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In Search of Generation Z

An unscrupulous, money-hungry marketing industry helped define the millennials, often with wildly inept results. And now it's getting to work on the next cohort.

Once, not so long ago, I spent an afternoon emailing a few dozen evolutionary biologists. This was for my job, or one of my jobs—you know how millennials are (they’re broke, just like everyone else). My editor had assigned me to ask these people, who almost certainly had better things to do with their time, what the “newest animal” was. Most respondents hedged. They spoke of speciation as a “gradual process,” and mused on the difficulty of distinguishing between, say, an adaptively tricked-out Anolis lizard and an entirely new kind of reptile.

One, though—an evolutionary biologist, famous for his work with tropical fruit flies—wrote back to inform me that this was a “meaningless question” and that “even posing the question bespeaks an ignorance of how evolution works.” I assured him that I was, in fact, totally ignorant about how evolution works, and tried to rephrase my question. “That’s actually more or less the same question,” he replied, barely a minute later. “Pretty meaningless, and not of any interest to anyone.”

This might come as a surprise to the small army of marketing gurus whose livelihood very much depends on identifying what we could call the “newest animal”—in their case, a distinct generation of American humans, possessed of a vast array of seemingly occult characteristics, which, once discovered and isolated, can then be analyzed, catalogued, and sold to the highest bidder. The marketing gurus have only recently completed their lovingly assembled profile of the millennial generation, and their work is a true wonder to behold: a trail of mangled slang, twitching meme-gifs, and fast food brands masquerading as witty, clinically depressed twenty-somethings. But now a new generation—61 million strong—is marching to maturity, wreathed in Juul vapor and wielding billions of dollars in purchasing power.

The brands, naturally, want to know about them. What are these creatures like? What are their hopes, their dreams? Do they value fresh ingredients? What is their attitude, in aggregate, toward shopping at the mall? And what might that imply for Nabisco’s bottom line?

The ethnographic entrepreneurs who cut their teeth on the millennials are rapidly expanding into the Generation Z racket. None of them could reasonably aspire to the glory of a William Strauss or Neil Howe—the pop-historians who coined the term “millennial”—but that is not for want of trying. They are throwing out catch phrases and neologisms, seeing what will stick. Out of case studies, stats, and raw intuition, they are conjuring a character—the representative Z—who will haunt public discourse well into the next decade. And they are, inevitably, going to get it very wrong.

Though “Generation Z,” as a moniker, has gained a toehold in the public consciousness, this fledgling cohort, whose birth-range most experts place between 1995 and 2005, is so green that its very name is still up for grabs. Jean Twenge, a tirelessly meme-generating psychologist and brand consultant, went with “iGen” in her book of the same name. Futurecast, a subsidiary of a major ad agency and the force behind a couple of millennial marketing guides, has settled on “Pivotals” (because “they are pivoting away from common millennial behaviors and attitudes”). David Stillman, one of the field’s biggest names, and Jonah Stillman, his college-aged son, offer “weconomists” in their book Gen Z at Work, in reference to the younger generation’s supposed affinity for the sharing economy. Also in the running: Digital Natives, the Homeland Generation, the Meme Generation, the Throwback Generation, post-millennials, Plurals, Founders, and “Philanthroteens.”

But if Gen Z’s name is in flux, a narrative has already started to emerge about what makes this generation tick. Experts tend to subvert the expected narrative of Zs as “millennials on steroids”: screen-poisoned shut-ins reared on benzos and niche porn, readying the kill shot on Olive Garden, monogamy, and the traditional nine-to-five. By their lights, a generation that grew up on reboots and revivals has itself, somehow, become one: a kind of woke Silent Generation.

What these children of the Great Recession want, according to their chroniclers, is stability. They are “earnest, hardworking, and driven by conservative views of success,” write Jeff Fromm and Angie Read in their recently published Marketing to Gen Z. In this sense, they resemble a “much older generation.” These kids were taught—or, rather, a loose amalgamation of polls, surveys, and guest editorials suggest they were taught—that they can’t be anything they want. They must be prepared to work for their lot, and work hard. The Stillmans suggest they have a “very pragmatic mindset when it comes to planning and preparing for the future.” Corey Seemiller and Meghan Grace, in their Generation Z: A Century in the Making, extend the older-generation comparison to the snapping point, saying the Zs are like the Greatest Generation because they both know “that global unrest and enemies exist.”

