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The challenge of categorizing gen Z: the rise of the ‘micro-gens’

January 04, 2019 - 1582 views

The challenge of categorizing gen Z: the rise of the ‘micro-gens’

With Gen Z, we need to shift our thinking away from stereotypes, and toward what these diverse individuals can teach us about the future.

As Generation Z enters the workforce, and surpasses millennials in overall world population in the next year, many are trying to label members of this demographic, just as we did with previous generations. Listicles are published every day espousing the top 10 traits of Gen Z (born roughly between 1995 and 2010) or the five things Gen Z cares most about, from safety and security, to frugality and entrepreneurialism.

We’ve long done this in the business world. Customers are segmented by various demographics or psychographics. Employees are categorized by their level in the company, their diversity status or their performance. It’s human nature to categorize, group, put a box around something, label. It helps us organize things, people and places in our brains.

But this tendency can go too far, whether we’re business managers hiring employees, or marketers trying to attract customers. Especially where the categorization and labeling of people is concerned, it’s all too easy to emphasize the negative or to minimize the variation of people within that category.

Consider the millennials. Those of us in the older generations (baby boomers and Gen X) have done a great job of vilifying this group of individuals, claiming they’re lazy, entitled, over-parented, unable to do anything for themselves. As noted in a New York Times article by Tom Vanderbilt, “When we struggle to categorize something, we like it less.” My hypothesis is we had such a hard time defining millennials as a group that we identified only these negative traits and they stuck and grew, disproportionately, in our collective idea of who millennials are. 

Let's Get Micro 

I’m happy to see that, at the moment, most are casting Gen Z in a positive light. But I’d officially like to call a “time out” on all of this broad categorization and development of the Gen Z stereotype. Let’s start thinking about Gen Z in terms of micro-segments. They’re really a collection of many, many unique micro-segments who all happen to be born during the same 15-year time span.

The one thing that’s indisputable about Gen Z is the group’s ethnic diversity. In the U.S., children born after 2007 will be the first in an all-minority generation, with no single ethnicity representing 50% or more. So technically, Gen Z is the last generation with Caucasians being slightly above half the cohort. This should make us all skeptical of any grand statements that try to claim the entire generation is one way or another. It’s time to get more micro.

As Vanderbilt said in his article, when we like a category, we define and create sub-categories. One of his examples is music. Historically, a handful of macro categories described musical genres: rock, pop, country, classical, etc. Now, dozens and dozens of sub-genres have emerged, some originally defined by just one artist. Ever heard of solipsynthm or freakbeat? Me neither, but they’re recognized sub-genres of music.

Looking at Individuals, Not the Group

Some people have begun applying this thinking to older generations – which I see as positive. Micro-segments like the “Xennials” (born between 1978 and 1983) are people who don’t quite fit the stereotype of a Gen Xer or a millennial. This micro-gen had an analog childhood, a moderately digital adolescence and now, a full-blown digital adulthood.  This is a step in the right direction.

We should do the same with Gen Z in our efforts to recruit, hire, train and manage these individuals. They’re already entering the workforce with a diverse set of experiences and a variety of career objectives. Their ideas on work and what it means to have a job and be an employee are varied as well. It may take some adjustments to your organizational culture, but business leaders should resist trying to cast them in the mold of previous generations, and make room for them to be themselves. It will help your company innovate and grow.

Likewise, when marketing and selling products or services to Gen Z, we need to treat them as individuals, not as a group. They live their lives almost entirely online; we now have the ability to use technology to target and customize messaging at an individual level, so this isn’t as challenging as it once was.

With Gen Z, we need to shift our thinking away from the neat, compartmentalized groupings and stereotypes of generations past, and toward what these diverse individuals can teach us about the future.

Stephanie Peterson

Stephanie Peterson is the assistant vice-president of Cognizant's Digital Operations consulting practice for the media,...


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