Cracking the code to youth marketing has become a universal struggle across the globe and across categories. Digitisation has transformed the world and consumers are growing up quicker as a result, pushing brands to rethink how they segment consumers and how they speak to them.
Demographics have traditionally defined groups of people across a 15-year time span who boasted similar attitudes and behaviours. But in a period of tech-celleration and rapid innovation, 15-year spans may no longer be adequate when it comes down to accurate labelling.
Micro-generations (also known as "fringe" or "cusp" groups) offer brands the ability to better understand consumer attitudes (and how they change within 15 years and where they intersect), which can transform the way brands market their products. Cusp groups such as Zennials straddle two demographics and typically embody characteristics of both generations. While Millennials and Gen Z are two groups with distinct identities and expectations around messaging, Zennials represent a cluster of consumers with blended expectations. Brands can either choose to go after one segment or opt for more general messaging that taps into the Zennial psyche, ultimately catering to both groups who have a combined spending power of nearly $3tn.
In this report, we uncover the complexity of generational groupings, highlighting the differences between Western Millennials and Gen Z, and articulating Zennials, the micro-generation, operating between the two. This report is based off findings in a quantitative survey of 1,395 Zennials via Instagram polls and a focus group of 100 Zennials. The results will help brands better understand two consumers they already know well, but don’t necessarily understand the differences between. It may also help create more targeted consumer personas that straddle both groups. Some names of survey participants have been changed.
With the fast-moving nature of the world, it's hard to justify that someone born at the start and tail end of that generation would share the same behaviours and attitudes. How could a Millennial born in 1980 embody the same rituals and outlook on the world as someone born in 1994, when the circumstances of the world they grew up in and their experiences with technology are so different?
In this era of rapid digital acceleration, the differences within a 15-year span are even more pronounced as the world shifts quicker than ever before, creating new consumer paradigms at record speed.
Generational labels: WGSN Insight closely tracks five generations: Boomers, Gen X, Millennials, Gen Z and Alphas, but it doesn’t stop there. Micro-generations are also closely monitored, existing at the tail ends of each cohort. These are typically smaller groups born in bursts of time that extend only six years, versus the 15 years a generation typically stretches on for.
It's understood that the truest definition of a generation is found in those born within the middle of a generation's 15-year span, but these cusp cohorts (operating on the fringes) help brands understand the disparity within a group and the link between two generations.
Brands can better understand customer segments based on when they were born, what tech was available at the time they came of age and how this influenced their perception of money, community and connection later in life.
Micro-generations: transitional generations are not a new concept, but in a time of rapid change that dramatically transforms the way society shops, connects and communicates, understanding these groups can help marketers better serve wider audiences, and consumers seem to agree.
In a recent survey conducted by WGSN, 60% of 100 individuals aged 22 to 28 said they feel generations should be shorter periods of time as they don't feel adequately represented by being bucketed into either Millennial or Gen Z labels.
Consumers actually want brands to put in the work to get to know who they are, beyond a simple grouping based on birth year. When Brianne of New York City was asked if she likes being associated with Gen Z given that she is a 22-year-old, she said: "Not at all! I just downloaded TikTok this week, I'm not up-to-date on meme culture, my skin cringes at the sight of VSCO girls, [and] if I were to get a text from a 15-year-old, I don't think I'd have the slightest clue what they were saying."
Xennials and Zennials: up until this point, the most famous micro-generation had been the Xennials, the small but mighty group straddling Gen X and Millennials, born between 1976 and 1982. Despite being perched between the Xers (known as the "forgotten generation" filled with cynics) and Millennials (who are time-poor, debt-ridden and overworked), Xennials are considered to be one of the luckiest cohorts. They were
born too late to be impacted by the economic hardship of the late 1980s and despite being too old to be deemed a digital-first group, they quickly caught up with technology and also share that same optimism common to Millennials, proving just how unique this group is compared to the demographics they're sitting between. Zennials, nestled between Millennials and Gen Z and born between 1992 and 1998, represent the next iteration of a cusp cohort under spotlight.
Rebranding youth: in the recent past, marketers have made the mistake of grouping Millennials and Gen Z under a unifying youth moniker without recognising the nuances of both parties and where their behaviours and attitudes intersect. Brands must get to know Zennials and their link to both Millennials and Gen Z in order to deliver more effective marketing.
Also consider tapping into the collective youthful spirit by exploring mindset marketing, combining psychographics with demographics. Uncover the shared emotional states and attitudes of Millennials and Gen Z (think anxiety or skepticism) in order to create messaging and experiences that resonate across the board.
Millennials and Gen Z are often lumped together despite being two different cohorts defined by their own unique cultural perspectives and technological habits. While both groups are socially savvy, they have their own relationships with platforms and were raised by members of different generations (Boomers raised Millennials, while Gen X raised Gen Z), which had an impact on shaping their outlook on life.
