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Generation Y

Why Gen Y Won’t Buy What You’re Selling

Compared to previous generations, Generation Y (1982-1995) has some very different habits that have taken the marketplace by surprise.

Compared to previous generations, Generation Y (1982-1995) has some very different habits that have taken the marketplace by surprise.

One game-changer in particular: Generation Y doesn’t seem to enjoy purchasing things. From cars to association memberships, jewelry, and non-light beer – Gen Y just isn’t buying.

For many brands and companies, this is their worst nightmare. They desperately need to convince America’s largest population – 80 million 17 to 30 year-olds – to buy. But Generation Y is hanging out there, living “in the cloud” (that digital space where media, internet, and entertainment reside), seemingly content and unfazed by most marketing attempts.

Gen Y is unique from other generations in the buy-sell continuum for other reasons, as well. For example, this generation:

  • Trust their peers first and their parents second;
  • Hates to be sold anything;
  • Actively researches prices and reads reviews before making a purchase;
  • Expects exceptional service, like which tells them which products they might like;
  • Seeks to do business with ethical, environmental companies; and
  • Values customization, customizing everything from their music to their jeans and soda.

So it’s time to face facts:

  1. Old-fashioned marketing won’t reach this generation that spends $200 billion annually. Gen Y ignores advertising and prefers a grassroots effort, such as hip events, viral videos, social media, student fans, and street teams.
  2. The balance between supply and demand has been altered and the value of owning “stuff” has diminished. The value now lies in the doing.

Today, a product or service is powerful when it connects people to something or someone else. As leaders and entrepreneurs, we can use this knowledge to our advantage. We just have to think about the “stuff” we sell in a slightly new way.

Here’s what motivates Gen Y to buy (and what has started to influence the rest of us, as well):


Gen Y wants to do something important with their purchases. You’ll notice this sentiment in Apple’s commercials, which depict ways people use products to do amazing things like curating music, crafting three-dimensional spreadsheets, or using FaceTime to call loved ones.

DO THIS: Explain how your product or service makes people’s lives better and make the message as simple as possible. This is an instant gratification generation; simplicity is essential.


Many times the joy of having something isn’t in the having, but in the sharing. When we share something we like with people we like it creates a bond, and this is especially meaningful to Gen Y.

DO THIS: Find ways to connect people to other people through your business. Sales isn’t really about selling anymore, it’s about building a community.


Perhaps Gen Y’s disinterest in buying cars has little to do with being anti-car and a more about being environmentally conscious. Gen Y is driven by the desire to make a difference.

DO THIS: Connect people to something bigger than themselves through your product or service. A bigger impact is almost always there, we just tend to forget about it or fail to market it.

A lousy economy and rapidly changing technology is likely changing every generation’s buying habits. Chances are, we’re all spending less on physical products.

Maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe our focus is shifting off the material things and onto the more important things, like relationships, quality of life, and a creating a better world.

In that case, we can thank Generation Y for giving us a message worth marketing.

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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