Gen Z Contradictions That Will Shape Our Future | Industry Insights | All MKC Content | ANA

Gen Z Contradictions That Will Shape Our Future


It is human nature to live in contradiction. It's part of what has always drawn us to the strategy and insights field. It's my secret joy to zoom in on these paradoxes – to really hear and understand where the tension lies and what it might mean for someone's behaviors and perceptions of the world around them.

Gen Z is especially interesting in this regard. Yes, we've all possibly grown weary on hearing the latest on each upcoming generation. But, so often we hear the over-exaggerated hot take on something like millennials and avocado toast, making it hard to connect with the deeper truth of that cohort's experience.

While gen Z is still a slightly fresher obsession, they too will come to feel the heat and pressures ascribed by other, haughtier generations who have come before them. Rather than doing that here, I'd like to pause a moment to appreciate where they're sitting.

There have been thousands of articles, reports and POVs published on the buzzworthy gen Z, and yet, you often walk away seeing gen Z through a limited lens — not for who they are as people. People who make mistakes and speak out of both sides of their mouth. People who know who they are, all while still figuring it out. We felt like there was something to this paradox – the tensions that make them real, that hadn't yet been satisfactorily unearthed. So, we set to work with Gen Z Paradox: Conscience vs. Commerce and have continued to build upon this with additional research – drawing on social listening, secondary research, in-depth interviews, quant, and more.

What we found was that this generation – multi-cultural, digital-first, accepting of fluid identities – they were living such profound paradoxes. Digging in could illuminate what really makes them tick. Of the possible areas of tension, we found some interesting heat around identity, privacy, and finance.

Identity – Gen Z believes labels are both liberating and limiting

This generation has the language and awareness to really claim their sense of identity in a meaningful and multi-dimensional way, unlike previous generations. They take pride in all the parts that make them who they are – values, hobbies, dis/abilities. Their identity is more dynamic than what they check in a box, with 72 percent of them saying that their personality is the most important part of their identity.

While they can finely tune each of these labels, they're also quite comfortable in the undefined, seeing things on a spectrum. They are still learning about themselves and are open to the fluidity and evolution that may unfold over time. While labels can be empowering, 67 percent of gen Z find that labels can be too limiting and 69 percent say labels can be used to divide individuals or groups, according to Vice.

What does this mean for brands?

Gen Z doesn't feel like brands understand their identity, with only 12 percent of their favorite brands getting it. Brands need to make a concerted effort to connect, increase representation, and move beyond performative identity marketing. Gen Z sees through it.

Privacy – Gen Z is the most openly private generation

Growing up in a tech-first world, makes it feel as though data privacy is an impossibility. Everyone knows what you're doing and everything is recorded – the lack of autonomy and anonymity is pervasive, creating a great distrust of big tech. The catch is that they've never really known data privacy and don't fully understand what that could look like. Most of them are learning about it on social media (57 percent), which might be a paradox within a paradox, and from friends and family (46 percent). While they worry about the data collected on them, entertainment and social connection takes precedence.

What does this mean for brands?

Gen Z is hip to the value exchange around privacy but wish they could trust brands to protect their data. Brands need to offer more transparency and control around how data is stored and protected to gain the trust of this generation.

Finance – Gen Z is financially (in)secure

This is a generation that experienced the Great Recession through their parents, shaping their perceptions around money at a young age. They're risk-averse and frugal with their finances, with nearly 90 percent of them saying they always research in advance to get the best price on new purchases. The pandemic has only heightened their attention to finances. When it comes to saving for the future, they want a safety net and 64 percent of them have already started to save. They're choosing jobs that will help them reach these financial goals and they're dipping their toes into investing. Many are still young enough that their finances are a source of instability, causing considerable stress. Financial freedom is a goal, but they don't feel like enough people have a real shot at it.

What does this mean for brands?

Gen Z believes that financial freedom and a more equitable future is really rooted in shared knowledge – they're learning from and sharing with friends, colleagues, and on social. They have high expectations for employer brands to provide greater transparency on salary, debt forgiveness, and finance education.

The most compelling brands bridge the conflict between our paradoxes. They can leverage a human truth that brings that tensity to the surface in a way that feels purposeful – it speaks to us. Not surprisingly, brands that do this well, build momentum faster than their contemporaries because they are at once relevant and differentiated. This is no easy feat – it takes some daring to do it right, but the rewards are obvious.

Our topline report, Gen Z Paradoxes, features all eight areas of tension: Identity, Activism, Climate, Experience, Lifestyle, Privacy, Tech, and Finance.

The views and opinions expressed are solely those of the contributor and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the ANA or imply endorsement from the ANA.

Carrie Patterson Reed is the executive director and leads the award-winning Research Studio at VMLY&R — the group's mission is to power curiosity across the organization to spark new thinking for our clients.

Elsa Gonzalez is a group director at VMLY&R. Elsa is obsessed with bringing data to life with a keen eye toward highlighting inclusive perspectives. By finding the unexpected connections, she unearths the signals that really impact culture.

Maddie Umali is a director at VMLY&R. Maddie is a qualitative researcher with an expertise in generational insights and multicultural perspectives. She's drawn to the beautiful and complex human condition, enthralled with the stories that are hidden within.

Sarah Hernandez is a senior strategist at VMLY&R. Sarah is a qualitative researcher bent on finding out the "why" behind things. With a background in journalism, she's always keen to find the story that animates an audience to inspire great work.

Kelcey Curtis is a group director at VMLY&R. Kelcey is a quant problem-solver, always eager to solve a good consumer mystery. Her analytics prowess allows us to see people, and their interesting complexities, in a new light.