They’re Just Getting Started

Last semester, I conducted one-on-one, hour-long interviews with ten FIT students who fit into the demographic called “Generation Z.” Born between 1996 and 2010, this post-millennial group makes up a quarter of the U.S. population, and according to Fast Company, by 2020 will account for 40 percent of all consumers. I wanted to know what they were like as people.
“They’re a retrieval generation,” says Al Romano, chair of Advertising and Marketing Communications (AMC), who discusses Gen Z in his Intro to Marketing classes. Google has shaped the way they learn: “They’ll say, ‘I don’t need to memorize this stuff. I can just look it up.’” They might seem to know little, but these digital natives fascinate older adults–particularly marketers, who are puzzling out ways to reach them. “A lot of AMC alumni have come back and said, ‘We want input from current students,’” Romano says.
Gen Z is the future. And they’re a mystery.

Professor Al Romano

In the interviews, we discussed technology and social media, of course. I asked about their cultural touchstones–entertainers, games, politics, even (yes, really) books. They told me how their generation differs from their parents’. They described their dreams, hopes, and fears.
The result is not a statistical study of Gen Z, but a snapshot of FIT’s version of the demographic–Manhattan-based, public-university educated, and middle class. They tended, perhaps predictably, to lean liberal. But there were some surprises: Most watched the presidential debates live, and none of them read ebooks. “A book is an experience,” student Ishani Shah explains.
“I fit into the description of Generation Z,” Corinne Rudis says, “but I’m also a human, an individual.” At the start of the project, I thought I was taking the pulse of a generation, but I ended up with a series of unique portraits.

• • • • • •

AGE 20

“Generation Z is about immediacy–the need for instant gratification,” Tara Levy says. “And the internet makes that need more intense.” She’s just started her own social media company, Savvy Sisters Media Group. “We have four clients, and we’re growing,” she says. Each client has a different target audience. “For the gaming company, we use Facebook, Twitter, and Reddit,” she says. “The makeup company audience wants a lot of visuals and consumer engagement and Twitter chats.” Her company takes pride in its speedy response to customer feedback: “If you do it within the hour, you get 10 times the success. If someone comments, ‘I love these brushes,’ we’ll reply, ‘We appreciate these comments. Stay tuned!’ If someone says something really nice, we’ll message them and try to start a conversation. We don’t want to make it sound like a brand. It should sound like a real person talking to you.”

“If my phone dies, I feel empty. It’s so sad.”

Levy is learning firsthand what professional marketers are beginning to understand. Prof. Romano says he recently surveyed his students about what influenced their recent purchases. “No one said advertising,” he says. “It was all word of mouth on social media.” Olivia Grow, AMC ’13,who addresses the Gen Z audience in her work as a branded content creator for The New York Times, says, “Young readers are smart. They know what’s an ad, and what’s not.” The Times recently purchased a database of social influencers–people from the worlds of fashion, home, beauty, and design with up to 100,000 followers, who post unobtrusively about products on their social media feed–to appeal to this younger demographic.

Levy just read #Girlboss, the autobiography of Sophia Amoruso, CEO of fashion retailer Nasty Gal. “She’s now the highest-paid female CEO in the world.”

AGE 19

“According to Prof. Romano, young people can be awkward in face-to-face encounters. “They’re losing their social skills,” he says. Julia Kempner agrees: “My father took me and this friend to a Broadway show and she opened up her phone” and started using Snapchat.
“I said, ‘Put that away! Look around you!’” For Kempner, reality is far more intriguing than anything virtual, and that includes shopping.

“I just genuinely don’t care about social media.”

“I refuse to shop online,” she says. “Just go to a store! They’re out there! What, you don’t want to walk around the corner?” As the president of FIT’s theater club, she maintains a Facebook presence to communicate with members, but her dislike of social media runs deep: “It’s weird to be famous for nothing. I value Alton Brown because he taught me how to cook. But to say: ‘This is my butt and I’m famous for it’? That I don’t understand.” She thinks apps and phones help explain the election outcome. “Social media and the internet have almost devalued facts: ‘If Grandma posts that Hillary Rodham Clinton has murdered seven people, it must be true!’””

AGE 18

Prof. Romano says Gen Z tends to be more concerned with privacy than the millennials, and that is definitely true of Ishani Shah, who says, “I’m a little conservative on social media. I don’t check in everyplace or post a picture of my plane ticket.” She says oversharing can lead to crime: “When you tell someone where you’re going to be, you’re also telling them where you’re NOT going to be”–i.e., your apartment.

“Technology takes you away from the world.”

In general, she says, “I’d rather read than watch Netflix.”
Shah’s views were partly shaped by her upbringing in Gujarat, India. “My grandparents were in a community,”she says, and virtual connections just aren’t the same thing: “You might have a ton of Instagram followers, but still be eating alone.”

AGE 19

For Gen Z, Facebook is over. The students find it both too cluttered and too “curated.” Olivia Grow ’13 at The New York Times says the company is aware that young people are seeking “authenticity”–hence the Gray Lady’s emphasis on immediate, digital media reporting, like recent videos captured by civilians in Syria.

Gabriela Martinez seems made for the era of spontaneous authenticity. Asked to name her style, she nails it without a pause: “sporty, edgy, skate-y; but girly and feminine.”

“Snapchat is like behind the scenes of your life.”

Martinez is a big fan of the literary classic Lolita.

She recently read Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita and is also familiar with the filmed version by Stanley Kubrick. She’s a bit worried about finding stable work after graduation (in the cosmetics industry, she hopes), but she’s ready for a more varied career path than her parents’ generation: “My mother just retired after 28 years at one company.” She finds hope in the self-affirming motto of the Gen Z era: “You have to do you.”

