WGSN | Gen Z: Emotions in 2020
Gen Z are often celebrated for being fearless and resilient, but they're also emotionally scarred. Growing up in a post-9/11 world, fear and anxiety have been constant in their lives, and the events of 2020 have now caused further emotional stress. We highlight how shifts in society and digital culture are rewiring the emotional spectrums of this generation
Cassandra Napoli
08.03.20 · 9 minutes

Gen Z are a feelings-focused group who wear their hearts on their (digital) sleeves. Growing up in a stressful world, they embraced social platforms early on, finding solace in the freedom and community of digital spaces.

Coming of age for Gen Z has always looked quite different from the experience of their predecessors, in large part due to the influence technology has had on them. This is especially true in the midst of both a pandemic and the largest civil rights movement of our time. As of June, 75% of Gen Z say the virus has had a major impact on their worldview, while 68% say the same about the Black Lives Matter movement, soaring 21 points since April.

Thrust into isolation and forced to take up social distancing, Gen Z had to learn how to socialise in new ways, with these experiences completely transitioning to online. While Gen Z are now comfortably learning and partying in the digital realm, these spaces have also become grounds to debunk authority, discuss common enemies and figure out how to make the world a better, more fair and compassionate place.

A huge 85% of Gen Z believe their choices determine their future, and they're not wasting any time. They may be a group fluid in identity and beliefs, but their focus on dismantling racism, cancelling the problematic Karens, Boomers and Millennials of the world, and creating safe spaces to openly discuss their feelings is not wavering.

The Gen Z demographic is unlike any other. They're proud, unapologetic, nihilistic and feel they've got nothing to lose, fearlessly leveraging their social expertise to destroy antiquated beliefs and systems through humour, honesty and vulnerability. In this report we explore the evolution and interconnectedness of six key emotions in the Gen Z emotional spectrum.



It's difficult to be young; kids today are faced with rising future debt, the threat of burnout and emotional exhaustion, and a seemingly endless stream of social media hurdles. Gen Z don't have it easy, but despite their challenges, they're proud to be a part of a demographic with digital power.

The March For Our Lives protest in 2018, where 800,000 people descended on Washington DC to protest gun violence, originated from a hashtag started by students in Florida. It was the first time the power of Gen Z was acknowledged by the masses. This type of action has only continued, becoming a source of fulfilment for them.

The end of shame: being Gen Z has become a badge of honour. In fact, a survey from JUV Consulting found 65% of Gen Z take pride in identifying as a part of the demographic. They may be inheriting an unstable world lacking in financial and job security, but they are secure in the fact that they have the potential to impact it; a belief that has trended up six points to 62% between May and June.

Extreme acceptance: Gen Z are often mocked for being too attached to social but this has become an advantage in their eyes. It's here that Gen Z have cultivated a welcoming and 'come as you are' spirit, which they pride themselves on. Equality and acceptance are the unifying force across Gen Z, who are the most racially and ethnically diverse generation in the US, with 48% representing diverse communities. Gen Z are proud of their heritage and culture and are eager to share it. Look to the evolution of the #hotseat challenge on TikTok, which model Milan Mathew reinterpreted with a fresh lens. Rather than just shift from one outfit to the next, she transformed her look from contemporary casualwear to traditional Indian clothing to pay homage to her heritage. The video went viral, attracting 2.3m likes, and encouraged others to honour their own heritage, creating a diffusion trend within a macro challenge.



Fear is a demographic unifier but Gen Z are particularly susceptible. Inheriting a world where terrorism and school shootings dominate the headlines, their reality is crippled by anxiety. For some, fear has evolved into rage, leading them to protest oppression despite the consequences.

Fearless: some Gen Z may be scared to speak out (especially online – see the FOPO effect), but not doing so is deemed much scarier. They know if they don’t rally for their cause, systems of oppression will persist. They carry the weight of the world on their shoulders, risking it all in the name of righteousness. By fearlessly fighting for equality and environmentalism among other issues, they're sacrificing their safety and time to be carefree and young, in pursuit of a better world. Gen Z are not afraid to stand up and dismantle the establishment, and authority does not intimidate them. Look to those who used TikTok to trick the Trump administration into thinking one million people were going to attend the Tulsa rally, and accounts such as this, offering hacks and instructions to further disrupt the president's life.

Fearful: while Gen Z are not afraid to publicly call out politicians or rally in the streets, they are stereotypically fearful of mundane tasks such as correcting a waiter or conversing with someone IRL. Being familiar with emotional trauma, they fear being the source of trauma for someone else, especially someone their own age who may already be struggling with their mental health. Gen Z are defiant when threatened but they're fearful of being seen as rude or problematic like a 'Karen,' and as a result, are sincerely polite and diplomatic until crossed.

Documenting dual emotions: Gen Z are self-aware and expose both sides of fear online. Some creators simply document their emotional complexity, while others use humour to develop POV role play skits that serve as educational resources for those on the outside of the demographic, and showcase the extreme sides of Gen Z fear.



