The ABCs of Gen Z
By Jessica Wohl and Brian Braiker. Illustration by Walter Newton. Published on January 22, 2018.

The oldest members of Gen Z, the cohort just behind millennials, will turn 21 this year. They are the largest and most ethnically diverse generation in the U.S. And they have grown up with access to seemingly whatever they want, whether it be information, music, entertainment or, let's be honest, ways to block advertising.

Marketers do not need to completely rewrite their playbooks. But it's time for some updating: As Nielsen reported last year, 97 percent of Gen Zers had smartphones and 78 percent had tablets, ahead of the 95 percent of millennials and Gen Xers with smartphones—and the 70 percent of both groups with tablets.

As millennials were entering their buying years, marketers realized that just pushing messaging or marketing at them wouldn't work. They began to experiment and participate in more two-way dialogue. That might have been a somewhat novel concept, but now it's a given.

"That's table stakes," says Angela Fernandez, lead of the Engaging Gen Z group at Ketchum. "If you're not creating that conversation, that two-way dialogue, if your brand is not accessible and authentic and transparent, those are the things that Gen Z is used to and they're going to expect from brands."

Gen Zers are also expanding on the idea, often attributed to millennials, of wanting to buy brands that stand for something. "They definitely want to make the world a better place," says Fernandez. "They now have the technology to do so."

Visual storytelling matters too. Older millennials might spend time cropping photos, picking the right filters and choosing the right images to show their best selves, McCann wrote in its recent "The Truth About Youth" report. "But for Gen Z, this is not cool at all," the agency concluded.

And while there are plenty of risks in having influencers promote brands (hey there, Logan Paul), influencers have a more direct approach that resonates with the people who follow them on Instagram, YouTube and elsewhere.

Whatever approaches marketers try, they need to recognize that they must be self-aware. Fernandez once heard a Gen Zer say: "If you're 40 years old and you think this idea is a really good Gen Z idea, you're probably wrong."


Based on the adjective "adult," describes actions that appear mature or grown-up. Note: Most IRL adults don't say "adulting."


I think you've had enough Vanilla Bean Crème Frappuccino, Becky. Now hand over your Uggs.

Can't even

True fact: Gen Zers will only do things in odd-numbered groups because they can't even.


Yours are the ones into which we want to slide.


Trying too hard in a bad way. For example, calling Becky last night after you texted during her shift at Hot Topic was so extra.


While, yes, you technically are my family, Mom, please stop saying this.


The new "on fleek"—when something is very good. See also: this glossary.


Incredible, hot, crazy, nice, lit. See also: Becky's Uggs.

Glow up

Too #blessed to be stressed.


Something that is good; can also be used to agree with someone. "Wow, your Uggs are so Gucci." (Hmm. Can be confusing when referring to other brands.)


"Hit me up," an invitation to contact someone. Sadly, not "hold my unicorn."


Used to describe an event that is insanely memorable. A "Kodak moment," if you will, and OMG we're old.


Shorthand for "like my recent." Encourages followers to like a recent Instagram photo. Surprisingly not a thirsty move. See also: Thirsty.


A big party. "The move got lit just as we arrived. Becky looked Gucci AF."


When someone is angry, upset or irritated. "Becky got mad salty when she lost her Uggs at the move."


"That feeling when ..." For example: TFW you're reading about Gen Z and you just get so tired you can't even.


Coming off as extremely desperate in order to get someone's attention. See also: this glossary.


A backhanded compliment: "Your Instagram Stories make you seem so fun, LOL."


Socially or culturally aware. Increasingly used sarcastically. Pretty much how you're feeling right now.


Please stop saying this, however old you are.

Web production by Chen Wu/Ad Age.