millennials have been criticized for their “delayed adulthood”, Gen Z is showing signs of “early adulthood”. Educators and parents often describe this generation as being more serious and contemplative about the world. Zs are thinking about their career paths and exposing themselves to career training at an earlier age than Millennials. It’s probable that some of this early onset of adulthood is caused by parents, who are pressuring their children to be competitive and successful and to avoid the debt that plagued both the Gen Xers and Millennials.

The numbers from our global research found 46% of Gen Z said they know what career to pursue and 51% have taken a class at school focused on their career interests. Forty percent joined an extracurricular program (team, club) based on their career interests.

Zs are seeking financial security. 

Zs have been shaped by the aftermath of the Great Recession. They watched Millennials become debt-ridden and are concerned about falling into the same trap. XYZ University’s survey results show 66% of Zs said financial stability is more important than doing work they enjoy, which is the exact opposite of Millennial survey results.  Also, 71% of survey-takers have a paying job.

Zs value leaders who are positive and trustworthy.

When presented a list of leadership traits, Zs ranked positive and trustworthy the highest. While Millennials and Gen Zs both value trust in a leader, Millennials usually cite collaboration and vision as most important. In other words, Millennials focus on the outcomes leaders inspire, whereas Zs are more likely to consider leaders’ attitudes and personalities. To Z, what leaders encourage others to do isn’t as valuable as how they make them feel.


Zs want to be challenged.

Both Millennials and Gen Zs place a very high value on feeling challenged and appreciated in the workplace. However, according to our survey results Millennials rank appreciation slightly higher than challenge, whereas Zs rank feeling challenged slightly higher than appreciation.

Time will tell how Zs go down in history, but we know this generation’s influence on history will be unlike any other.


Does your organization have what it takes to engage the next generation? Take this quiz to find out.


Sarah Sladek is CEO of XYZ University. Our generational intelligence can assist you with engaging and retaining young talent and members.

Sarah Sladek

Concerned about declining engagement in our nation’s membership associations, non-profits, and workplaces, Sarah Sladek founded XYZ University, the nation’s first and only generations-focused training and engagement strategy company, in 2002.

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