Gen Z Unmasked

COVID-19 had a tremendous impact on Gen Z. Their life changed from light-hearted – full of discovery, experimentation, freedom, sharing, outdoors – to the contrary – fear, lockdown, not going out, control, responsibilities, and missing out on graduations, university, birthdays, live concerts…

To learn more about how teens are feeling and how the past year has shaped their attitudes and behaviour, we applied a ‘networking approach’. We spoke directly with Gen Z through a Consumer Consulting Square – a closed, online and mobile-enabled community for moderated discussions – in 8 European countries (about 200 Gen Zers aged 16-19 in the UK, Germany, France, Spain, Norway, Poland, Italy and Romania). We then integrated 40 trustworthy internal sources (both primary and secondary data) from the insights community worldwide. Despite the timing (during lockdown), this was not a lockdown study – we discussed their present but also their future.

Five key themes emerged: Face-to-face, Geared-up ‘grAttitude’, A beautiful Bounce Back, Step-up Soulidarity, and Generation Home Buddy.


Gen Z Unmasked - Face2Face

Generation Z, or the ‘digital natives’, never craved face-to-face interaction as much as today. And for the first time ever, they feel they are not in control of their own lives. Online activities (parties, proms and concerts) offer a digital alternative, but teens are experiencing ‘FRONOMO’ – the Frustration Of No Moments – as important milestones in their lives will never come back (graduation, 16th birthday…) or have been postponed (driver’s license test, long-distance travel…). In the post-lockdown world, they will continue to hang out online – using platforms such as Zoom, House party, Squad (invented by a Gen Zer aged 14), and for the gamers: Discord and Nintendo’s Animal Crossing. But all these online alternatives brought an increase in the teens’ screen time, which is now driving their need for a digital detox and more offline activities.

In the future, there will be a better balance between online and offline activities, as this quote from a Spanish girl illustrates:
I think it is important to disconnect from the screens from time to time, because we forget that there is life beyond them”.

Gen Z Unmasked - Geared up gratitude

The second theme, ‘geared-up grAttitude’, combines gratitude and attitude. The world suddenly halted, and teens took a break from their non-stop lives by (re)discovering talents, passions, hobbies, crafts. To provide themselves with structure and distractions, many actively looked for new daily activities, even including household chores or walking the dog. The lockdown rolled the teens into self-reflection, about what their life is like and how meaningful they want it to become; about what would make them happy, and what they are grateful for. A 19-year-old from Kuala Lumpur stated: “I used to take my life for granted, but now I’m really grateful I have a comfortable home with Wi-Fi and aircon.”

Being stuck at home, their bond with their family became stronger, which partially filled their socializing needs and provided support.

Gen Z Unmasked - A beautiful bounceback

Teens feel overwhelmed and insecure because of the COVID-19 news coverage. This is the first real crisis in their lives, which they try to ‘escape’ by bouncing back, sharing creative, positive and funny moments in their daily lives. Post-pandemic, they are likely to focus more on positive social media and fun content (witty, creative, hopeful content and challenges), avoiding trolls, bullying and fake news, as this Romanian quote illustrates: “I try to focus on social networks where there is not so much mayhem about the coronavirus.

TikTok proved to be more than a lip-sync/dance-off platform and shifted towards a carefree and inspiring hangout for many teens.

GenZ still loves brands, but is looking for authentic real people with relevant content. COVID-19 created an opportunity for Gen Z to discover new ‘curators of cool’ – not the usual glamorous celebrities – and these influencers are likely to remain relevant post-corona.

Gen Z Unmasked - Soulidarity

Post-COVID-19, reality will require efforts from everyone, including teens – so in comes soulidarity. They are super vocal about brands that endorse their values and passions to right the world’s wrongs, and expect brands to take specific actions. COVID-19 and the economic crisis are forcing them even more to recognize inequality and disparity, together with their previous environmental concerns, as this French boy phrases: “For a greater ‘living together’, we need to consider several parameters that complement each other, like the environment, our own health, the local community, and local businesses.

Gen Z is the generation of ‘click activists’ – they are simply holding strikes online as the influential #PullUpOrShutUp campaign on Instagram illustrated. In its first 3 weeks, the campaign – calling on beauty brands to go beyond Black Lives Matter PR stunts – attracted over 124,000 followers and prompted more than 200 companies to respond, such as Estée Lauder and Sephora.

Gen Z Unmasked - Generation homebuddy

Gen Z is generation home buddy. Although they strongly wish to break out of the lockdown and see friends, go shopping, go to festivals and simply get back to normal, they realize that ‘normal’ will not be back for a while. They now pay more attention to health, through eating and drinking habits, longer me-moments and, in general, trying to avoid large crowds.

This wait-and-see attitude and more conscious cautiousness will accelerate and even trigger the home-buddy economy, placing more emphasis on in-home or own-garden parties. The positive side effect is that it is a better option for their wallets as well. Me-moments remain as important as ever, and their personal room is still the most important me-space, where they do not get disturbed, but can also order anything online – food, clothes, entertainment… Gen Z is leading the home-buddy renaissance, the new cocooning. They are disengaging and escaping in online content, gaming, taking long baths.

COVID-19 has challenged many of the structures we had in place: global travel, capitalist progress, relationships, parenting etc. Gen Z still feels the urge to change the systems, but on the other hand they are facing more social pressure, anxiety, stress and loneliness than ever before. With most of them still in their formative years, experiencing coming-of-age moments during the first real crisis, the consequences of the crisis might have a stronger effect on them than on any other generation.

All those learnings are helping to shape our ongoing conversations with teens and Gen Z around the world.

Parts of this article have been published in Impact Magazine – the April 2021 edition. Co-authored with Begonia FafianKnowledge & Insights Director Europe at The Coca-Cola Company.

2021 Culture + Trends report

2021 Culture + Trends report

As researchers we not only want to understand which trends are shaping and manifesting around the world, but also HOW this happens. Combining a macro analysis and a qualitative exploration with our leading-edge consumer network. Validated by a quantification with 15.000 consumers in 16 markets, this reports offers a unique and actionable view on the post-2020 consumer.

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