After the Optimism: How Cynicism is Shaping Generation Z

(published in Brand Quarterly, issue 24, p.46-50)

The marketing field has long had an obsession with Millennials - worrying about them, over- analyzing them, complaining about them, even making fun of them. As such, the world has been indoctrinated with the concept that young people are overly optimistic, trophy-getters with an unrealistic view of fame, future success and the value of their own opinion.
Problematically, many marketers have a habit of assuming that the insights about one generation of youth apply to the next... that attitudes have more to do with life stage than anything else. This mentality would lead many to assume that Gen Z is approaching the world with the same unabashed optimism and inflated sense of self as their older brothers and sisters. This couldn’t be more wrong.

Sure, there are many attitudes and behaviors that do have to do with life stage, and there are also many ways that Gen Zers act like “Millennials on steroids”; taking on certain key traits like digital nativity and diversity, and even stepping them up to a whole new level. However, there are also many ways in which Gen Zers are in fact Anti-Millennials, and at the heart of these differences is a complete reversal of Millennials’ trademark optimism. Gen Z is a generation that is not only more realistic; they are downright cynical.

A Cynical Take On Life

It is not very surprising that Gen Z has such a cynical take on life. A significant percentage are being raised by Gen X parents - latch-key kids with a snarky take on society, that watched in horror as the world chose to obsess over the blue-sky youngsters behind them. The younger set of Gen Z is coming into the world with Millennial parents - Millennials who have now realized that believing in their own ‘greatness’ does not actually result in fame and fortune.

So, yeah, Gen Z’s cynicism isn’t that surprising. But, surprising or not, their cynical take on life, on their potential future and the world at large is at the heart of many of their generation’s defining traits. Here are a few of the Gen Z attitudes and behaviors driven by their “glass is three-quarters empty” POV.

Specializing Early

Millennials, as kids, were known for their “over-scheduled” lives - they had more opportunities at their avail than any generation before, and this made them a generation that revered eclectic passions and people with a diverse portfolio of hobbies and experiences. Gen Z is no less scheduled. In fact, their days may be even more regimented, but while their extra-curricular options remain varied, many are choosing to transfer more eggs into one basket at an earlier age (or their parents are making the transfer for them).

With more pragmatism seeping into activity selection, Gen Z does not see the point in spending time on something unless they are among the best at it. Playing softball because you enjoy the game and the camaraderie? Come on; you haven’t made the travel team yet, and you are in third grade! Time to put more emphasis on lacrosse... At very early ages, Gen Z is working hard to figure out the avenues in which they excel, and focusing their full schedules accordingly. It’s a rough world; don’t waste your time on things that won’t give you a leg up!

Seeking Passions That Pay

Aligned with their early specialization, is Gen Z’s increasing appreciation of the side hustle. As youth, Millennials were a generation that was highly focused on passion simply for passion’s sake. As the first generation reared on social networking, they strove to project their many interests to the world and used these passions to present their personas. Gen Zers also want to find a passion they can pursue, that they can both excel at and enjoy.

The difference is Gen Z wants to make sure their passion PAYS.

They have seen the impact that a weak economy has had on their parents. They have watched as smart millennial relatives graduated from top universities only to move back home and remain jobless for a year or more. They still believe in the dream of living your passion and loving what you do, but their pragmatism and cynicism remind them that this just may never happen. As such, they are focusing very early on developing a plan A, B, or even C. They don’t want to leave their future up to chance. If their ultimate passion isn’t profitable, they know they’ll need to find a side hustle that is.

On the flip side, some even acknowledge at an early age that they have skills that may support them better financially than their dream will, so they plan to take the stable route - to become an accountant - while keeping their photography app going as
the side hustle until it can really pay. It’s all about multiple streams of wealth to gain true financial freedom!

They Do NOT Agree That Everyone is Cool

Young Millennials were known for their all-accepting, “shades of grey” mentality.
As teens they scoffed at Gen X’s cliquish approach to growing up and led the charge on “geek chic”, and an “everyone is welcome” point of view. They were pro-soldier, anti-war and passionately proclaimed their personal beliefs while simultaneously believing that those of a differing inclination were absolutely “right” as well.

Gen Z, not so much.

While they do embrace the belief that everyone should strive to be an individual and, like Millennials, their digital lifestyle offers access to the pursuit of a broad array of interests and perspectives - they don’t actually believe that everyone is cool.

They are more siloed in their take on social interaction, while simultaneously having a diverse array of tribes. They certainly don’t prescribe to the dated Gen X concept that one clique is “the cool clique” and that everyone else should die trying to get into it, but they also don’t believe that everyone should be invited to everything. You can have a wide array of friendship groups, just don’t expect all your groups to get along, or to even notice that the others exist.

Gen Z is ushering in the return of cool and totally uncool... it’s just a more eclectic version. Unlike Millennials, Gen Z does believe that “this” is cool and “that” isn’t. They also believe that “this” is right and “that” is wrong - they live in a political world that makes it nearly impossible not to feel this way.

They Don't Assume You Want The Key To Their Diary; They Aren't Gonna Give It To You Anyway

Gen Z is pretty grossed-out by the approach that Millennials took when it came to social networking. They’ve not only heard the war-stories of college acceptances and job offers rescinded due to inappropriate online behavior, but they also don’t support the idea that every detail of one’s life is worth sharing.

They acknowledge that both their mom and their grandmother are online (and they sometimes wish they’d shut up there!), so they aren’t exactly dying to showcase their wildest nights for all to see. Additionally, their cool/uncool take on social dynamics means that they don’t think their every idea needs to be broadcast for the world to see – they just want the RIGHT people to see them.

Gen Z prescribes to a significantly more curated and “walls up” approach to social networking. This doesn’t mean they are shrinking violets. In fact, they are really happy to share raw, unfiltered details publicly. They just prefer channels like Snapchat that allows them to broadcast certain ideas to certain people only.

Additionally, they are so concerned that the version of themselves that they project to
the world is a cool one, that they reserve only the “best” images/videos on channels like Instagram and keep the fun, stupid, “I look like a total wreck” moments to channels like Snapchat where they’ll disappear promptly. Why on earth would you want that horrific post-party image of yourself preserved for all posterity? If it’s funny, send it. But make sure that thing vanishes quickly. In some ways, Gen Z’s digital stories are more reminiscent of Gen X’s high school tales - there was one Polaroid, but I ripped it up, so maybe it happened, maybe it didn’t.

They Are More Tempered In Their Expectations Of Happily Ever After

As seen in the examples above, Gen Z’s cynicism runs deep. They do not believe everything will definitely work out, though they are apter than Millennials to believe that their own generation will solve many of the world’s problems. They believe you need to work extremely hard and they’ve got their guard up and are ready for a fight.

This more guarded perspective extends to their feelings about true love. Gen Zers are significantly less apt to believe in true love than Millennials. They have grown up in a world where divorce is a common reality, as is the increasing number of couples opting out of “the marriage thing” altogether. Most Gen Zers still want to find that perfect partner, but they don’t assume it will just happen. Once again, they have hope, but they aren’t counting on it.

 

Gen Z is still young. While much of the above would lead one to believe they are a somber, serious bunch, they are actually still fun-loving, crazy kids. Just kids who have witnessed a lot of hard, even scary, times in the world and they have had to cope with a healthy dose of “real” at a young age. As such, they are snarkier, more skeptical, and a bit less accepting. Hey Gen X, sound familiar?

Get ready for a generation of youth that won’t be so easy to hate.