Coming of Age During Crisis: How Gen Z Will Reshape the World as We Know It


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This blog post was written in concert with my colleagues Lauren Burger, Senior Manager, Strategy & Implementation, and Amy Perifanos, Vice President, Strategy & Implementation, Gongos, Inc.

By this point, most of us have heard about the generation that follows Millennials—Gen Z. But in case you have any doubt as to their significance, consider that they make up a fifth of the U.S. population. Although only a fraction of Gen Zers are even out of high school, it’s estimated they already have as much as $143 billion in spending power.

And, similar to what 9/11 was for Millennials and JFK’s assassination was for Boomers, Gen Z is in the midst of a defining moment of their generation. Many of the values they have always held sacred are being exacerbated by this crisis and will, in turn, impact the companies they interact with into the aftermath.

As many organizations struggle to navigate the uncertainty of the here and now, let alone the long term, understanding what matters most to this generation can help paint a clearer picture of tomorrow and fuel strategic future planning. Afterall, they will help shape the future.

“The eyes of all future generations are upon you. And if you choose to fail us, I say – we will never forgive you.” – Greta Thunberg, UN Climate Summit, 2019

Cracking the Gen Z code

Our “emerging adult” years—those after high school, through our 20s—have been shown to play a pivotal role in shaping our worldview.  When events of great significance occur, they set the foundation for our future perspectives. Gen Z was already growing up during challenging circumstances. Many have seen their parents struggle since the 2008 recession, they don’t know a time when the “war on terror” wasn’t being waged, and concerns over global climate change have not only risen during their lives but are being led by some of their own cohort. Google is spot on in saying, “the world Gen Z has inherited is one of unprecedented chaos.”

Despite, or maybe because of, this tumultuous beginning, Gen Zers have developed into a group that holds themselves to high standards—they have no delusions about the hard work that life requires but recognize that putting in the effort can literally change the world. They’re motivated and driven to succeed above all else. Even before COVID-19, their two most important life goals were to earn money and have a successful career. In turn, they hold the companies they will spend their hard-earned dollars with to equally high standards. If a brand can’t deliver on their expectations, Gen Zers have no trouble moving on to the next company that will work to meet their needs.

Given these expectations, and the healthy dose of skepticism Gen Z harbors from their early struggles, brands will need to build trust differently with this group, especially in the wake of COVID-19. While there are strategies to get Gen Zers “in the door,” it will take a deeper display of customer centricity to develop trust and long-lasting loyalty. So, what does Gen Z value, how are their expectations being amplified amid COVID-19, and what does it mean for the future of business? Below, we highlight three key Gen Z trends that hold even truer today than pre-pandemic and their long-term implications for organizations.

Digital natives require more facetime than you realize

This generation never knew life before Amazon and Netflix. They were born into a world saturated with technology, grew up using the internet and smart devices, and many got their first smartphone before they even turned 12. This means that digital connectedness and an omnichannel strategy is critical to reach this generation (and the rest of the world living in quarantine).

In a time when companies are increasingly moving toward digital and contactless technology, especially in response to social distancing guidelines, this raises the question of how to prevent the loss of face-to-face interactions. Gen Z may have taken these relationships for granted in the past, but nothing breeds desire like scarcity.

Whether it’s telehealth, grocery shopping, or fitness brands, the companies getting it right are applying a people-first philosophy to their digital transformation:

– Leveraging automation to make room for purposeful interactions (knowing what touchpoints need a human)

– Treating digital communications/tools as the support system, not the primary (it’s about making tech work for you, not in place of you)

– Reimagining the way people and technology interact (intelligent interfaces can build deeper customer understanding by gathering data, processing and analyzing information)

One for all, all for one

Gen Z has an unwavering commitment to equality for all. Being one of the most diverse generations in terms of race, ethnicity, and gender identification, they value authenticity in themselves and others, and feel we should all be treated equally for being true to who we are. For example, when it comes to some of their top political issues, 69% say civil rights are extremely important, 61% focus on gender equality, and 57% focus on income equality. And it’s not just treating fellow human beings well that tops their list; the world around them matters too, with 62% identifying climate change as very important.

Amid the response to the pandemic, the inequalities between the “haves” and “have-nots” have become glaringly clear to Gen Zers. As of late April, 52% of lower income Americans had someone in their household lose a job or take a pay cut, compared to only 32% of those in the upper income. At the same time, we’ve seen that “essential workers” are more likely to be women, especially non-white women, serving in roles such as nurses, home health aides, and grocery store cashiers. Yet these women—who are rarely well compensated—are putting their lives are risk each day without any hope of hazard pay in their near future.

To truly connect with Gen Z, brands will need to start demonstrating their commitment to equality for all, including transparent business practices, environmental responsibility in both manufacturing processes and material selection, and fair labor practices that ensure the income gap doesn’t widen more than it already has in recent years.

Rise to the occasion

Fifty-eight percent of Gen Zers say a purpose, values, and mission are the most important traits for a brand to have, and 69% are more likely to buy from a company that contributes to social causes. However, all too often Gen Zers have seen institutions abuse their power. From a global aerospace company putting profit over the safety of passengers, to one of the biggest social media companies monetizing their data while leaving consumers open to security breaches, the scandals they’ve seen run the gamut.

Amid COVID-19, when the hope was to see the world unite for the greater good, the abuse has continued—including public companies bending the rules to get Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans intended to help keep small businesses afloat, and large corporations getting bailouts after spending recklessly to make shareholders wealthier.

Gen Zers want to support brands they believe in. Developing a brand purpose can provide the groundwork to rebuild trust, and trust, in turn will, be the foundation to developing greater customer loyalty.

Ivan Bojanic
With a background and combined twenty years’ experience in history, law, international postwar development, writing, and consumer research, Ivan has a natural desire to explore the connections between seemingly unrelated ideas, patterns and trends. He specializes in insight curation and secondary research, synthesizing complex and disparate resources on market phenomena into digestible, compelling, and actionable narratives.


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