Last year, the country hit, Old Town Road by Lil Nas X became the longest running #1 song of all time after it spent 19 weeks on the Billboard Hot 100. Lil Nas X, real name Montero Lamar Hill, made it into the music industry’s history books at the age of 20, having launched the song on TikTok. His later reveal of his sexual orientation, via twitter, caused less of a storm and more of an outpouring of support, with fans pledging to come to his defence should the trolls target him – but more of this later.
What is less know about this music success story is the fact that Lil Nas X bought the base beat for the song, for $30, from a Dutch beat producer called Youngkio (real name Kiowa Roukema) who produced the beat at age 16.
Around the same time, Billie Eilish (then 17) along with her brother Finneas, had just completed their album When We Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?, which they produced in his bedroom. The album swept this year’s Grammy awards which included the top five awards for Record of the Year, Song of the Year, Album of the Year, Best Pop Vocal Album, as well as Best New Artist.
This music hall of fame trivia – the performer’s ages, their aliases, the social media platforms they use to launch their music and even the way in which they announce their sexual orientation – are all threads that weave a complex tapestry about the mindset and perspective of Generation Z.
I call them the ‘old souls of the digital world’.
Who are they? Meet the parents…
Generation Zs were born (approximately) between the mid-1990s and mid-2010s. They are the world’s first digital natives who were born into a world of constant connectivity, and therefore cannot fathom a world without smartphones, the internet and Google. Even millennials, who are tech proficient, had to adapt to social media platforms which were only spawned around 2005.
Their parents are Gen Xs (verses millennials whose parents are Baby Boomers), which provides Gen Z with a different outlook on life. While Boomers instilled an (arguably disproportionate) sense of self-esteem in millennials, Gen X parents spawned the yuppie era, and framed their attitude to life as resilient go-getters. As such, Gen Z are more prone to be risk-takers but understand the permanent implications. They are therefore more pragmatic and realistic about their future, but also more anxious and depressed about it.
A digital native’s perspective
As digital natives, Gen Z is the first generation to have whatever information they want or need at their fingertips. As such they don’t wait for questions to be posed to them (what teachers do), they “just google it” if they want an answer. They learn and assimilate whatever information comes through their mobile devices seemingly by osmosis, which is why the traditional schooling system – spawned in the late 19th century – is so mismatched with their reality.
Digitalisation has ensured that we now live in the most stimulating era in humankind’s existence. This digital stimulus has rewired Gen Z’s brains, providing exponential and unexpected learning opportunities, and yet adults see them as being easily distracted, or worse, having ADHD, which they often get medicated for. If you had a plethora of stimulus at your fingertips, but are then forced to sit in a classroom and learn from a system that was designed in another century and for a bygone economy, wouldn’t you feel frustrated, bored and distracted?
Whether it’s porn (sorry parents, they’ve seen it all), information on terrorist groups, creepy cyber paedophiles or calls to support social justice projects, Gen Z have digested it all, and have become wise beyond their years. I call them the ‘old souls of the digital world’.
Africa’s future will be shaped by Gen Z.
This provides them with a broad and inclusive outlook on life. Due to their parents’ generation, as well as the times we now live in, Gen Z is more racially and ethnically diverse than previous generations, and as a result, they are far more accepting of humanity’s differences. They take vegans, transgenderism, same sex marriage, political upheaval and identity politics in their stride, and are noticeably more outspoken about rigid belief systems that don’t move with the times.
On the flip side, this egalitarian world view enhances their fears and concerns about their future, and rather than armchair activism – which millennials perfected – Gen Zs are motivated to actively take their protest onto the streets. Millions of teenagers around the world joined Greta Thunberg on her School Strikes for Climate Change last year, which then initiated a further 2,500 events scheduled in over 150 countries.
The argument many businesses have when brushing off this generation is the fact that the majority of them are still at school, and therefore have no voice or spending power as consumers. These strikes show that while they might not have the money, they do have the digital tools to connect, communicate and mobilise, and do so very effectively.
Never underestimate a digital native, especially if you are a business that is not proficient at digital marketing and communication.
GEN ZA – An African perspective
Africa has a large youth population, and many are surprised to learn that the continent has the largest concentration of Gen Zs on the planet (rather than millennials). The median age in sub-Saharan Africa is around 18 or 19 years old, so the Gen Z ripple effect is particularly significant for businesses on the continent.