Much is made of the fact that, unlike millennials, these Zs have never known a world without the internet. Lifelong immersion in a “phigital” environment (the Stillmans’ portmanteau), in which “the real world and the virtual world naturally overlap,” has wrecked their attention spans—down to an average of eight seconds from the millennials’ comparatively ample twelve, according to Fromm and Read. The Stillmans address this generational twitchiness from a workplace perspective, suggesting that employers dice their training into dozens of short, easy-to-digest tutorials, each instantly followed by hands-on practice. To the marketing crowd, Fromm and Read suggest exploiting this deficiency with “direct, quick, and simple” ads—“snackable” content memorable enough to make an impact before the eight-second window closes.

A slideshow currently making the rounds at conferences and corporate headquarters breaks Generation Z down further. Called “Reign Makers,” it is the product of Bustle Digital Group, which, in addition to its slate of lifestyle sites, hosts a robust thought leadership division—“a consultancy within a consultancy,” as Jessica Tarlov, head of research at BDG, describes it. Tarlov’s division had noticed that, more and more, their presentations on millennials were being interrupted by questions about Gen Z. “Reign Makers” represents the stolid if nonsensical effort of BDG marketers to draw a bright line between the two.

The presentation sections Zs into four types—The Gypsy Kings and Queens (“eclectic and entrepreneurial risk-takers”), The Free Radicals (“independent, alternative thinkers”), The Challengers (“strong, steadfast, educated doers”), and The American Dreamers (“optimistic team players”)—and explains the best ways to market to each one.

“Reign Makers” premiered in 2019 at CES, the massive tech trade show, and it was a hit. It piqued Amazon’s interest—BDG is currently finalizing a “research-heavy campaign” for the company, set to feature “media, research, custom photography, and Instagram stories”—and has led to a rash of in-house engagements (BDG will be flying down to Texas later this year to present it to Toyota). It has also excited Bustle’s brand partners, which work with Tarlov’s group to run ad campaigns across Bustle’s media properties. The ads will border content that is itself almost pathologically attuned to generational concerns; recent examples include “More Millennials Are Getting Prenups Than Previous Generations,” “Millennial Entrepreneurs Are The Most Optimistic About Their Business’s Future After Brexit, A New Study Says,” and “This Video Of Cardi B Defining ’90s Slang Will Make All Millennials Proud.

For help assembling “Reign Makers,” Tarlov’s consultancy-within-a-consultancy enlisted yet another consultancy, Culture Co-Op, a boutique youth research firm skilled in fieldwork and focus groups. “Brands got surprised by Zs,” Melissa Lavigne-Delville, its founder, told me. For many of today’s marketers, she explained, “millennial” is just another word for “young person.” She said, “They’ve almost forgotten it’s a generation, not a life-stage.”

I was talking to Lavigne-Delville at the Bowery Hotel in New York, shortly before six Zs were set to arrive for an informal focus group. It was a Wednesday night in January, midway through a ruthlessly cold week, but Lavigne-Delville looked strikingly unmiserable, her perma-smile never wavering. A self-described proud Xer who could pass for old millennial, Lavigne-Delville got her start over a decade ago, deciphering her own generation for Creative Artists Agency. She prospered through the millennial boom (the late aughts: a terrible time to be a millennial, an excellent time to be a millennial-expert) and is now among those leading the way on Gen Z.

Tonight’s batch of Zs—all women or non-binary people—had been curated by Abby Spector, Lavigne-Delville’s laid-back millennial-aged research manager. They were there to provide insights for the next issue of Humanly, Culture Co-Op’s calling card, a more or less yearly distillation of the company’s research. The last installment highlighted trends like “rogue vogue” (the embrace, among Zs, of the trashy or obscene, as a punkish rebuke to Instagram’s lifestyle cult) and “nouveau beat” (a resurgence of Kerouac-style counterculturalism, but expressed via podcasts and DIY urban farming initiatives).

“You guys are literally the guinea pig group,” said Lavigne-Delville, once the Zs had settled in around a low glass table cluttered with candles, free pizza, and three strategically positioned iPhones (Melissa’s, Abby’s, and my own, all set to recording mode). The Zs checked texts, sipped meager flutes of rosé, discreetly wiped pizza grease on their coats and pants. Most of them had come here from the fringes of the culture class: prestige-scented drudgework at design studios, museums, experimental theater clubs.

Lavigne-Delville wanted to know what had caught the group’s attention lately. “It could be a person, it could be an advertising campaign, it could be a movement,” she said. Her only request was that, at least at first, they “veer clear of politics” (as Lavigne-Delville told me, once things land on a political subject “good luck getting off of it”). In response, a 21-year-old in track pants and an oversized thrifted sweater asked if anyone in the group had seen the Netflix show You, which led to a lengthy back-and-forth about internet privacy, creepy men, and the politics of hotness.

