How Gen Z and Millennials Are Looking to Rebuild Society From the Ground Up

Highlights from Spotify’s just-released Culture Next report for 2020

This whirlwind year has been strange and, yes, unprecedented—at times isolating and depressing, while also galvanizing and inspiring. It’s clear that 2020 will help define generations to come, as a global pandemic has upended lives and a movement for racial justice has brought about a profound and overdue reckoning.

It’s impossible to say exactly how this year’s events will shape our future. Still, these months have clarified—and in some ways accelerated—cultural trends that Gen Z and millennials have been shaping for years.

At Spotify, we constantly follow how young people are reshaping social norms and finding new ways to create, new ways to engage with technology and new ways to connect. That’s why we have just published the latest edition of Culture Next, our annual outlook on these trends. Through our global reporting, we met entrepreneurs, activists, artists, and more. We discovered inspiring and surprising revelations from a generation ready to rebuild society from the ground up.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned in my career, it’s that young people define our future—how we engage with content and technology, our relationships with each other, and what’s moving culture forward. That’s something that seems consistent in the five key trends we’ve identified for 2020:

1. Gen Z starts from scratch

With longstanding norms around work and education upended in recent years, Gen Z has been practically hardwired with a DIY mentality. Nearly half of Zs we spoke to said older generations can’t act as guides to adulthood because too much has changed in the world—and that was before the major shifts of 2020.

An interesting point: With 53% of Zs saying they’re increasingly wary of big institutions, that path-forging is already happening. For starters, many Zs feel traditional college isn’t relevant and one in three might not even go to college at all.

2. Families embrace audio at home

In 2019, there was a 263% leap in listening among Zs and millennials to kid-friendly and family-relevant podcasts on smart speakers.And in the first half of 2020, as people began to self-quarantine, there was another significant shift: Kids playlist streams have risen 19% so far this year.

This underscores audio’s role in providing both function and fun at home. When you zoom out to include virtual assistants, voice activation, connected cars, and smart homes, it’s clear that sound is changing the way families interact—with one another, and with the world beyond their living rooms.

3. Self-discovery builds community

Self-discovery isn’t unique to Zs and millennials, but they’re doing it differently thanks to the access and connectivity technology offers.

Spotify research found that young people are increasingly forming identities based on niche interests, and bonding with others who share those interests around the world—70% of American Zs and millennials said it’s much easier to feel connected to a community today thanks to digital platforms. And when asked about the elements that fuel their self-discovery, 76% cited music and 68% cited podcasts.

4. Progress overtakes partisanship

Young people expect brands to take a stand, but what they really want is engagement and inspiration instead of posturing.

Across the globe, several causes emerged as areas of focus: trans visibility, women’s rights, loneliness and mental health, and, especially, climate action. But as the year progressed, one cause emerged as the defining issue: the global Black Lives Matter movement, part of what’s made 2020 a “cultural wake-up call” to 83% of American respondents.

5. Sound is getting smarter

Asked what qualities make sound powerful to them, three words rose to the top for American Zs and millennials: emotional, therapeutic and personal.

All of which supports the conclusion drawn from the rest of the research: Sound is the most human of technological mediums. At Spotify, we’ve often explored the fact that audio moves with us as we navigate our day. But as we increasingly use speech to control the tech in our headphones, homes, offices, and cars, that intimacy grows—72% of Americans surveyed said voice makes us more sentimental toward our devices, and 58% said sound is at the forefront of humanizing technology.

At Spotify, we remain committed to understanding the next generation through their streaming behavior and using our platform to amplify the voices of creators from every corner of the world. Our influential young listeners stream the music and podcasts they love for hours a day, shifting their habits as their moods, passions, and moments change. They take us wherever they are. All this listening powers our rich first-party dataset (we call it our Streaming Intelligence), and the insights we glean from this data help us understand—and shape—where culture is headed.

So download the Culture Next report. We hope it inspires you to consider new and meaningful ways to empower, inspire, and be there for your audience. After all, they’re listening.

Dawn Ostroff is Spotify’s chief content officer. She is responsible for overseeing the company’s global content and distribution operations, including all original content and industry and creator relationships.