Gen Z: The Honest Generation

Studying generations objectively is hard. With generation studies, there are two major ways to mess up:

  1. Period Effect: Some popular attitudes pervade all generations at a specific time, but can easily be mis-attributed to an emerging generation.
  2. Life Cycle Effect: People change as they grow older. It's easy—and wrong—to mistake a stage of life for a generation's characteristics.

Plus, the line dividing generations is blurry at best. Gen Z, for example, are all those born between 1997 and 2012. The oldest Zoomers are turning 24 and the youngest ones are just turning 9, so the generation is far from a monolith. Characterizing groups of this size is difficult.

Nevertheless, the data seems clear: Gen Z is the honest generation, more pragmatic than Millennials.

Apparel brands—who live and die by their attention to generational attitudes—are noticing the trend first.

A top merchandiser for a major clothing brand said, “authenticity really matters to Gen Z. They respond to brand value. They may be attracted to newness, but they do look beyond that...they look for substance. This generation can tell whether it’s fake or real, and they will call you out if you are not being honest.”

In fact, there's been a noticeable downtick in the popularity of heavily-branded clothes among Gen Z shoppers. Brands such as Hollister and Abercrombie which built their style on large letters plastered across sweaters and sweatpants, have suffered. Yet other brands have adapted and are now focusing on a vibe known as "adorkable," featuring candid shots of less-than-perfect models.

Sunscreen brand Everyday Humans leans into the "adorkable" aesthetic with bright, jarring colors, bold lines, and ultra-relatable people captured in an unfiltered way. It's working.

Everyday Humans' "Adorkable" vibe

Skeptics might claim that these changes are brand-driven, but they'd be mistaken. Gen Z's desire for straightforwardness is everywhere. Studies of Tinder dating profiles have seen an increase in bio's that mention "anxiety" (+31%), "boundaries" (+19%), and "consent" (+11%). Zoomers aren't afraid to lead with their expectations or their view of the world.

Sam Abrahart, CEO of The Mayfair Group explains the new attitude he sees: “Gen Z embraces vulnerability and authenticity. They want the mask off, they want unfiltered, like ‘I’m gonna take a photo in the bathroom with my zits and just be myself and own my feelings and not be ashamed of them.’”

Perhaps this search for the truth is a product of Gen Z being the first digital-native, generation, and having to filter fact from internet fiction starting at a young age. Compared to Millennials, Zoomers are more skeptical about brands' virtuous claims. While 66% of Millennials think that brands care about communicating honestly (regarding ingredients, for instance) only 44% of Gen Z thinks the same.

Gen Z is growing up in a culture which for the first time suggests that some things long considered binary (gender, sexuality, employment status) may not be so binary after all. The result is an undefined identity and an openness to new patterns of thought. As one McKinsey researcher puts it, "the search for the truth is at the root of all Generation Z's behavior."

Still, compared to Millennials, Zoomers are more career-driven, giving priority to pay and career potential where Millennials prioritized "purpose" or "passion." Jason Dorsey studies Gen Z and he says they are quite practical with their money: “They are very much savers, more so than we could have ever expected." Having seen Millennials graduate college with daunting amounts of student loan debt, Zoomers are more cautious about debt, and then are more aggressive when it comes to the job search.

We will have to wait and see if Zoomers will resort to Millennial-esque coping mechanisms such as retro-themed handlebar moustaches and lumberjack outerwear. Perhaps Gen Z's willingness to see the world as it is will mean that we don't have to turn back our sartorial clock to escape reality for a moment. Perhaps Zoomers' more pragmatic outlook will result in a generation with a heightened sense of control over the future. Time will tell.

As Gen Z enters adulthood, some have become playfully critical of the Millennial generation. One TikTok Zoomer said it well: "they're worried about their harry potter house but they live in a 1 bedroom apartment...y'all worried about the wrong house 👀."