I’m a 23-year-old, born and raised in the later 1990s and into the 2000s. I’m the youngest of four, with three older brothers, and as such, the culture of the ’90s permeated and shaped my existence. I grew up on Harry Potter, was dragged along to Backstreet Boys concerts, and lived inside the world of my Polly Pockets’ mansion. You could argue I’ve been a cultural critic since my early days of stockpiling YA novels and Teen Vogue issues, so it’s no wonder I find myself now watching the new generation with fascination.
Rarely does a day go by in my marketing job when Gen Z doesn’t come up in conversation—and with good reason. Every time a new demographic opens itself—and, let’s be honest, its wallets—to the corporate world, strategies shift. In the Western world, women didn’t begin wearing pants in large numbers until the late 20th century, with their entry into the workforce during World War 2 and, later, the rise of the Women’s Movement—creating a demand for functional clothing—and brands responded. And, while most brands move with the popular culture of a given time, the truly great ones create it. As Jeff Goodby, founder of the namesake agency and originator of “Got milk?” put it: “Sometimes you riff off popular culture—and then sometimes you create popular culture.”
By some standards and sociologists, I may be considered a Gen Z’er—born between the years of 1997 and 2015. That may be true—but I find myself caught more and more in the middle of Gen Z and their older millennial siblings. I’m a zennial—right on the cusp, influenced by my older brothers and sisters—but, for all intents and purposes, I’ll label myself a Gen Z elder. My unique position has made me witness to some of the largest cultural shifts of our lifetime—and I’m not just talking Taylor Swift’s rerecorded albums. Here’s my take, as Gen Z’s big sister.
From Picture-Perfect to Realism:
If Gen Z research studies have taught us anything, it’s that this generation values authenticity and transparency more than its predecessors do. Gone are the days of millennial picture-perfect—presenting a well-manicured curation of avocado toasts and flawless photos on Instagram. Nowadays, and perhaps as a direct result of the Instagram-induced desire for perfection, people desire something more real and true. And thus, we shift from the millennial picture-perfect of yesterday to the Gen Z realism of now.
My first acute memory of seeing this in this in the media was Aerie’s #AerieREAL campaign. The campaign showcased a group of women role models across various backgrounds posing in the brand’s collection with zero retouching. The initiative started back in 2014, and has created a major splash, swaying former Victoria’s Secret loyalists and the like. Not shockingly, the ability to see ourselves reflected in the media is powerful—we all want to feel represented and seen, rather than “othered” and looked down upon.
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Nowadays, diversity and inclusion are not just respected but expected. And this spans spans beyond retailers and celebrities to everyday people in their own media spaces. Scroll a few minutes on TikTok, and you’ll be sure to find content promoting body positivity or even a new take—body neutrality for bodies of all sizes. You’ll find cellulite, body hair, and all the other formerly-taboo body features displayed with pride and comfort. A recent TikTok and Reels trend noted: “daily reminder social media is fake,” and flipped through some of these less-than-glamorous, but all-the-more-real photos, inviting others to do the same.
If Instagram is a product of the millennial generation, TikTok is a direct manifestation of Gen Z ideals. After learning how to use social platforms more responsibly, we learned that people don’t want to feel bad online. They want to feel connected and heard, and social media culture shifted from the aspirational to the attainable. As a platform, it allows creators and users of any following—from double digits to the millions—to have a voice.
Caring Is Cool:
When I was younger, there was a very popular hairstyle coined the “messy bun.” Contrary to what the name may suggest, this look took hard work and time to perfect, but when complete looked as though you had just rolled out of bed. The key was to look effortless and chic—like you gave an ounce of effort, but nothing more. From social atmospheres to academics, I grew up in a scene that promoted not trying too hard. Hence the messy bun, the no-makeup-makeup-look, the “I barely studied for this test” (…but aced it!).
These days, the young generation has decided to ditch romanticizing apathy and is embracing care and empathy, in line with its desire for a more just and transparent world. From education on social causes to their advocacy and vulnerability around mental health, Gen Z cares, and they are letting us know it. Gen Z brand Lonely Ghost, created by a fellow fed-up zennial, sells out its hoodies to teens on Instagram with quips like “Feelings Are Cool,” “Text Me When You Get Home,” and “I Love You, Say It Back” printed on the back. Their latest design? “It’s 2021, It’s Cool To Care.”
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What’s more? You can’t scroll two minutes on Instagram without running into self-help quotes, poems, and mental health resources. The conversation around the subjects of depression, anxiety, and other illnesses is more open than ever. And, while researchers find correlation between teen usage of social media and depression, you can’t blame them for using a platform given to them by their elders. We’re just now as a society beginning to understand the impact of social media on our minds and finding ways to use it more responsibly. I, for one, respect this age group for continuing the conversation and making help more accessible through social channels.
Retro Is In:
Anyone who has studied fashion—or music, design… any artform, for that matter—will tell you that fashion is cyclical, and that is evidenced strongly in today’s trends. If they look familiar, that’s because they are—just take a look at the ’70s, ’80s, ’90s, and early 2000s. Halter necklines, bell-bottoms, curtain bangs, hair scarves, overalls, and satin slips of today all take root in the ’70s. Just the other day, my roommate excitedly brought home a pair of ’80s-inspired pastel rollerblades. Power suits and track pants have been saved by a ’90s bell, while bedazzled crop-tops, metallics, and butterfly clips of the Y2K era have all made an ironic comeback. Gen Z TikTok star Caroline Ricke has built a nearly 3-million-follower-wide platform based on her ironic “early-2000s rich girl persona,” serving as a comedy and fashion icon to many.
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What is remarkable about this generation and their style is their sense to handpick the best, most fun parts of the past while leaving behind the rest. They get to experiment with nostalgic fashion and art of the previous century, but with more rights, freedoms, and greater ease. They’ll wear ’90s gear one day but post social movement and educational content the next, reflecting the likes of Gloria Steinem and Shirley Chisolm of the ’60s–’70s… and with the glasses, too.
The best applied example? YouTuber-launched app Dispo gained some major buzz in early 2021 for its unique offering. The interface mimicked a real disposable camera, allowing users to take photos on its camera roll to capture memories in the moment. The catch? They couldn’t view the photos until the next day at 9:00 AM, when they had “developed” with an old-school filter. The app allowed its users to share with their friends through collaborative camera rolls, and while the platform has since run into issues with allegations facing its founder, we can all take a lesson or two from its product. By offering a nostalgic service with greater ease and no paper waste, Dispo let young people reimagine a simpler time.
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However, Gen Z’s greatest impact will come from their reverence for accountability and progress. Coming of age in time of elevated tensions, cancel-culture, “Me Too,” and BLM, the youth are no stranger to seeing wrongdoing and calling it by name. This generation is not afraid to speak their minds, pursue social justice, and rewrite everything in their time—probably even your marketing brief.