THE PROBLEM WITH GENERATIONAL RESEARCH

Most generational research focuses on young people in the US and Europe when most members of a generation live elsewhere.

At Propellerfish, we’ve been helping more and more businesses think about a future where Generation Z makes up a disproportionate number of their users. Clients want to know what this means for their products, their business models and their workforce around the world. What has struck us is how problematic generational research is and how much of the dialogue around Gen Z has been shaped by early insights gained from teenagers in the US and Europe when most of the Gen Z population does not live there. Layer in the reality that most economic growth will happen outside of those markets and it makes sense to look at this generation through the lens of the majority.

We engaged a community of young people around the world to help us tell the Gen Z story in their own words.

We engaged some amazing young people in China, India, Mexico, Pakistan, the Palestinian Territories, Kenya, Nigeria, Belarus, Russia, Poland, Singapore, Myanmar, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, Thailand, Venezuela, and Argentina. We also engaged young people in the US, UK, Italy and Germany to give this project a balanced global perspective. 

The young people we met were extraordinary. We met high schoolers in China running impressive side hustles online. We met young idealists leading protest movements in Venezuela. We sat down with Rohingya refugees currently calling Malaysia their home. We met with teachers, government officials, parents, siblings and even hired some young people to work at Propellerfish as part of this project.

Where possible, we engaged young people on their terms via their platforms. We also spent time with many of them in person, with their friends and out in their usual routines.

Many of Gen Z’s values and behaviours transcend borders. Young people today are being shaped by technological, geopolitical, and economic factors that cut across geography and culture. A fifteen-year-old with Instagram in Nigeria and a 16-year-old in Singapore are (for better or for worse) both probably following a Kardashian on Instagram. Shalini Shankar’s excellent point in Beeline about childhood becoming professionalized in the US is very much a global phenomenon with kids talking to us about their experiments with mini careers at an early age all over the world. However, some of the typical Gen Z headlines seem to have gotten lost in translation. Young people today have more depth, ambition and purpose than the phone clutching cliché whose life happens entirely online in trend presentations.

Below are some themes from an ongoing conversation with young people around the world. The project will be ongoing and you can reach out to us with themes you’d like to see us explore going forward and we’ll do our best to incorporate as many of those themes into the work as possible.

We are a generation too late

Every young person we spoke to felt their generation was headed towards a disadvantaged adulthood relative to the generations before them. They are seeing increased competition for jobs, prohibitive housing costs, a decay in social values, few role models worth emulating and a likelihood that they will spend their lives working harder for less than any previous generation.

A different playing field calls for a different playbook

A different constellation of opportunities and challenges calls for a different approach to life and this is a challenge young people are thinking seriously about from a young age. Today’s young people today are at once intimidated and energized by the prospect of forging their own paths. The heroes of this generation will redefine what it means to be a happy and successful adult for generations to come.

Forging their own paths

Our young people were remarkably independent in terms of how they thought about their lives, their education and their future. The institutions on which previous generations had come to depend no longer felt as relevant while today’s technologies give them access to better alternatives. The reasons to depend on an outdated system instead of forging your own path are growing fewer by the day.

“Self-made entrepreneurs like Jack Ma (the founder of Alibaba) and Pony Ma (the founder of Tencent QQ) started empty-handed, and their stories  influence our generation and inspire us to start our own business independently.”

Hua Xin, Beijing, China

“The older people hold a majority of the offices and misuse young people, paying them drips of wages. This scenario has woken us and now we are focusing on other positive things to make our lives better through self-employment mindset.”

Isaac, Nairobi, Kenya

Millennials invented the instruments. Generation Z will be our master orchestra.

Compared to the millennials who shaped a landscape of digital tools and services, Gen Z is the first generation to grow up with those tools operating at full power. These platforms are subsequently more integrated into the way they live. While many define this generation by the tools they have at their disposal, we believe this generation will define itself based on the lives they shape for themselves with these tools which is still very much a work in progress.

“Even people who are just five years older than me didn’t “grow up” together with technologies.”

Masha, 17, Belarus

“It’s impressive how being born in an era of such fast change has made us so flexible when it comes to these platforms. Every couple of months, I incorporate something new into my daily life and my work.”

