Understanding the Characteristics and Motivations of Generation Z

Published: May 16, 2018
Modified: May 20, 2020


AMA Quarterly spoke with Angie Read, co-author with Jeff Fromm of Marketing to Gen Z: The Rules for Reaching This Vast—and Very Different—Generation of Influencers (AMACOM, 2018). Read discussed some of the characteristics of Generation Z, the best ways to motivate Gen Z’ers, and lessons that can be applied to this generation, whose oldest members are entering the workforce.

What are the defining characteristics of this generation? How do they differ even from Generation Y?

Angie Read: Gen Z are what we call “old souls in young bodies.” In many ways, they have more in common with their grandparents and great-grandparents than with Millennials. They are hardworking, financially responsible, independent, and determined. They also hold more conservative views of success regarding money, education, and career advancement.

The characteristics of Gen Z are different from those of Millennials. They are the young pragmatists that Millennials were not, surrounded by mobile technology since leaving the womb. They grew up in a post-9/11 world. They are multitaskers, progressives, and purposeful souls, already aware of their capabilities and the power they can achieve.

What were the formative events for this generation?

AR: Some of the formative events for Gen Z include the Great Recession, ISIS, Sandy Hook, marriage equality, the first black president, and the rise of populism. They have never known a world without war and the threat of domestic terrorism; they crave safety and financial security.

You mentioned the “old souls in young bodies.” With their formative events, it seems like Generation Z hearkens back in a way to their great-grandparents, the Silent Generation of World War II.

AR: Right, and they also have that work ethic that you think of with older generations, and money, education, and career advancement. They know that they need to put in the hard work to get there. But since they grew up in the aftermath of the Great Recession, they’ve seen their families, their parents, or their friends’ parents lose their houses, lose their cars, lose their jobs. And so they know there is uncertainty in the world. So they value financial stability. They want to be paid fairly for their work. Monetary compensation is something that they will seek as their reward.

What are the best ways to motivate Gen Z?

AR: Take a stand on an issue that’s important to them, such as human equality: gender equality, racial equality, and sexual orientation equality. Show them you know them. Value their opinions and input. Treat them like people (not just kids)—like valued collaborators with your brand. Engage and inspire them, and let them inspire your brand. Be completely transparent and authentic to earn their trust. Operate with integrity.

One of the best ways for marketers to reach Gen Z—and they can smell BS from a mile away—is if the messages are coming from people they trust, who tend to be influencers. Those are the opinions of the people that they trust; they see them as themselves and as their friends. A lot of times, these influencers on social media rise to the status of fame by interacting with their followers. They’re not celebrities sitting in their golden castles, talking down to kids. They’re having conversations with their fans and followers.

What are the worst ways to motivate this generation?

AR: Talking down to them, treating them like kids. Trying to sell to them in social media versus having conversations. Inauthenticity. Breaching their trust.

What lessons can we apply to Gen Z from previous generations?

  • They will not be a homogenous cohort, so understand the subsegments.
  • They will evolve as they go through college and start careers.
  • They are highly digital, social, and mobile but more competitive and traditional, unlike Millennials.
  • Expect major future events—economic, political, or otherwise—to impact their worldview.