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Gen Z: The Generation of Contradictions

Updated: Apr 1, 2023

Brands are always trying to understand who Gen Z is; however, Gen Zers ourselves are also trying to understand who Gen Z is. Creating simple, broad definitions of Gen Z fails to fully capture the contradictions Gen Zers live in as we evolve to meet our potential. We’re a generation that values authenticity, but we don’t always present an honest version of ourselves online. We want brands to become a part of our communities, but we don’t want them to take up space that should be ours. We’re advocates online, but sometimes our advocacy falls short of activism. Oversimplifying who Gen Z is leads brands to ignore a vital component of our current identity - Gen Z is a generation of contradictions.

BeReal, but not too real

Gen Z strives for authenticity, but our online presence becomes inauthentic. BeReal and Instagram photo dumps are popular in the social media space because they’re built around the idea of being unapologetically authentic. BeReal prompts users to share whatever they’re doing at any random time of day, and photo dumps were supposed to erase the pressure of aesthetics by “making Instagram casual again.” Despite creating the perfect opportunity for authenticity, Gen Zers will wait hours to post their BeReal until they’re doing something exciting, and TikTok influencers like Jaci Marie Smith (@jacimariesmith) attract 2.3 million views by sharing tips on curating the perfect photo dump.

Video Credit: @jacimariesmith via TikTok

Gen Z loves the idea of being authentic, but we still feel the need to share an aesthetically pleasing version of our lives that mimics authenticity. Social media apps have yet to help us overcome this hurdle, and they may never be able to do so. Brands, on the other hand, can give Gen Z a chance to be authentic both offline and online. When a brand lets Gen Zers decide who we are with customizable products, it opens a gateway to genuinely express our personality. Gen Z also values a brand that can demonstrate authenticity in its own values. We’re drawn to brands like Crocs that stay true to its core values regardless of popularity. The recent Crocs comeback that swept through Gen Z is the result of easy customization with Jibbitz and the comfort that comes with supporting a brand that still holds the same values it did when we were kids.

Credit: Crocs

Be a safe space, but don’t take up space

Brands should join Gen Z communities, but a brand shouldn’t take over a community by changing the culture. We want brands to be aware of Gen Z culture and get involved when it makes sense for the brand to do so. Instead of trying to co-opt Gen Z humor, brands should find communities and causes that relate to its brand purpose while connecting with Gen Z’s values.

The McDonald’s meal collaborations with famous musical artists are a great example of how a brand can enter a community without inserting itself where it doesn’t belong. The BTS Meal was a hit for the fast food company, allowing McDonald’s to generate $1 million in sales while Gen Zers bought food that was specifically catered to their interests.

Credit: McDonald's

Outside of fanbases, brands should support social issues in ways that can’t be done by Gen Z alone. Gen Zers are aware that brands will usually only support a cause if there’s profit-based value for the brand, but uniting the profit motive with external consumer interests will form a greater sense of trust with Gen Z. We’re aware of the issues that are most important to us, and we want to support brands that use their influence to enact positive change.

Be an advocate, but not an activist

Half of Gen Z has yet to enter the workforce, and some can’t even vote yet. Despite loud voices and large total spending power, Gen Z may sacrifice values and prioritize price instead. Take Shein, for example. Gen Z cares about issues like the environment and workers’ rights. We are advocates for brands that fight the fast fashion economy. However, Shein allows Gen Z to access trends and tap into their love of customization. Shein also has a wide range of sizes and lower prices in comparison to many brands that prioritize sustainability. Because Shein is accessible and targets the low-price priority, they entice Gen Z to go against our values and buy from them.

Gen Z is looking for brands that will not only follow their own values but make it possible for us to act on them. ThredUp is one such brand that empowers Gen Z to turn advocacy into action. Not only does this start-up promote sustainability through their pre-loved clothes at a wide range of prices, but they also connect with consumers by allowing them to be a part of the selling process. Last summer, they targeted Shein by creating a social post with a call to action to protest a nearby Shein pop-up.

via @thredup on Instagram

This is a brand speaking out against another brand that lacks advocacy, catching the attention of many Gen Zers and empowering us to follow through on our values.

Gen Z is on the brink of change

These contradictions might feel confusing, but they speak to the chaotic, transitory phase Gen Z is currently experiencing. Gen Z is caught in the middle of a transition period as we grow into our full potential. We have an idea of who we want to be, but we’re not quite there yet. We’re toeing the line between childhood and adulthood, and we’re still learning where we fit into the world, which is constantly in flux on its own. Because of this, Gen Z exists in a space where two opposing ideas can both be true. We are on the brink of change, and that brink is full of contradictions.

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While we’re still guiding ourselves through these contradictions, the fully Gen Z team at The Agency is in a unique place to guide brands through these contradictions. Contact us here to prepare your brand for the soon-to-be most powerful generation.


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