Who are Millennials? Born between 1980 and 1994, this group have clear memories of a pre-digital world, spending their childhoods engaging in analogue activities (visiting video stores to rent movies and libraries to borrow books) before embracing digital experiences as adults.
They were not born into a digital society, but quickly adapted as tweens and teens, which set the tone for the rest of their lives. "Millennials aged inside the internet," said one WGSN survey participant.
The eldest Millennial graduated college just before or during the global financial crisis, which likely slowed their career progression.They entered a lacklustre job market upon graduation, working in roles they were overqualified for just to pay back loans for the degree they weren't utilising.
Millennials bounced between jobs, giving rise to the gig economy and feeding hustle culture. Less well-off than their Boomer parents were at the same age and earning less over their lifetimes, Millennials may have had to move in with their parents to save money and delay or even opt-out of marriage, children and home ownership.
Over the last 15 years, Millennial cliches have become a part of the pop culture lexicon, accelerating with the rise of memes. They were called lazy, entitled and industry killers, but in reality, many were scrappy, resilient and creative, rewriting the rules of work, connection and community.
They launched industries that gave birth to the experience economy and catapulted conversations around the environment, body image and mental health into the mainstream.
Who are Gen Z? born between 1995 and 2010, Gen Z is ushering in a 'population tsunami'. This group is comprised of digital natives that turn to social media for everything. They're self-taught, pragmatic, resourceful and fluid in their identities and beliefs. Online almost constantly, they're laser focused on curating their social feeds and personal brand, which are extensions of their IRL identities.
Like Millennials, who have their own set of contradictions (see Millennial Extremes), Gen Z comprises two sub-groups which represent two unique identities under the Gen Z umbrella, as called out in our The Gen Z Equation report. There's Gen Me, the dominant force currently being marketed to, driven by status, style, success and hype. On the other end of spectrum is Gen We, the small but mighty group of consumers forcing brands to rethink their strategies. This group is made up of change-makers unafraid to use their voice to advocate for causes they deem important, such as sustainability, equality and mental health.
There is a difference between having knowledge of a major event and having that event directly impact your livelihood and safety. For example, when asked to define a cultural or societal moment that shaped their outlook on life, most Zennials pointed to the global financial crisis of 2008.
The eldest Zennial was just 16 (the youngest aged 10), so most could not comprehend how the crisis would impact their futures. They may have seen it effect their parents or siblings, but Zennials were too young to have it alter their own finances or job prospects. What this crisis did do is instil fear in Zennials, which we know is an emotion that is a demographic unifier. They came of age baring witness to the impact the crisis had on older counterparts. While the economy recovered by the time they left school, Zennials knew it could happen again.
As the world again braces for another recession, Zennials fear the impact will leave them disadvantaged for years. When asked what she is most concerned with for the future, Marta, 23 of London, said: "I fear that the situation and the recession will have a long lasting impact on my career.”
Wars, violence and crisis such as Covid-19 were also named as defining moments for Zennials. They were just kids during 9/11 (some were even toddlers). While the eldest might have some memory of life before, Zennials were the first group to grow up in a post-9/11 world.
They endured the fear of gun violence in schools and racism and bigotry online. Political chaos (Brexit and the 2016 US election) defined their early adulthood, (the eldest were 24 and the youngest were voting for the first time at age 18).
Social media activism defines both Millennials and Gen Z, with many advocating for hashtag campaigns (think #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo ). As young adults, Zennials witnessed first hand how social silence became an act of compliance in these hyper-sensitive times.
The youth have historically gotten a bad wrap over time, leading to a certain stigma around being young. Millennials were cast as lazy and entitled, and now Gen Z are dubbed as self-centred fame chasers.
The generational pendulum is a fluid space for Zennials, who are sandwiched between two generations and influenced by both sides. Zennials are very opinionated about where they stand on this spectrum and have showed strong preferences.
Many feel too old to be Gen Z and assume they're Millennials by default. "[I] prefer [Millennial] to Gen Z because I don't relate to the TikTok or Emma Chamberlain-esque influencer vibes," said Jessie, 22 of Melbourne, Australia. In a global survey of 1,395 Zennials, 70% admitted they feel more aligned with Millennial sentiments, while 30% said the same of Gen Z.
As each new crop of young people are cast off as inexperienced and blissfully unaware of the workings of the world, ageism becomes an issue. "It used to be annoying because Millennials had such a bad reputation and got bad press all the time. I think people understand us better now," said Carla, 27 of Switzerland. Some Zennials have fear that being branded as either Gen Z or Millennial can actually tarnish their status and input in the workplace.
One London-based 24-year-old says she prefers to be seen as a Millennial so that her peers take her more seriously. "Within the context of my professional career [and] my seniority, I prefer to be grouped up", while 24-year-old Melissa, in Lincoln, UK, feels disposable, saying she's "too young to make a difference in the team, but [too] old to be considered [trendy] and fresh."