How a Focus Group of Gen Zers Exposed the Perils of Surface-level Assumptions About Their Generation
Gen Z is so surprisingly wise for its years that older generations—and marketers—may be missing it.
As I observed the 13 Gen Zers we recruited for a recent focus group get settled into the nest of couches carefully arranged for the event at our agency, I was struck with how comfortable and smooth they were in their interactions with each other. I realized that the folks volunteering for the focus group would be more naturally outgoing, but wasn’t Z supposed to be the shyest generation?
This group slid together as easily as old friends—as if they knew what to expect from each other, which it turns out, they did.
The same online world that dominated Z’s time, building social anxiety as it replaced in-person interactions and elevated peer comparisons, also reached them with consistent messages. These messages reflected and reinforced common peer experiences, and instilled an entire generation with a culture of consistent beliefs, manners and mannerisms.
No shaking hands (thank you, COVID), but polite eye contact, and deliberate, slight head nods signaled awareness as participants warmly welcomed newcomers to the group. All of our Zers were dressed in more casual, comfortable clothing, but with clean, polished grooming, signaling they were members of the common Gen Z tribe.
As the discussion started, more consistency was evident. Years of Zoom calls must have imprinted the dangers of speaking over one another, because I have never observed a more polite group obsessed with giving others the floor first and avoiding interruptions at all costs. Signaling acceptance of each other’s ideas was also consistently clear. Even when participants disagreed (slightly), they built upon each other’s perspectives with a “yes, and” approach instead of opening the door to direct conflict. There was universal alignment in being as courteous as possible, with the sparing of feelings clearly being a high priority.
Quite frankly, this group of Zers seemed like a parent or teacher’s dream—an entire cadre of well-mannered, caring humans comfortable in their group. How is this the same anxiety-ridden, socially awkward, ambivalent generation that is worrying futurists? Gen Z has the overconfidence of youth, for sure. Many of our participants shared a familiar dismissive disdain for older generations and traditional wisdom. But, as I really listened to what they shared, I realized there was much more nuance to the Gen Z story—and optimism for the future—than most sources imply.
We began the focus groups with a free association exercise, asking participants to share common labels given to their generation. We did this recognizing that, for marketers, understanding the nuance within these labels could mean the difference between making a strong connection with the Gen Z audience or potentially committing an ignorant offense. Our Gen Z participants readily embraced some of the common Gen Z descriptors, such as open-minded and progressive. But, for others, they explained why they felt these claims were off the mark, and suggested alternatives that they said more authentically framed their generation.
Let me share a few quick examples of Gen Z Reframed:
Not lazy, protective of boundaries
The label our Zers most fiercely rejected was “lazy.” They say that the “wall they build around themselves” is more about being a generation that is aware of its needs and willing to set boundaries than about a lack of grit or drive. They chided the double standard of their parents’ generation, which was visibly stressed and overworked, but didn’t say “no.” They expressed their lack of trust in corporations, which may expect employees to “invest in them,” but when push comes to shove, are not loyal to their workers.
“I value my life outside of work so much,” said Lydia, 22. “I work in healthcare, so I do 12s, and I get four days off a week which is nice for me because my value in life is outside the job. When my boss asks me to take an extra shift, I say no. I think before you felt you were expected to say yes, especially since there aren’t enough nurses, but my time off work is mine, so I’m just saying no.”
Remember the pearl of wisdom, “No one on their deathbed ever said, ‘I wish I had spent more time at work?’” Gen Z has taken that one to heart.
- What does this mean for marketers? Aligning your brand with respect for balance is going to be critical for connecting with Gen Z. Imagery of families and friends enjoying life will be more relatable than prior decades’ depictions of frazzled workers/parents struggling to do it all. Additionally, communicating the benefits of products and services as contributing to balance will be effective. For example, marketing a product or service for its ability to increase efficiency at work so you can get home faster, or marketing products as helping you make the most of your free time could fit this bill.
- Watch-outs: Keep in mind that Gen Z absolutely hates wasted time. They work hard to free up time to live at a more reasonable pace, so anything that gets in the way of that, such as slow customer service or clunky digital interfaces, is instantly frustrating if not relationship-destroying.
Not disillusioned, realistic
Much research on Gen Z has documented significant mental health challenges, and has shown that young people are de-prioritizing traditional rites of passage, ranging from learning to drive, to going to college to getting married, in exchange for more practical ones, such as living a financially comfortable life, pursuing a career, and taking care of mental health. Focus group participants poked holes in the data, explaining that authors weren’t seeing the full picture.
For example, several participants claimed that the mental health of their generation was the same as others, but Gen Z simply placed a higher priority on the issue.
“I think the fact that we are more open about our mental health issues than other generations opens up the fact that we are more open to seek treatment as well. So that’s probably why the number of us taking medications and going to therapy is higher than other generations,” said Ella, 24.
Others explained why their generation may be the key to ending a cycle of mental health issues historically found in every generation.
“Older generations are holding onto their trauma and are bringing it into other generations,” said Vivan, 22.
“Our generation is realizing maybe it’s not better to just plow through and pretend you are OK and grind through life…because you don’t want to seem off in any way,” said Sophia. “This is something our generation is getting rid of because we’re finding out that normal everyday people most likely have some sort of mental illness. So, more of us actively seek help.