If they are only starting to come of age now, it means that by mid-century, Africa will be home to 35% of the world’s youth, and will also account for an approximately 60% increase in the total world population by 2050, from 7.5 billion currently, to 9.8 billion. Africa’s total population is projected to more than double to 2.6 billion by mid-century as Gen Z settle down and start their own families.
Africa’s future will be shaped by Gen Z.
Gen Z, as consumers
With their high social justice barometers, Gen Z want their values mirrored in the brands they buy or support. Remember, this is a social media generation and the awareness of their own personal brand kicked-in the moment they signed up for a social media account.
Clothing retailers, particularly, should take note. For this generation, fashion is less about fitting in, and more about making choices that reflect their own identity. “Today’s teenagers are prioritising experiential purchases that they can share on social media,” says Rob Callender, director of youth insights at The Futures Company. “Experiences define them much more than the products that they buy. They don’t want to buy stuff. They’re buying an experience and the product they get through it is kind of a bonus.”
They also demand transparency from a brand and expect brands to go beyond bottom-line profits or shareholder primacy. In a world where brand loyalty is rare, these conscious consumers are not going to buy blindly into a brand that doesn’t stand up to peer review.
If your brand is less than ethical, contributes to climate change, is not sustainable, pays slave wages, etc., don’t expect any brand loyalty from them.
And if you think that there are still a few years before they become a significant consumer group, then think again. Ask any Gen Z parents who determines what meals are served, where the family goes on holiday and who they turn to for advice on technology or purchasing a new device. Gen Z may only be moving into the workforce now, but they have been quietly manipulating the family budget for years.
...they have been quietly manipulating the family budget for years.
If a brand is caught up in a scandal, redemption is still possible. Gen Zs understand that perfection is like an Instagram filter. They are realists at heart (hence the freedom to be self-deprecating on TikTok versus the feigned perfection of Instagram). However, an apology from a brand is not enough. They want to know how the brand is going to fix the problem. That’s an important differentiation, which is not only a lesson in brand management when marketing to this generation but also a glimpse into their psyche.
Gen Z’s attitude to failure is seen as a learning experience rather than a dead end. This approach stems from gaming. Old-school (analogue) games have a singular win-or-lose outcome, whereas digital gaming can be rebooted to offer another attempt, or opportunities to advance to different levels of the same game.
Gen Z, as a workforce
Multi-tasking is second nature to these digital natives, so the traditional linear approach to a single, life-long career trajectory is an anathema to them. Millennials introduced the concept of being “slashies” (accommodating multiple career interests at the same time, ie. Zodwa is a graphic artist/web developer/DJ/yoga instructor) and Gen Z now see this as normal.
They don’t want a job; they are looking for a lifestyle – a mantra that irks an older generation whose ideal career trajectory was “climbing the corporate ladder”. “Work” is also ideally aligned with a purpose and it is what they do, not a place you go to, so – as digital nomads – they can’t quite fathom a nine-to-five, 40-hour work week.
If you’re an HR practitioner, you’re going to have to rethink what a career means to this generation. Traditional corporate rewards and benefits mean little to them. They will always be busy with an on-going side hustle. Make peace with that. There’s an entrepreneurial strand in their DNA, which has been nurtured by all the how-to YouTube videos they’ve grown up with. They’ve joined your company to learn and to be motivated by your purpose, not to make your shareholders happy.
I have been asking corporate companies for ages if they honestly think that this generation is going to join a company and work there for two or three decades so that they can get their pension on retirement? There’s always silence after that question.
A note to the parents
Stop pushing them into university at 18 when their brains only settle into adult thinking mode at 22. History is littered with parents bemoaning the fact that their sprog changed courses/career choice after 4 years of studying something that the parents thought was best for them, or “studying something as a backup”.
The future of business and work is not necessarily served best with an academic background. Short courses, apprenticeships, internships and life lessons learnt from travelling will serve them better after leaving high school, especially if they are not sure what to do. They will more than likely embark on a career that jumps sectors, rather than companies, so they will need advice on how to juggle a career portfolio, not a linear career.
By 2030 the oldest Gen Zs will be in their mid-30s. If the changes in the last decade are anything to go by, then the next decade will see even more exponential change. These digital natives will navigate the way forward as entrepreneurs, political leaders and parents.
If they are to build our new world order, don’t force them to use a 20th-century handbook.
Dion Chang is the founder of Flux Trends.