Narcissistic, materialistic, uninformed… These clichés about Generation Z need to be debunked

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As always, the young generation is saddled with the new evils of society. In 2021, they are called: overconsumption, indiscipline or individualism. We questioned this poorly drawn sketch to understand what their behaviour actually betrays… positively.

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The young people of Generation Z are in fact far from the hackneyed images of a passive and simply opportunistic generation.

X, Y, Z… The next box is already ready: it will be the alpha generation (or perhaps the Coronnials to greet those who entered the world during the health crisis). The exercise may seem ridiculous, trying to force generations into boxes, even though they are only a few years apart. Yes, but still. If we are immediately aware of the inevitable risk of an abusive generalisation, segmenting is instructive in order to better understand the major transformations that occur in each generation. Thus, to those who grew up in the Thirty Glorious Years and discovered the first mass media, we can compare those born at the time of the digital revolution, smartphone in hand and 4G in the blood. Those who lived through the Cold War and the nuclear threat to those who are growing up in the face of the climate emergency and the terrorist threat. Each major event leaves its mark and induces new behaviour. “The attacks have left this generation with a lack of understanding,” said director Sébastien Lifshitz, whose documentary “Adolescentes”, which won many awards at the César Awards 2021, tells the story of the passage from childhood to adulthood of two young girls.

Born between 1995 and 2010, Gen Z represent 32% of the world population. The under-25s are already filling the open spaces of our companies, confusing some managers in the process. They are accused of all sorts of ills: zappers, materialistic, rebellious, and even uninformed, even though they are connected to the internet almost half the day. They are said to be disillusioned, badly affected by the crises, and in particular the one we are currently experiencing: 50% are worried about their mental health according to a parliamentary report, and one young person in two has changed his or her career plans because of the pandemic according to the Prism’emploi barometer. They feel misunderstood by their elders, whom they do not hesitate to put in their place with an “OK boomer”, an expression heard even in the New Zealand parliament. As if hardened by successive crises, they are far from the hackneyed image of a passive and simply opportunistic generation. Experts note that they roll up their sleeves and face the problems of our time with more determination than any other generation.

Digital addicts but hungry for authentic relationships

With over 150 smartphone unlocks per day, young people consume the most screen time. In 2019, French children were even spending four hours a day on their smartphones, according to the American firm App Annie. And studies show that the health crisis has amplified the trend. The image of a generation locked up in its digital bubble is simplistic, insists Elisabeth Soulié, anthropologist, coach and author of “La Génération Z aux rayons X”. “You have to understand that this generation functions in ‘and’ and not in ‘or’. It’s physical and digital, and it constantly moves back and forth between the two worlds. It unites them. She points to the example of the pandemic, which has exposed their thirst for IRL (in real life) relationships, “a need to experience each other’s bodies”. “A generation that is terribly unhappy about being confined to the screen,” she observes.

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Another cliché is that Gen Zers expose themselves unfiltered on the internet. In reality, this behaviour applies more to the Ys, who had to learn to manage their e-reputation on the job. “The Zs know how to allow themselves moments of digital detox and take a step back from the risks,” says Elodie Gentina, a teacher-researcher at Ieseg and co-author, with Marie-Eve Delecluse, of “Generation Z – From Z consumers to Z employees”. They have also learned to mix the types of social networks to try to protect themselves. Instagram and TikTok for the general public, and a closed Snapchat account for hand-picked members of the community. In this dichotomy, Facebook is no longer open to everyone they’ve met in the last ten years. They are also more aware of the risk of harassment, as they are no doubt regularly scalded by tragic events involving some of their generation, such as the death of 14-year-old Alisha in Argenteuil at the beginning of March, or the death threats received by Mila: “They are now looking for social networks that listen, dialogue, the collective, attention and benevolence. In short, ‘mothering’ and ‘care’,” summarises Elisabeth Soulié.

Cliché within the cliché, the relationships they form on digital would be purely superficial. Authenticity is also experienced from a distance and part of this generation is looking for spaces that are free of strass and filters. The latest proof of this is the appearance – still confidential – of the Dispo application, which sets itself up as the anti-Instagram and its smooth and perfect world. It publishes photos as they are, both ugly and bad. “A return to grace for a less polished aesthetic,” explains Jean-Laurent Cassely, a journalist and essayist who wrote “No Fake: counter-history of our quest for authenticity”.

Narcissistic but above all makers

Is the Z generation a self-centred one that shares retouched selfies all day long? Some would argue that social networks are a strategic platform for showing what they can do and creating opportunities for themselves. “Some have an entrepreneurial streak and reveal the behind-the-scenes of their creations, others want to share their know-how in singing, drawing, dancing…”, observes Thomas Van’t wout, co-founder and marketing director of Bolt Influence, an agency that puts brands and influencers in touch. And they are right, because talent scouts and recruiters are on the lookout on social networks for new, willing, daring, jack-of-all-trades recruits. Candidates for The Voice, for example, have been spotted on TikTok. Others, who showed how they embroidered tote bags or customised trainers, received orders from Internet users, which led them to set up their own business.