A white woman named Maddie then praised ZocDoc, specifically its utility in screening out white male physicians. The next person went with safe spaces. The person after that went with the new Ariana Grande album, occasioning a discussion of cultural appropriation. By the time the Zs were gathering their coats and providing Abby with their PayPal info (each was being paid $75 for their time) Lavigne-Delville had gotten them to open up on MAGA Kanye (“it’s not even a disappointment”), money (“we have no money”), and their future careers (one was mulling some combination of photography, marketing, fashion directing, performance art, and philanthropy).

The conversation culminated in a complex, impassioned discussion of gender as it relates to The Wing, the Women’s March, and #MeToo. “Why would we go forward in any sort of revolution without being able to revolutionize ourselves?” asked the track-panted Z, with real feeling. You could almost picture the question, tweaked and decontextualized, in an eight-second Instagram ad. Yoga pants, maybe, or online banking.

Before the millennials were the millennials—back when newspaper columnists were still seriously toying with Y2Kids and—Howe and Strauss published Millennials Rising, pitched as the “first in-depth examination” of the generation born after 1982. Like their late-’10s counterparts, the pair, writing in 2000, were quick to dispel what was then the dominant narrative. Far from being a bunch of “disaffected Ultra Gen X hyperslackers,” they claimed, the cohort whose oldest members were just then entering college were shaping up like ... a much older generation. Specifically, the G.I. generation, whose values supposedly furnished the “only available script for correcting or complementing the Boomer persona.”

“You don’t rebel against Boomers by being uber-Xers,” they wrote. “You rebel by being G.I. redux, a youthful update of the generation against which the Boomers themselves rebelled, so famously, in the 1960s and ’70s.”

Thus commenced twenty straight years of confidently delivered, unrelentingly wrongheaded generational analyses. Gather them all up—the op-eds, the tweet threads, the TED talks, the cable news segments—and you’d have, in addition to a large pile of worthless punditry, the story of a stereotype reluctantly shaping itself to reality. The helicoptering casualties sketched in Stillman’s 2010 The M-Factor—which prepares managers for a future in which irate phone-calls from the parents of millennial employees become routine—have given way, in recent years, to subtler, fact-backed portraits. Some of these, at least, present millennials as they actually are: culturally distinct from their forebears, for sure, but distinguished chiefly by the magnitude of their debt and the paucity of their prospects.  

Yet it seems we have learned little from our hyperventilating approach to the millennials. As they fade in the rearview mirror and Generation Z comes into focus, we can expect the usual hand-wringing (Is Generation Z too grimly pragmatic? Is their timidity, their cautiousness, in some sense a betrayal of American values?) and contrarianism (ACTUALLY, Zs are idlers and layabouts in the Romantic vein, deeply impractical and almost militantly committed to whimsy).

What might be the wildest take regarding Gen Z comes from Chuck Underwood, host of PBS’s Chuck Underwood’s American Generations and a pioneer in the field of generational studies. He’s been doing this work since before Nirvana signed to Sub Pop, and his thesis about Generation Z is simple: It does not exist.

Underwood, vocally agitated by the “buzzword damage” wrought to his field by some of its less principled practitioners, crankily walked me through his argument over the phone. When trying to determine whether a genuinely new cohort has emerged, the first question a responsible youth scholar asks is: What were their parents like? “The bottom line,” he said, “is there’s been no really significant change in family life from what the millennials came of age with.” Parents might have eased up on the helicoptering, but they still divorce at high rates. While rates of single parenting did jump somewhat between 1990 and 2005, the major rift in the nuclear family occurred much earlier.

The second major criterion: religion. “No major changes there,” Underwood noted. “Religion is declining, that started decades ago.” Criteria number three: government. “Millennials came of age when government was dysfunctional, sleazy, angry, and politically divided. Now, how different does that sound from what today’s teenagers have experienced?”

“Before we declare a new generation has arrived, the differences have to be profound,” Underwood said. “One generation ends, and the next begins, only when the times and the teachings that young kids absorb mold core values that are significantly different from the generation just ahead of them. And we haven’t seen it yet.”

Every generation gets its emblematic middle-class stereotype: the buzzcut ex-G.I. with a flask in his suit-pants; the longhair whooping it up for civil rights and the Dead; a yuppie with one of those huge beige cell phones; Ethan Hawke in Reality Bites; a kid in a unisex American Apparel zip-up, texting. The wax-figure Z is still being molded, but once it’s ready, we will mock it and sell it credit cards and blame it for the decline of retail footwear or casual sex. Meanwhile, 61 million young people will live 61 million different lives—about which, for now and maybe forever, it would be futile to generalize.