The problem with Generation Z

By Tom Ablewhite

UX professionals should question when a client comes to them asking to design for generation Z, or any generation for that matter.

Creating generational categories around dates of birth is the wrong way to segment people when trying to design various strategies for a target market. Instead, businesses should be considering how people look at themselves and society and how environmental and geographical factors affect individuals.

Another problem with trying to use generations when coming up with designs or marketing strategies, is the lack of consensus on what age range millennials are covered under. 

Various media and research stretch the millennial generational age from 1977 all the way to 2000. Most millennials reject the generational definition, with only 40% of “millennials” accepting the label

One look at how generations X, Y, Z are defined:

Born 1960-79 = Generation X

Characterised as being saddled with permanent cynicism. Too young to have fought in any major war, old enough to have enjoyed a free education – they have spent too much of their adulthood sitting around in coffee shops trying to set the world to rights. And failing...

Millennials = 1980+ Split into two groups:

Born 1980-1994 = Generation Y 

Born between the advent of the Walkman and the founding of Google, they are unsurprisingly shaped by technology. Some have made fortunes from it (Zuckerberg). As well as being comfortable sharing their entire life online, this is the selfish, self-regarding generation. "Let me take a Selfie," is their catchphrase.

1994+ = Generation Z (a.k.a. Post-Millennials, Gen Wii, iGeneration)

Too young to remember 9/11, they have grown up in a world in political and financial turmoil. As a result, they are keen to look after their money, and make the world a better place. Sometimes described as the "first tribe of true digital natives" or "screenagers". But unlike the older Gen Y, they are smarter, safer, more mature and want to change the world. 

The reason for caution

UX professionals tend to be slightly suspicious of the stereotyping of people. Grouping people into generations isn’t actually very useful because they are too general. As seen above there are sweeping allegations about the personalities of people based simply on their date of birth. We should instead focus on people who are interested in the product, rather than a wider audience by age range.

Personas are more useful to designers, rather than focusing on a specific market segmentation based on generations. Political, economic, technological, environmental and geographic factors affect how people view themselves and society around them and these considerations should be driving decisions around a target market when trying to sell a product or service. 

When businesses focus on selling to generation Z they are focusing on an age range, rather than focusing on the sorts of people who would actually be interested in their product or service. 

If instead, for example, an automotive brand focused on people who were interested in buying into security, longevity and value for money – then the design for that product experience should reflect the attributes those clients display, such as being naturally reflective, considered, and conventional. It is more important to work with persona/pen portraits that would exemplify these traits if they were the target market for a product or service.

Rather than looking at millennials as a whole, they can, and should be, broken down. Yes, some of them are following the classic Generation Y traits, but equally some of them are showing attributes more in tune with post-war baby boomers. Some interesting traits from recent research show Gen Z-ers to be sensible and realistic, and if brands understood this mentality they could design better products and more impactful campaigns.

Ultimately, are all 18-24 year-olds the same? No, they’re not.

Consider using Mosaic profiles (or your regions’ equivalent) that segment the population by the neighbourhoods in which they reside, specifically demographics around household structure, life stage and culture, property and tenure information, economic indicators, census data, term time addresses for students, as well as physical, human, and geographical insights. 

An example of different segments within millennials: 

“Side Street Singles”, Young singles in cramped rented town flats, with little disposable income, are very different from “Study Buddies”, students living in halls of residence and vibrant but unloved private student housing. “Crash Pad Professionals” are young, well paid, mostly single professionals, who have chosen flats suitable for commuting to urban jobs. 

Each of these segments will have different desires, expectations, opinions, attitudes and perceptions. They will all have a unique view of the world around them – the things they see, say, do, hear, think and feel. They will have different fears, frustrations and obstacles they want to overcome, and certain needs, measures of success and aspirations for a product in mind.  

Personas are not deliverables, but tools. Tools that consolidate archetypal descriptions of user behavior patterns into representative profiles, to humanize design focus, test scenarios and aid design communication.

Use your micro-segmentation, use your empathy maps, you cannot design one thing for all people. So, when you’re designing, design with personas, not generations.

Tom Ablewhite

When you say “Why?”… that’s what I love. I find it rewarding to give you the empirical evidence you need to understand your problem and confidently decide which direction to take.

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