From demonstrations about social injustice and strong environmental concerns, not to mention a penchant for bold hair and high waisted jeans, looking at Gen Z, they have more in common with the young people who came of age in the 80s and 90s. And everyone from governments to those in the built environment need to take notice.
While just a few years ago, those entering the workplace might be interested in the best barista coffee or bring your dog to work initiatives, Gen Z are more likely to want to check your anti-racism policy, your pledge towards your real estate achieving a Net Zero target and your attitude to using the correct pronouns.
While Millennials paved the way for demanding a less rigid office environment with a variety of workplace typologies, Gen Z have never known anything but a highly collaborative experience from primary through to tertiary education and that reflects in what they look for in their place of work. And they’re not afraid to tell you what they don’t like.
Similarly with technology, while Baby Boomers had the dawn of television, Gen X the rise of the personal computer and Millennials the age of the internet, Gen Z have always had all that and more in the palm of their hands. They have the powerful combination of the uncompromising moral standards of youth, but also the ability to display their feelings and opinions instantly, and mobilise others to do the same 24/7.
While Millennials might be associated (some may say unfairly) with smashing avocados, Gen Z are keener on smashing the system. By that we mean deconstructing gender norms, fighting racial inequality and of course putting the environment front and centre – witness 16 year old Rory Hooper as well as his father Dan (aka Swampy of 1990s Newbury bypass fame) in a tunnel near Euston station, dug by protestors in a bid to try and stop HS2.
The poster boys and girls for this generation are uncompromising and outspoken. Think Marcus Rashford and his continuing anti-poverty campaigning, Greta Thunberg, who turned a lone school strike into a global movement of climate protest and US National Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman at President Joe Biden’s inauguration uttering her own immortal line, “While democracy can be periodically delayed, it can never be permanently denied.”
Where the youth movements of the 1980s and 1990s emerged with a backdrop of the oil crisis, the end of the Vietnam war and widespread economic and political uncertainty from the 1970s, with a side order of rebelling against the consumerism of the 1980s, Gen Z too have a perfect storm of circumstance. They grew up in the aftermath of 9/11 though they don’t remember it and had to witness the fallout their parents and Millennial siblings suffered as a result of the 2008 recession. No wonder they’re as angry as the Women of Greenham Common protesting against nuclear armament in the 1980s or the anti-Poll Tax rioters of the 1990s.
Gen Z’s impact can be felt worldwide from collective action in achieving the global reach of the Black Lives Matter movement to individuals such as Malala Yousafzai in fighting for girls’ education or high school student Emma Gonzalez speaking out in favour of gun control in the US in 2018. It’s no surprise to learn then that the Pew Research Center, a body that looks at differences in attitudes across demographic groups, found that 70% of Gen Z want an activist government. When corporations promise to do better, whether that’s in terms of sustainability or equality, Gen Z will be there to hold them accountable.
So next time you come across a CV and it says born in 1997 (the first year that separates Gen Z from Millennials) don’t think of the dawn of New Labour or the start of Girl Power, but an uprising of a very different crop of young people.