Regarding long-term goals, while participants agreed that becoming financially stable and focusing on a career were important immediate goals, many still wanted a family, just down the road once they were financially secure. They again pointed at the inconsistency of older generations who worry about the high cost of almost every aspect of life, and then challenge their kids when they aren’t immediately ready to jump into college debt or a mortgage.
“As the cost for college keeps going up, [a lot of people are asking] why am I doing this,” said Lyndsey, 20.
“A lot of my peers don’t want to spend thousands and thousands of dollars if they are not sure what they want to do,” said Sophia. “A lot of kids in my grade are going to trades or community college or just taking a gap year.”
This generation wants to take its life journeys one step at a time. They want to be financially stable before getting married, and see it as irresponsible to have a child without being ready to provide.
How many parents throughout history have lamented how their children rushed into a big purchase or a big commitment too soon? Gen Z is on track to be the most cautious decision-makers of any generation.
- What does this mean for marketers? Giving Gen Z credit for its progress will be better received than pointing out differences, and could be a valuable nuance to set you apart from others.
Not financially obsessive, mindful
Digging deeper into Gen Z’s attitude toward spending, participants disliked the term “financially obsessed,” agreeing it was too harsh and a better term was “mindful.”
Gen Z is considered one of the most frugal generations, which tends to save more than other generations and prefers to minimize debt. This characteristic is a real-time adjustment to the financial times, with surging school debt and rising inflation creating more financial awareness at a younger age among this generation. While the full group agreed that Gen Z expends a lot of thought on its spending habits, they expressed that thinking carefully about financial choices was part of a conscious mindset, and was driven by more than bottom-line dollars off.
“Buying second-hand is more sustainable,” said Kayla, 22. “Instead of ordering from the Champion’s site and having emissions from the delivery truck, I’ll instead walk to the Target and get that deal or walk to the thrift store, being conscious of sustainability that way, and avoid packaging, too.”
“It makes you feel good when you save money,” said Lydia. “You can also find unique pieces not mass produced.”
This “mindful” second-hand shopping has expanded from clothes to furniture to electronics. One participant just purchased a refurbished Apple Watch. Another is selling her Ikea dresser because she needs it gone, and she doesn’t have to do the work to dispose of it. Facebook Marketplace is facilitating a lot of sales and exchanges. One exception to mindful spending was with food.
“Eating is a ritual. I want to enjoy it. I need this to live and I’m going to put good things into my body,” said Zion, 18.
Another Zer added health expenses to her exception list, saying, “There are certain places I don’t try to find deals because it’s important to my health and well-being, so I’ll invest money that needs to be there.”
Remember the lore, “You are what you eat”? For Gen Z, it’s first things first – their health! Gen Z is prioritizing investing in their health so they can enjoy life, quite possibly one of the most grounded investment strategies ever.
- What does this mean for marketers? The category you are in will impact your strategy. For products and services connected to health, making a clear tie is a winning angle. For those outside these categories, offering a second-hand market or leaning deep into sales and discounts could be smart strategies.
Not sensitive, aware
Ironically, despite showing sensitivity around a number of the terms used to describe their generation in the focus group, another area of agreement among our participants was that Zers are not “sensitive.” They preferred “aware.” Participants politely explained that recognizing the hurtful nature of words was not the same thing as having a thin skin. Recognizing the need to care for your mental health and the mental health of others was necessary, not sensitive.
Because the concept of “awareness” versus “sensitivity” so deeply permeates Gen Z (and definitely the 13 young adults on our couches), it can increase divides between other generations or individuals who don’t exhibit this quality. We see in the research that Gen Z values its relationship with friends above all and does not feel as close to prior generations.
“I really love my friends; I don’t think I would survive without them,” said Zion.
“You can’t tell me Boomers don’t have issues,” said Sophia.
Our Gen Z participants also discussed the nuances of awareness they expect from others. Taking simple steps such as using a reusable versus disposable water bottle demonstrates awareness and makes a more positive impression with Zers. Brands also gain esteem with Gen Z when they demonstrate awareness because it makes them more relatable.
“It humanizes the brand if they have something to say,” said Kayla. “It inserts them into society and not above society if that makes sense. They are having the same conversations we all are, so it diminishes that separation between brand and person.”
The group explained their generation’s standards for corporate behavior, clarifying it’s not just advocacy, but consistency they crave. Our group suggested they were being misunderstood as demanding that companies participate in every social cause. Instead, they preferred brands to take an authentic stand in an area that makes sense for them and then behave consistently according to that commitment. They specifically mentioned the pet peeve of brands supporting the LGBTQ+ community only during Pride Month. They would rather see year-round respectful behavior. Brands do more harm than good when they are not consistent.
“A lot of it is surface level and not with employees or communities they serve,” said Joshua, 21.
“If you’re promoting something up front and then down in your supply chain a news article comes up about exploitative practices, it makes me so cynical,” said Noah, 26.
- What does this mean for marketers? Speaking “Gen Z” and using the right approach when relating to them is critical to making an authentic connection. Consider hiring a member of Gen Z to be part of your marketing team, or employ frequent focus groups to avoid triggering language and—politely—frame your POV.
While Gen Z may not want to be labeled as sensitive, the focus group validated that Zers have incredibly consistent views on what is considered proper, which reinforces how offputting missing the mark can be. Their perspectives demonstrate more maturity and discernment than they may be given credit for. This ups the ante on delivering in an authentic way, demonstrating understanding of your audience and avoiding missteps. Understanding a more nuanced framing of the way Zers views themselves will help marketers set brands apart in communication and action.