AGE 19

Last spring, when Will Martinez was going through a rough patch, he discovered a website called PenPal World. Now he regularly messages friends in Russia, Poland, India, and Hungary. He says he’s learned that
“I’m an entitled American middle-class kid. My pen pal from Poland was asking, ‘Who are you voting for?’ I need to be informed, because the whole world is watching our election.” He learned about the bombing of Aleppo this way, too: “My pen pal from Russia talks about it, because he’s from the southern part of Russia,” near Syria. Otherwise, he’s not so big on social media, and prefers to spend his time offline, wandering around Manhattan alone and reflecting.

“I swear by Beyoncé.”

When it comes to his personal style, he says, “I don’t like to stick out too much. I want to wear one thing that’s weird, a conversation starter. Buddha prayer beads. Zebra stripe suede Adidas high-tops.” Fashion brands don’t really interest him. “My roommate’s, like, into Hermès, and I’m like, ‘I don’t know who that is.’”

AGE 21

Wong loves Monument Valley, a video game: “The designers wanted to make every screen so beautiful it could be a poster. It was featured at the Cooper Hewitt Design Museum.”

Karen Wong is minoring in Creative Technology at FIT, and hopes to become a UX/UI (user experience/user interface) programmer, designing “website and app layouts. Creating seamless experiences–how to pay, or get to the homepage,” she says. “Social media takes up 50 percent of my life,” and she’s already using it to network professionally: “I follow this Facebook group called Interactive Design Association (IxDA). I go to their meetups to make contacts and meet famous designers. Also, you get a lot of exposure.” When she’s had enough of technology, it’s time to go hiking in Maine or Wyoming with her family or boyfriend. Also: “If I’m working, I use a program to block Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, Snapchat, and Pinterest.” She likes them all.

“I have a policy of being nice to everyone.”

Almost all the students brought up the November election. Wong felt disappointed by the results: “I thought America was multicultural, a melting pot,” she says, “but it turned out to
be racist.”

AGE 18

Like many students I spoke with, Kiana Brooks sees Gen Z as progressive. “We were raised in a socially advanced environment,” she says.“Our president was black when we were growing up. Gay rights are a right. I think we have more of a general acceptance.” Recently, she watched disturbing scenes of racist police violence on the internet.

Brooks follows Disney TV star Zendaya on Instagram.

Though they were upsetting, she is comforted by the thought that social media makes people more tolerant and aware: “People are increasingly interested in things outside of themselves, like international affairs.” The shift in values could have consequences for her career. She wants to own a fashion company, and she doesn’t see her race as a barrier. It’s different for her parents, she says. “They are very worried about the way people view me in terms of being black. I don’t really see that.”

“I don’t feel any limitations on who I want to be.”

AGE 20

For Gianna Alhadidi, social media is a tool to help her grow artistically: “I use Instagram to create a portfolio of images. From my first pictures to now, I’ve found more of what my eye is drawn to, and my compositions are better.” She works at a popular technology company, but this cautious futurist draws the line at wearables. “I don’t know how I feel about smart watches,” she says. “That would put text messages literally on my body.”

“You want to help humanity instead of just achieving success for yourself.”

Alhadidi looks to Instagram to sharpen her creative vision.

Gen Z thinks about their careers differently than her parents’ generation, Alhadidi says: “Their way of getting ahead was through talent. Our way is more networking; your platform, how many people you know, and how many people know you.” And Gen Z’s understanding of success itself has shifted: “It’s less about the money you make, more about experiences and being fulfilled.”


AGE 18

Prof. Romano says, “Gen Z is constantly connected. They sleep with their phone.” Most of the students did cop to phone addiction, but they’re also wary of this tendency. Corinne Rudis grew up in Texas, where her peers mainly use Twitter: “It’s like a pure stream of thought.” Online chats unite her with friends all over the world, and she says the diverse connections have broadened her mind. “I’ll nonchalantly text 50 times a day–to friends in Texas, San Francisco, and Tokyo. The valedictorian of my high school is half-Korean and she’s into K-pop, so now I’m interested in that. Another friend is gay and came out to his parents. We all supported him in group chat.”

“We have nostalgia for the simple time before technology.”

Rudis is slowly working her way through Anna Karenina.

Still, Rudis has reservations about technology: “You’re exposed to so much information you’re supposed to know that it’s almost like an overload for me.” An aspiring artist, she’s worried about the implications for her field. “My art teacher impressed on me the importance of art as an experience–something for the five senses,” she says. “I like to sculpt because it’s tactile. You lose a lot with a photo of a piece of art. Like the smell–the smell of antiques and dusty old furniture.”

AGE 19

Wexler-Rubinstein follows pop-culture commentator Josh Ostrovsky, aka “The Fat Jewish,” on Instagram.

For Brian Wexler-Rubinstein, the generation gap is pronounced. “My parents’ generation think they know what is best and don’t stay updated,” he says, and the election underscored the difference: “My grandparents immigrated from Russia. They were pro-Trump. They didn’t think a woman could govern. I was pro-Hillary.” But the comparison doesn’t always favor Gen Z: “Our parents have a better work ethic. They had to work to get what they want.”

Many of the interviewees worry about global warming. Wexler-Rubinstein says he’s shocked that many Republicans say climate change is a hoax. In his mind, sustainable design is not just better for the planet; it looks better, too: “It’s clean and classy, more contemporary, not in your face. Why shouldn’t our future be that way?”

“I’m a big proponent of sustainability. Otherwise we’re gonna have to live on Mars”