Brands are keen on their creativity and skills, says Elodie Gentina. “They call on them to develop products – the Brandy Melville brand for example – or communication campaigns – for Nestlé’s Crunch chocolate bar – by giving them the status of co-creator. He sums up: “Societal and technological changes are helping to give Z people a role as actors.” When you learn to code as a child or teenager, the field of possibilities expands greatly and the paths to success are accelerated. Hackathons and other start-up challenges for students have multiplied in recent years, like so many promises of seeing future tech nuggets emerge.

Materialists but responsible consumers

Teenagers queue up to buy an unveiled limited edition product, wear them and sell them for a high price. A common scene for a brand like Supreme. “In a world where everyone has a platform on social networks, many representatives of Generation Z want to stand out from the crowd and feel unique,” points out strategy consultancy OC & C, which conducted an extensive study of 15,500 participants in nine countries. Hence the interest for brands to offer customisable products and to occasionally collaborate with each other or with artists (Gucci x The North Face, Louis Vuitton x Supreme, Nike x Off-White…), inspired by the art of “featurings” of the new global pop stars.

Are Zs materialistic? The reality is more complex. “Nearly a fifth of Gen Zers surveyed prefer to spend money on experiences rather than products. […] This thirst for experience seems to be partly correlated with less materialism and concern for sustainability,” says the OC&C study.

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At the same time, their way of consuming can be contradictory. Informed and uncompromising consumers on the one hand, quick to boycott a brand at the slightest mistake, but fond of fast-fashion clothes on the other. Price is the crucial criterion in the choice of a product, even if they are more attentive to the uniqueness, style and origin of products than their elders. They find out more about brands, “choose those that are committed, that share their convictions”, says Elodie Gentina. And, above all, they are experimenting with “bartering, group buying – for example, the jacket that we buy from four or five friends and share with each other -, second-hand buying with economic and environmental motivations…” A BCG report published in 2019 highlights the predominance of this generation in this market: the Zs (48%) and millennials (54%) represent the majority of second-hand consumers.

Uninformed but agile with information

They are under-represented in the general media, or even invisible,” notes Sophie Jehel, a lecturer in information and communication sciences at the University of Paris 8. We talk about them when there are abominable news stories, such as the murderous settlements of accounts between teenagers, or we point the finger at them because they party during the Covid period. The Zs don’t find themselves in the mainstream media, and that plays into their lack of interest. Another explanation: “They can’t stand the anxiety-inducing information that is conveyed.

51% of 18-24 year olds say they follow the news with great interest, compared to 67% of the general population, according to the latest Kantar/Onepoint media confidence barometer for La Croix. They are less interested in current affairs than their elders, but this does not mean they are uninformed. “They do not seek to know everything about everything, all the time. They prefer to look for information when they need it. They have a very rapid capacity to search for information which fits in very well with this society of immediacy,” says Elodie Gentina.

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They have driven the success of media such as Brut or Konbini, which tackle subjects in line with their interests, in short, sometimes embodied video formats. Content designed specifically to be consumed on smartphones, their favourite medium for information. On Instagram, the journalist Hugo Travers (@hugodecrypte), followed by more than 950,000 people, publishes a daily summary of the news to be read in one minute. The Zs are less patient than their elders,” observes Mona Shehata, a doctor in information and communication sciences at the IAE in Poitiers. As a result, journalists have to adapt their way of communicating and find a modern way of informing them in an instantaneous and synthetic manner. General media and political figures are trying to find this audience where it is. Today, Le Monde offers content on TikTok and Snapchat, and Gabriel Attal, government spokesman, hosts his own show on Twitch.

Rebellious but disciplined

Society is not engaged enough. Neither are the big companies. The Zs are not happy and they are making it known. The recent successes of the Manifesto of Students for an Ecological Awakening or the Affair of the Century, which launched an unprecedented appeal in France against the French state’s climate inaction, are two examples. But their frustration goes beyond the ecological issue. It is the entire “world before” that they question morning, noon and night. “While Gen Xers act on a give-and-take basis with the company, Gen Zers are constantly questioning it,” explains Elodie Gentina. This generation questions in order to understand and not for the pleasure of questioning, adds Benjamin Chaminade, a human resources expert who works on Gen Y and Z and author of “Attracting and retaining the right skills”. They even readily accept authority in exchange for strong credibility. The proof is in the pudding: “One young person in two does not want to work in a liberated company, i.e. one without a hierarchy”, says Elodie Gentina, who is convinced that this generation is looking for a leader who is less a charismatic leader than a coach with regular feedback who will help his new recruits grow. “It’s the end of the annual meeting,” she insists. They are looking for an empathetic manager, who circulates information. They want their opinion to be taken into account. This partly explains the success of start-ups, which can give the impression of a flattened hierarchy. It is the famous opposition already repeated over and over again between horizontality and verticality.

