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Generation Z’s challenge to communicators

Photo by Callum Shaw on Unsplash.

This article was first published in Influence magazine in November 2021.

When you think back to your late teens are you reminded of your school leavers parties? Freshers fairs? Gap years? Late night park gatherings (or maybe that was just me)? Whatever your privilege, those years for millennials, Generation X, boomers, involved some form of exploration into adulthood: meeting new people, new jobs, new experiences, new relationships.

Now imagine what the last year was like for Generation Z (the generation born between 1997 and 2012). Their exams cancelled (and results mis-handled), forced to lock down with their parents or a bunch of strangers all giving them Covid, travel bans, pub crawls criminalised. If you’re a parent of a Gen Zer, all credit to you; you’ve likely felt a lot of their pain. If you’re not, you’ve probably mainly interacted with them online, either as a fellow social media user or a brand responding to one of the many demands companies have received to defend their positions on many critical issues including climate change, historical abuse, and racial and gender inequality.

Because when the world stopped working, Generation Z started activating.

I met Laith Jafaar as part of the Engaging Youth conference in early 2021. At the time, he was Deputy President of Sheffield Hallam University Students’ Union. He sat on a virtual panel I was chairing, made up of bright, young Gen Zers, brimming with a heady combination of energy, enthusiasm and determination. I was struck by the idea that these young people had had so much taken away from them, only for them to respond by taking on the responsibilities of changing the world they were growing up into.

I went back to Laith for this article, asking him to tell me more about his own and his peers’ experiences. “Our generation has been brought up with social media ingrained within us; we have not lived in a world without its existence…We can attract mass audiences in a matter of seconds. This motivates us to speak up and channel activism through digital platforms, especially in circumstances that are not in the promotion of inclusivity. Now that we can spread our messages across the world so immediately, we feel we must unveil the stories of those who are often brushed aside."

Chloe Combi, author of Generation Z: Their Voices, Their Lives and host of the podcast You Don’t Know Me told Influence about the flavour that this generation is bringing to social media: “I think the general state of the world has been driving genuine Gen Z activism significantly in recent years and you’ve seen a seismic shift in even social media from very millennial-ish, narcissistic self-branding that so typified Instagram to a much more activismcentred type of posting that TikTok does so much better. Gen Z have definitely shifted towards influencers who have something to say or do - more Greta Thunberg than Kylie Jenner - and the anxiety that the future is here has really ramped up and the fact there is no time to waste.”

Generation Z, or ‘Zoomers’, are often called out for their cancel culture. A quick Google on the issue results in stories of them cancelling: skinny jeans, the ‘crying with laughter’ emoji, Paw Patrol, Eminem and the whole millennial generation (I’m with the Zoomers on at least half of these). Even Barack Obama heaped criticism on them in a speech last year: “Like, if I tweet or hashtag about how you didn’t do something right or used the wrong verb, then I can sit back and feel pretty good about myself, cause, ‘Man, you see how woke I was, I called you out.’ That’s not activism. That’s not bringing about change."

This generation’s activism may spread online, but there are genuine change-makers among them and ignoring this force is a mistake that organisations cannot afford to make. Direct challenges to brands about their carbon usage and sustainability claims is an important example of where Generation Z places a focus. In its Generation Regen report, Wunderman Thompson reports that 71% of Generation Z are willing to protest to help the planet, compared to 48% across all generations, and 64% say they will actively boycott brands if they are doing nothing to help reverse climate change. Climate change really matters to this generation; they are already experiencing it, and like Greta, they have no patience for excuses any more.

The fallout of the Black Lives Matter protests provided fertile ground for Zoomers calling out brands on social media: they hastened the long-delayed retirement of Aunt Jemima’s racist stereotype that has adorned its pancake mixes and syrups for decades and Sharon Chuter’s #pulluporshutup campaign forced beauty brands to look further than the odd donation when assessing racial equality across the industry.

Closer to home, the reaction to Everyone’s Invited, a site set up by 22-year-old Soma Sara to surface testimonies about rape culture in Britain’s schools resulted in the NSPCC launching a helpline and Ofsted announcing immediate reviews into allegations about a culture of cover-up at specific institutions.

Chloe Combi says: “Gen Z have very different expectations of brands now and there isn’t really a middle space for brands hoping to reach young people to sit on the fence - they are practically required to take an ideological position, because young people align the brands they choose with their own personal brand. For example, if a brand is perceived as not being adequately supportive enough of the LGBT+ community, kids will go elsewhere … a day/week/month in the social media stocks can be hugely harmful to reputation and the bottom line, so they have to manage this carefully - but beware authenticity. There was a lot of collective eyerolling about the BLM squares brands were suddenly putting up on Insta, so performative support to a cause can be more damaging than helpful.”

So, where does that leave communicators? Issues such as Black Lives Matter, #MeToo and climate change have truly challenged the way we perceive a crisis. Your organisation isn’t solely at fault for any of these issues, and yet it is being challenged to take a position, in public, by young empowered customers. Bloomberg states Gen Z have an annual estimated global spend power of US$200 billion, but including parental influence, an indirect spend of US$3 trillion.

While their spending power will have been impacted by the pandemic, these young people are beginning to earn their first pay cheques, and their earning power will only grow in importance to brands over the coming years.

While Generation Z has disrupted the way we can respond to reputational crises (a simple reactive statement, potentially escalated to an ‘internal inquiry’ no longer cuts it), surely this takes us back to the core of our role: reflecting external views, horizon scanning and pushing our organisations to take an authentic stance on complex issues. If anything, these issues should force us to re-examine the responses we’ve written for our organisations and challenge ourselves: is this going far enough? Is this the best we can do? It will necessitate challenging our organisations on the very ways in which they do business, collaborating with other business functions such as HR, operations and the supply chain, and challenging leadership to make bold decisions for the future, to develop rigorous approaches and defendable positions.

Things are rarely as simple as a 21-year-old sees them, but their ideas are worth hearing as part of the conversation, and it’s important that we clearly explain what the complexities are – authentically and with humility.

While I sympathise with our youngsters for their missed proms, graduation ceremonies and drunken nights out, it is their futures that I choose to hold myself accountable for – or at least by coming up with something better than a reactive statement.

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