Ana, 17, Buenos Aires

Believe they have the power to shape a fairer and more equal world.

The young people we met believe strongly that existing power structures have shaped an unfair world. Greater access to stories of injustice and the belief that they may have been dealt a disadvantaged start in life has left this generation particularly empowered to right a system they believe is not working for everybody.

“You are not mature enough to tell it like it is. Even that burden you leave to us children… We have not come here to beg world leaders to care. You have ignored us in the past and you will ignore us again. We have come here to let you know that change is coming whether you like it or not.”

Greta Thunberg, 16, Sweden

Not sure traditional education is worth the investment.

The young people we met take their education seriously but bring a layer of pragmatic discernment to the table when it comes to whether the traditional curriculum is making them fit for the future. Most have serious doubts about whether the education system is preparing them for the realities of Gen Z adulthood. This is especially true in countries where the cost of traditional education has increased while a glut of graduates has saturated a marketplace that hasn’t expanded to employ them. As a result, a huge portion of our young people were augmenting their traditional education by cultivating skills they felt may be more relevant in an increasingly competitive world.

“Nowadays all the system of education is absolutely rotten, it gives unnecessary and outdated knowledge, and no one knows how to apply it to life. It’s an absolutely common thing now to bribe a professor in the university and buy a degree. You couldn’t do that in the USSR. Also it is a very common thing to pass useless exams just to get a diploma that you will never use again and you will never work in that field. The universities have old buildings that haven’t been repaired for a long time and are literally falling apart in some places, and this symbolizes the whole education system.”

Masha, 16, Belarus

A more discerning view of technology in their lives

While their digital toolbox has opened up a world of perspectives and opportunities, they have also grown up with many of the downsides of technology. The internet has exposed this generation to both inspiring and distressing content. It has connected them to people they love but also made them vulnerable to people they want to avoid. The result is a generation of young people trying to be more considered about the role of technology in their lives.

“With India moving to the third spot in the list of the most porn-obsessed countries and a steep rise in the number of rape incidents, the Government’s recent porn ban didn’t come across as a huge surprise.”

Rishabh, 18, Mumbai, India

Parents as co-pilots rather than captains

Most young people Propellerfish has engaged around the world have close, supportive relationships with their parents. At the same time, both parents and young people acknowledge the limitations parents have in advising their kids as they look ahead to a very different path through life. Parents aim to be supportive, but admittedly struggle to fully understand the opportunities and challenges their children are navigating. Most of the young people we met, described their parents in a co-pilot role, learning as they go and doing their best to help their children find their way. 

Identity as an ongoing beta test

Adolescence has always been a period of self-discovery and peer approval has always played a role in that process. However, technology has added a new dimension to this process for the Gen Z teens we engaged. The internet has given young people more avenues to explore and has made peer approval an almost quantified variable in a journey that feels a lot like a human beta test. In societies where young people have traditionally not had much room to explore their identities, more open parents and access to influences online has opened up a relatively broader set of avenues to consider. And while previous generations may have found public experimentation with different identities inauthentic, this generation celebrates this multiplicity as part of a genuine discovery process.

Hobbies as adolescent careers

The young people we met talked about their hobbies in a professionalized context. They described their hobbies as a diverse garden of budding skills, and had views of how those skills might blossom into professional strengths in the future. Many of our young people were already monetising their hobbies using digital platforms. We met writers in Venezuela who were using Upwork to sell articles, gamers who were funded by patrons in exchange for providing access to their live feeds and webcams. We met young people with revenue-generating YouTube channels, selling their own clothes online and teaching other young people to write code. 

“I taught myself graphic design online and now I have a freelance career. Lots of people are skipping university because you can just start earning money online right away doing something that you love.”

Ana, 16, Buenos Aires

Do what stirs you because you can

If the professional path ahead of this generation leads to a more fluid portfolio of jobs, they are seeing few reasons for their dream career not to be part of that portfolio. Meanwhile, the platforms they’ve grown up with make previously unattainable careers feel more tangibly within reach through access to tools and people that can enable their dreams.