How 4 generations created a new digital normal during COVID—and new challenges for brands

by | Sep 23, 2021 | Public Relations

The COVID crisis and resulting lockdowns ushered in a new era of digital use and consumption, and the varying ways and degrees that Gen Z, Millennials, Gen X, and Baby Boomers embraced this new digital normal has created new challenges for brands in reaching and engaging them.

New research from The Center for Generational Kinetics, commissioned by WordPress technology firm WP Engine, reveals new data on how each generation adapted to digital in their own unique ways during the COVID-19 lockdowns—and new insights for brands on how to reach these important audiences in different ways.

Embracing the new normal

Millennials and Gen Z are already a powerful economic force. With the resurgence of the economy and unprecedented spending, their influence grows every day—and will continue to do so for decades to come. To win more share of wallet from Millennials today and Gen Z’s $143 billion spending power, companies will need to create new customer engagement experiences powered by responsive, modern, scalable businesses and technology. Business leaders who adjust their approach to match these new market realities will have a tremendous advantage in reaching their customers now and into the future.

How 4 generations created a new digital normal during COVID—and new challenges for brands

Understanding and winning Gen Z and Millennials now leads to winning every other generation, too. Failing to adapt to these influential trendsetters at this critical time eliminates two potent drivers of growth but also means you run the risk of losing existing customers, too. Recognizing the outsized impact and influence of Gen Z and Millennials as trendsetters is why it is critical for leaders to separate generational myth from truth about them as customers and then take the appropriate action.

“Missing from the conversation on how to understand and best serve consumers, clients, and marketplaces now is statistically accurate data that specifically uncovers how generations have changed and adapted their specific online behavior during the last year, including throughout the pandemic, and trends and behaviors that will shape the next 3-5 years following the recent surge into the digital world,” said Jason Dorsey, President at The Center for Generational Kinetics, in a news release.

How 4 generations created a new digital normal during COVID—and new challenges for brands

“Last year was memorable for a host of reasons, but one of the most significant is how the use of digital by generation has fundamentally changed,” said Eric Jones, VP of Corporate Marketing at WP Engine, in the release. “Understanding what makes each generation unique in their behavior online is the foundation for building the compelling, effective, and innovative digital experiences of the future.”

The empowerment of entrepreneurship

Gen Z has often been described as the most entrepreneurial generation ever. According to the study a whopping 61 percent of Gen Z plan to start their own business. That’s a striking difference between the one in nine Americans who are self-employed today according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

How 4 generations created a new digital normal during COVID—and new challenges for brands

Entrepreneurial plans remain strong however, one interesting change from years past is the types of businesses they plan to start has changed. Gen Z has shifted away from tech (down 30 percent from 2019) toward entertainment (up 30 percent from 2019). Meanwhile beauty and wellness make Gen Z’s top 3 list for the first time in 2021, displacing retail (20 percent in 2019 to 12 percent in 2021). One area where tech remains strong is with Millennials who are now thinking about starting a business in technology more than twice as much compared to 2019 (10 percent in 2019 vs. 22 percent in 2021).

According to the Harvard Business Review, 70 percent of teens are working entrepreneurial jobs like teaching math to younger students, editing videos for neighbors or selling items on platforms like Thredup or Depop. Through these activities they’re learning valuable skills, setting them up to become tomorrow’s innovators. Several other stats speak volumes about how Gen Z and Millennials are increasingly setting themselves up to truly take charge of their careers:

  • Website ownership: In less than 2 years, website ownership has gone up 300 percent.
  • Perfectly balanced: 49 percent of Gen Z and 59 percent of Millennials believe work life balance has improved.
  • Remain remote: 48 percent of Gen Z and 65 percent of Millennials would prefer to continue remote work after the pandemic

The digital habits of every generation are forever changed

According to the national study, over 1/3 (36 percent) of Gen Z tried online video chatting and had their first online class experience (37 percent) for the first time during the pandemic. Also, 1/4 of Gen Z tried online gaming (26 percent), online food delivery (27 percent), online grocery shopping (24 percent), online digital money transfer (28 percent), and online doctor visits (22 percent) for the first time over the past year.

  • Enduring Digital Habits. 57 percent of Gen Z and 68 percent of Millennials expect to maintain their digital habits after the pandemic.
  • Telehealth: 25 percent of Boomers said they will continue telehealth moving forward.
  • Pay Later: 24 percent of Millennials want the ability to split bills into multiple payments.

How 4 generations created a new digital normal during COVID—and new challenges for brands

How digital connected a locked down generation

Gen Z and Millennials are much more dependent on the Internet compared to older generations: 48 percent of Gen Z and 46 percent of Millennials can’t go more than 4 hours without Internet access before they become uncomfortable, significantly higher than Gen X (40 percent) and Boomers (28 percent).

  • Information v. Entertainment: 43 percent of Gen Z rely on the internet primarily for entertainment while the other generations use it for information.
  • Streaming generation: 70 percent of Gen Z increased the amount they were streaming video.
  • Life online: 66 percent of Gen X say they rely on digital now more than ever.

How 4 generations created a new digital normal during COVID—and new challenges for brands

Download the full report here.

Survey participants in the national longitudinal study consisted of 1,255 U.S. participants ages 14-59 including a 250-person oversample of Gen Z (ages 14-25). The longitudinal study consisted of benchmark questions from 2017, 2018, 2019, and 2021 allowing for a year-over-year analysis of consumer behaviors and generational trends. The sample was weighted to the U.S. Census for age, gender, geography, and ethnicity allowing for a statistically valid and highly accurate “snapshot of consumers” across the United States.

Richard Carufel
Richard Carufel is editor of Bulldog Reporter and the Daily ’Dog, one of the web’s leading sources of PR and marketing communications news and opinions. He has been reporting on the PR and communications industry for over 17 years, and has interviewed hundreds of journalists and PR industry leaders. Reach him at richard.carufel@bulldogreporter.com; @BulldogReporter


AI and the Future of Media: Q&A with Tech Unmasker Pete Pachal

AI and the Future of Media: Q&A with Tech Unmasker Pete Pachal

Way back in 2017, I predicted in a VentureBeat guest post that PR people will be getting superpowers in a single year.  Unfortunately, I was off by about seven years. Regardless, it’s here now, and it’s far bigger than I imagined. The influence of AI on journalism...