Brands Need a New Plan for Gen Z’s Shrinking Universe

Societal changes and pressures are inexorably crimping teenage lifestyles

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It has always been axiomatic that the teen years are a time of expanding horizons, a period in life when young adults break free of the restrictions and watchful eyes of their parents, assert their personal identity and begin to explore the great wide world outside their front door. For Gen Z, the opposite is true.

Their physical universe is shrinking. Over the last 10 years, there has been a 38 percent drop in the frequency with which 10th-graders leave their homes without a parent to hang out with friends, a 19 percent decrease in the number of teens who bother to get their driver’s license and a 29 percent decline in the number of teens who start dating. What gives? How could the first generation of digital natives liberated by Uber and the internet be so predisposed to turn inward? Our annual 2018 study of the passion points that define Gen Z’s emotional landscape offers some clues. We saw four clear trends that marketers should keep in mind when thinking about this consumer cohort.

Fearful families

American parents hit an emotional tipping point in 2016, the likes of which we have never seen, where their traditional feelings of hope and optimism were swiftly and decisively replaced by anxiety and fear. After 10 years of ranking “The Education of My Child” and “The Celebration of My Family” as their No. 1 emotional priority, in just 12 months these emotional priorities shifted darkly to “The Safety of My Children” and “Fear of the Outside World.”

With so much fear, pressure and high expectations, [Gen Z’s] phones are a perfect antidote for an increasingly challenging world outside.

In a world where parents literally cannot be certain their child will come home alive, and at a time when Gen Z routinely see their peers being shot in school, a growing number are simply staying home.

Pressure to be perfect

There has never been a generation for whom the standards of success are higher or the pervasiveness of scrutiny greater. Teachers, parents, coaches and peers are constantly evaluating everything from the grades they get to the clothes they wear and often find them lacking. In fact, according to our study, a majority of teens reported that their grade performance was more important to their parents than themselves. More troubling, kids getting A’s in school were more than twice as likely to report feeling loved by their parents versus kids getting C’s and D’s. Where can Gen Z girls and guys find a sanctuary from these pressures? At home—in their rooms.

Virtual alternatives

Against this backdrop, it’s small wonder we are seeing the astronomical increases in Gen Z’s screen time and interaction with technology from the safety of their homes. With so much fear, pressure and high expectations, their phones are a perfect antidote for an increasingly challenging world outside. In fact, around half of Gen Z said they couldn’t live without technology.

Fear of failure

Failing has never been easy for teens, but today the results can be catastrophic. Whether it be parents coming unglued over a B+ versus an A or the equally real threat of bullying for a social misstep, the consequences of coming up short have never been more severe, more painful and, in some cases, more emotionally catastrophic. In 2018, a full 52 percent of Gen Z teens reported being subjected to some form of bullying.

Is there any good news on Gen Z’s emotional landscape? We are also seeing strong sentiment around emotional resilience, determination and the belief that they can create a better world than the one the adults are leaving them.

But in the absence of any sign of short-term relief, an ever-increasing number of Gen Zs are simply saying, “The hell with it. I’ll just stay home.” Troubling as this trend may be, it is fundamentally changing the Gen Z marketplace, ushering in a whole new set of needs and opportunities for Gen Z marketers and content developers. Here are several that are worth your consideration:

Create emotional sanctuaries

Ever wonder why Starbucks has become a favorite destination of Gen Z? It’s not just the coffee. Starbucks is a safe but cool place where teens and young adults can gather around the community table and eat and drink warm, sweet comfort foods and beverages.

Bring the outside world in

Just because teens’ universes are shrinking does not mean their curiosity about the wonders of the outside world or desire to engage with it are disappearing. They’ve actually never been higher. You need look no further than the success of NatGeo’s hugely popular Instagram presence or of General Mills’ Old El Paso brand that turns Gen Z’s love of out-of-home Mexican restaurants into an in-home experience.

Reframe Gen Z leisure

Gen Z’s shrinking universe is fundamentally changing the face of teen leisure, media and entertainment in the U.S. and around the world. For example, kid bike sales have fallen 45 percent over the last five years as parents fret that their kid may be hurt or abducted. Conversely, Hasbro’s family board game sales have never been stronger.

As marketer and content providers, there is not much you can do to reverse these new emotional realities for Gen Z. The forces driving it are simply too powerful. But what you can do is create and market products that respond to them and are more reflective of their shrinking universe.

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This story first appeared in the September 3, 2018, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.