Elisabeth Soulié describes this change as the transition from the law of the father to the law of the brother. “It is the net that has contributed to the end of the authority of the knowers for this generation: whoever can give his opinion, the average person is worth the expert’s.” She links this insubordination to the decline of traditional authorities such as churches, political parties, unions and, to a lesser extent, schools. But the question remains: should we worry about this propensity to rebel? “It can be dangerous if they give importance to people who don’t have the knowledge…”, she adds. Welcome to the post-truth era?

Zappers but (almost) loyal

“The company is tired,” Camille Etienne told an audience of employers during the plenary session of the latest Medef summer universities. No doubt some of them listened attentively to the salvos of the 22-year-old environmental activist, as they know how difficult it is for their companies to retain young recruits. Just hired and barely annoyed, they have already left for the competition. However, managers would be wrong to equate this impatience with inconsistency.

In reality, Gen Z no longer hold the company sacred and can leave it without a second thought. Although 80% consider work to be important according to a study by Vice France, only 18% consider it to be a priority.

How can they be motivated in this context? For Elisabeth Soulié, giving them meaning is no longer enough. “They no longer just want to be useful to society, but for the company to help them grow. They want to experiment. Acquiring new skills, being entrusted with responsibilities, all in a pleasant working environment, this is the winning triptych of their motivation, confirms a new study by the NewGen Center, which interviewed a thousand young people in studies and in their first job. In order to do this, it is the managers and their team that they will bet on. They will be loyal to them, not to the company. For them, the value of collaboration is paramount. If it is missing, goodbye! It will be a succession of commitments. This leads the anthropologist to speak of “successive loyalty”. The sociologist Daniel Ollivier, co-author with Catherine Tanguy of “Generations Y and Z, the great intergenerational challenge”, goes even further: “Loyalty is a value specific to the baby boomer and X generations. The Zs have no career plan and go where the nectar is. Faced with this observation, companies must rethink their processes and above all learn how to keep the link with these Zs who are leaving the ship. In this respect, the multiplication of “boomerang” programmes is a step in the right direction, by saying “Dear resigning employee, see you soon”.

Disillusioned but still committed

This generation feels a little frustrated because, in their view, previous generations are in obsolete patterns of thinking,” observes Elisabeth Soulié. These young people very often find that the courses they receive do not allow them to meet the challenges of today and tomorrow. Last December, students and alumni of HEC Paris, for example, wrote an open letter in which they asked that the future director general be determined to act to “rethink in depth the programmes and training” of the institution. Programmes which, according to them, ‘do not sufficiently integrate ecological and social issues’.

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The issues to which Zs attach the most importance are related to ethics, animal welfare, diversity and human rights, according to the OC & C study. Enzo Vavasseur, 19, does not say the opposite. This student at the Conservatoire d’art dramatique in Le Mans began defending the animal cause at the age of 15 by getting involved in a local anti-speciesist association. At the same time, he was interested in climate issues. Two years later, when he was in his final year of high school, the teenager came across a map of the Fridays for Future movement (Youth for Climate in France) on social networks. A global youth strike for the climate initiated by Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg in August 2018 and which has spread around the world. “Many demonstrations were organised in France but not in Le Mans, where I live,” says the young man. I thought it was a shame, there was something to do.” So he created an event on Facebook, which he shared on social networks and which he told his friends at school. He also contacted the local branch of the environmental movement Alternatiba, so that it could relay it to its community. And it worked. A month later, in March 2019, a thousand young people beat the pavement in the prefecture of the Sarthe.

This is a generation that is committed both online and offline,” adds Elisabeth Soulié. They know that they can find an enormous echo on social networks. A like, a share, is already a form of commitment for them. In 2020, the civic engagement of 18-30 year olds (Z and Y) is above all expressed by supporting and signing a petition, according to the 2020 barometer of the Directorate of Youth, Popular Education and Associative Life. 47% of them have signed a petition or defended a cause on the internet, a blog or a social network. This is 11 points more than in 2016. This form of commitment is followed by volunteer work: still in 2020, four out of ten young people (40%) volunteered their time in a group or association (+4 points compared to 2018). Finally, let us recall the numerous demonstrations of solidarity during the first confinement of students towards the most vulnerable people, and today between students themselves to help dropouts or those most in difficulty.

By Chloé Marriault, Florent Vairet

Published on 29 March 2021 at 7:00amUpdated on 29 March 2021 at 1:46pm

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