Digitally native global Gen Z lead surprisingly analogue lives

Gen Z is about to become the biggest generation on the planet, so knowing what makes these consumers tick is really important – and a new study shows that they might not be quite the people we thought they were.

The 16m college students in the US are heading back to their colleges and universities at the moment after the biggest Back-to-School season in recent history, and the study shows them to be a surprising mix of the analogue and the digital.

Called Gen Z: Decoding the Digital Generation by global Student Affinity Network UNiDAYS and Ad Age Studio 30, the study is based on responses from almost 23,000 college students aged 17-23 in the US, UK, Australia and New Zealand.

Physical vs digital

Looking at what the students have been buying and where, it reveals that “Gen Zers’ relationship to digital technology is more complex than commonly thought” and they make some “surprisingly traditional choices when it comes to their technology usage and purchasing habits, despite growing up side by side with the internet”. 

For example, while 98% own a smartphone, only 22% of respondents have used it to shop online and many of them prefer to interact with a brand face-to-face in a retail location.

The report also discovered that they read hard-copy books doing away with the assumption that Gen Z is mobile-only, digital-only, and virtual reality-only. In fact, 77% of respondents prefer reading printed books.

And when it comes to video content, although 61% of respondents have fully switched to streaming services, 28% still subscribe to cable, and 32% watch streaming services on an old-fashioned TV.

And talking of using traditional devices, a full 93% of them own a laptop with only 44% owning tablets. In the US, 41% of students prefer to watch streaming services on a laptop and 60% prefer using a traditional computer when making purchases online. And if they have a question, 40% prefer to reach out to brands on email.

Given that this is also seen as a generation that’s all about sharing their lives online, there are some more surprises. While conventional wisdom assumes this generation chronicles every detail of their lives on social media, almost 60% don’t trust Facebook with their personal data, and while 78% let some apps know their geo-location, they don’t give that kind of permission to all of them.

“The most important takeaway for marketers is that while Gen Z appears to be digital-first, they still have more than a few analogue habits,” said Alex Gallagher, CMO of UNiDAYS. “For example, while Gen Z loves browsing online, they still enjoy shopping at brick-&-mortar stores. It’s critical for brands to develop a cohesive strategy, across both online and offline, that caters to their unique preferences.”

“Gen Zers are more complex than the marketing myths would have us believe – and also more unified,” the report added with the respondents across the four countries all showing similar attitudes.

It seems it doesn’t matter where they live, they take digital in their stride, even if they choose not to be fully digital in all aspects of their lives.

But while certain digital items are essentials for them (98% own a smartphone and we’ve already seen the large number who own laptop), only 14% own a smartwatch and only 18% use fitness trackers. While price could be a factor in the smartwatch category, that’s not the case for fitness trackers. It could simply be that they see neither as must-haves just yet. And in the case of fitness trackers, perhaps this age group is benefiting from the fact that they’re young and can stay fit and healthy just by living their lives rather than having to monitor their activity.

Cutting out the noise

The survey also shows that, with their entire lives dominated by online activity and its constant stream of ads and messaging, they usually ignore digital noise unless it’s relevant. That means 64% don’t listen to podcasts, 56% don’t click on ads when browsing websites, but 84% do pay attention to out-of-home advertising.

“Engaging Gen Z on ‘social media’ is a generic, sure-to-fail strategy. It would be like saying shopping malls were a good way of engaging Baby Boomers or members of the Silent Generation. Nice recommendation and all, but can we please be more specific,” the report said. 

“With Gen Z, we see the same need for specificity come into play. They may not be keen about website ads, but 84% said they pay attention to digital ads in familiar media placements such as trains, malls, airports and taxis. Key takeaway: Whether they’re online or off, Gen Z is all over the place when it comes to engagement with brands [so] don’t take a one size-fits-all approach.”


With increasing influence and spending power, Gen Z are a force to be reckoned with. For more insight, download WGSN’s white paper The Gen Z Equation.

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