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In the last seven months, the world has faced environmental devastation, the greatest civil rights movement of our time and a pandemic, resulting in compassion fatigue. This is when people feel less empathy due to prolonged exposure to compound collective trauma.

But Gen Z are not a group to idly sit by and watch. Compassion is a part of their DNA and it's driving this action-oriented group to turn to social to cultivate new systems that can empower their peers.

The new cool: at the time of publishing The Gen Z Equation in early 2018, the demographic was split in two, with Gen Me the dominant force, driven by status and style, and Gen We, a niche group gaining steam, influenced by activism. Most Gen Zers now however straddle the line between Me and We, and this is because caring and compassion have become new markers of cool for the entire group. It's not that style and status no longer matter, it's that compassion for others and fighting for equality is also top of mind and actively shared and curated online. For now, the aesthetic of the grid is less important, but showcasing empathy is what is driving online dialogue and Likes.

Social signalling evolves: social signalling is changing, and platforms are evolving from places of aspiration and individualism to places of accessibility and collectivism. Users still discuss their skincare routines, but they’re also exercising compassion by sharing their emotional experiences, lifting one another up, spreading educational resources and supporting hashtag campaigns that can help others.

The patience paradox: Gen Z are kind until given a reason not to be, and lack patience for anyone who is rude, entitled or promotes inequality. Despite their depleting attention spans, they won't forget acts of bigotry and won't let anyone get away with them. This TikToker explains how Gen Z will tenaciously highlight a problematic person on Twitter and instantly "obliterate [their] entire future with fairy emojis".



Gen Z act on emotion and are especially frustrated by people who challenge their opinions and brush them off as immature. This group feel their progressive views are superior, and regularly lean on their digital skills to taunt and shame those with antiquated beliefs.

There's an 'us verses them' sentiment among Gen Z and there is little tolerance for those who are not on the right side of history or who don't share the same fluid mentality and forward-thinking beliefs.

Brawls with Boomers: for years, many Boomers weaponised the term 'Millennial' – calling an entire generation lazy and selfish. But today, it's Gen Z who are being bullied, often dubbed unrealistic or communist for voicing socialist opinions. While generational disputes are common, young people know that the problems they're dealing with today around climate crisis and inequality stem from the actions and systems created by previous generations. The polarising 'OK Boomer' meme went viral in 2019 with Gen Z and Millennials shaming old-fashioned or problematic Boomers who dismiss the youth as naive.

Frenemies: Millennials and Gen Z share a lot of similarities and up until this point, have understood each other and been on the same team: they're savvy internet users, predisposed to loneliness, comfortable sharing mental health struggles, and have an ongoing dispute with Boomers. Recently however, Gen Z have had a change of heart, growing irritated by Millennial antics and the way older and out-of-touch individuals group them together despite their differences. On TikTok, Gen Z have attacked Millennials, drawing a clear divide between the generations. Unlike Gen Z who are fluid in their identity and beliefs, Millennials are clearly defined by labels, which don't have the same fluid freedom. They're tired of Millennials' constant labelling and overuse of hashtags (#adulting is felt to be particularly burdensome). Their enthusiasm for Buzzfeed quizzes and Harry Potter has also become a key source of irritation for Gen Z. 



Now on the brink of adulthood, Gen Z realise how unfair the world can be. Emotionally strained from mental health and social justice issues, they're turning to absurd humour as a way to cope, escape and connect with other Gen Zers.

Coping mechanism: while Millennial humour was once considered weird, dark and nihilistic, Gen Z humour is even more extreme, though it's difficult to articulate to those on the outside. The chaotic nature of their humour mirrors the perceived chaos of the world they grew up in. It's strange, irreverent, and so absurd that only Gen Z could ever understand, and that’s precisely the point. Built by Gen Z, for Gen Z, TikTok humour stems from fantasy and escapism, with a quirky use of emojis (see the cute emoji phenomenon) along with POV videos and memes which have become the Gen Z language alongside viral dance routines. This Gen Z creator explained the confused reaction received after seriously replying to an 'OK Boomer' statement with what was meant to be a humorous reference to a famous serial killer.

The allure of absurdity: when Instagram shot to fame as Millennials came of age, users were judged by their glossy and curated feeds. Gen Z, however, are becoming adults as TikTok gains steam, and humour emerges as a new marker of status. Clever, ruthless and savage attacks on common enemies are the new trending action. TikTok teens are unafraid to be themselves and poke fun at others, resulting in 'TikTok cringe', which sees app users relishing in the cringe-worthy content and celebrating the weird and wonderful humour on the app. The more absurd the humour, the better: this post explains how the simplest and silliest ideas, when meme-ified, court the zeitgeist. Beyond memes, absurd humour can also be found on Alt TikTok, where kids moonlight as anthropomorphic objects, and within emerging TikTok cults such as the Step Chickens.



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