Despite Behavioral Differences, Gen Z Shares Fundamental Truths on Being Young

Marketers Shouldn't Fear Gen Z as McCann Study Shows Notions That Transcend Generations

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Images uploaded to a group Tumblr by participants of McCann's 'The Truth About Youth' study
Images uploaded to a group Tumblr by participants of McCann's 'The Truth About Youth' study Credit: McCann

Having been raised in a socially connected, digital world, Generation Z and younger millennials have different behavior patterns than age groups before them, causing fear among marketers trying to determine how to engage this demographic. But "The Truth About Youth," a worldwide study by McCann Truth Central, McCann Worldgroup's global intelligence unit, shows three fundamental truths about being young that transcend generations.

The study, which included 33,000 interviews among people of all ages across 18 countries, revealed that young people today – just like the generations before them – are focused on finding themselves, finding their people and finding their place in the world.

"There can be a lot of panic when it comes to connecting with the next generation, particularly with Gen Z, and the truth is the tech landscape is changing very rapidly, but what we wanted to do was say to marketers, 'You don't have to be completely terrified and overwhelmed when it comes to this generation because there are a lot of things that are as true today as when you were a teenager,'" said Laura Simpson, executive-VP and global director of McCann Truth Central.

Some of the tips for how marketers can reach Gen Z come from diving deeper into each truth. For example, Ms. Simpson said a lot of clues can be seen in the notion of how this generation finds its friends. The research showed that two out of five youths today believe their friends are more like their family than their actual family, which makes the selection process for friends more rigorous. Social media, especially online bullying, has made finding real friends even more critical, according to the study, and 25% of young people surveyed admitted to having written negative comments online about people they know.

Teens today are also used to connecting with friends all the time with raw, in-the-moment content using platforms like Snapchat, Twitch and Periscope, which means brands have to start understanding Gen Z's hunger for on-the-ground, immersive perspectives, said Ms. Simpson.

When it comes to finding their place in the world, Gen Z and younger millennials are 50% more likely to champion issues around social equality than older generations, which tend to lean toward individual freedoms, the study revealed. For example, the majority of 51- to 69-year-olds and 70-plus said curing or eradicating diseases and having political freedom are two of the most important issues to them, while most 16-20-year-olds zeroed in on racial equality, women's issues and LGBT rights.

India Wooldridge, senior-VP and director at Truth Central, said young people have "developed a smart filter system" that allows them to judge whether brands are being authentic or not. While they may be more critical, Gen Z still believes in the power of brands, with 87% of young people surveyed saying they believe global brands have the power to make the world a better place. Additionally, 84% said they think brands have more power to make change than the government.

"One of the things we'll always recommend and work closely with clients on is making sure they truly understand what their roles are in people's lives," said Suzanne Powers, global chief strategy officer at McCann Worldgroup. She added that once the role is identified, it's easier to figure out how to insert it into everything the brand does in a transparent way.

In terms of finding themselves, the research shows that 87% of global respondents believe it's important to experiment, even if it means you make mistakes, with numbers even higher in Russia (92%), China (91%) and Canada (90%).

The study also showed that the word "adult" used to be a noun, but is now used as a verb by Gen Z and young millennials, such as "adulting," which is about "putting your life into little moments or little snaps," said Ms. Powers.

This also plays into the "from milestones to moments" phenomenon discovered in the study, said Ms. Wooldridge. Older generations used to define being an adult by reaching specific milestones, such as buying a car or getting married, but today's young people said in the survey they feel the most like an adult in specific moments, like getting the morning newspaper or having couples' dinners. "It's a general feeling of adulthood" based on their own daily decisions and their own terms, she added. Brands including Zipcar, WeWork and BlueApron allow this generation to tap into their adult side where and when they choose.

From the study, McCann launched a website,, to help marketers understand common Gen Z phrases, such as "on fleek" and "bae," with definitions and videos. "It's about understanding this language," said Ms. Simpson. "You shouldn't try to insert yourself unless it's right for your brand and you have that tone of voice already." She added that the team will continue updating the site with new words and phrases as it continues its research.

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