What Are the Core Characteristics of Generation Z?

Updated on February 14, 2023, and originally posted January 12, 2021, by the Annie E. Casey Foundation

Members of Generation Z

Gen­er­a­tion Z has emerged as a pop­u­la­tion increas­ing­ly wor­thy of atten­tion, espe­cial­ly now as its old­er mem­bers are in their 20s and have become a polit­i­cal­ly engaged force in recent elec­tions. Born after 1996, Gen­er­a­tion Zers made up one-tenth of the 2020 elec­torate and have added 8.3 mil­lion new­ly eli­gi­ble vot­ers since Novem­ber 2020. While they share a num­ber of char­ac­ter­is­tics with Mil­len­ni­als, their for­ma­tive years have been shaped by a dras­ti­cal­ly dif­fer­ent world, result­ing in key dif­fer­ences in atti­tudes, ten­den­cies and out­look. Sta­tis­tics com­piled by the Pew Research Cen­ter and the KIDS COUNT® Data Cen­ter paint a clear pic­ture. Here’s what we know.

Diver­si­ty Is Their Norm

One of the core char­ac­ter­is­tics of Gen­er­a­tion Z is racial diver­si­ty. As America’s demo­graph­ics con­tin­ue to shift, Gen Z will be the last gen­er­a­tion that is pre­dom­i­nant­ly white. As Gen Zers grew up dur­ing 2000 to 2020, the share of white kids fell from 61% to 50%. Chil­dren in immi­grant fam­i­lies grew more com­mon, too, jump­ing from 19% to 25% of the country’s child pop­u­la­tion dur­ing this time­frame. The old­est Gen Zers turned 18 in 2015, and the lat­est data for young adults ages 18 to 24 in 2020 showed that a slight major­i­ty are 53% white, 23% are Lati­no, 14% are Black, 6% are Asian, 3% are two or more race groups and 1% are Amer­i­can Indi­an or Alas­ka Native.

For many Gen Zers, the back­drop of their ear­ly years includ­ed the country’s first Black pres­i­dent and the legal­iza­tion of gay mar­riage. They are more like­ly to have grown up amid diverse fam­i­ly struc­tures — whether in a sin­gle-par­ent house­hold, a mul­tira­cial house­hold, or a house­hold in which gen­der roles were blurred. As a result, they are less fazed than pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tions by dif­fer­ences in race, sex­u­al ori­en­ta­tion or religion.

They Are Our First Dig­i­tal Natives”

Anoth­er char­ac­ter­is­tic of Gen­er­a­tion Z is their native use of tech­nol­o­gy. Where­as Mil­len­ni­als were con­sid­ered dig­i­tal pio­neers,” who bore wit­ness to the explo­sion of tech­nol­o­gy and social media, Gen Z was born into a world of peak tech­no­log­i­cal inno­va­tion — where infor­ma­tion was imme­di­ate­ly acces­si­ble and social media increas­ing­ly ubiquitous.

These tech­no­log­i­cal advance­ments have had both pos­i­tive and neg­a­tive effects on Gen Z. On the plus side: an abun­dance of infor­ma­tion is at their fin­ger­tips, allow­ing Gen Zers to broad­en their knowl­edge and be proac­tive in their learn­ing. On the oth­er hand, too much screen time can com­pound feel­ings of iso­la­tion and lead to under­de­vel­oped social skills. Addi­tion­al­ly, tech­nol­o­gy is chang­ing the econ­o­my, leav­ing low-income Gen Zers vul­ner­a­ble as they enter the workforce.

They Are Prag­mat­ic and Finan­cial­ly Minded

Finan­cial mind­ed­ness is anoth­er core char­ac­ter­is­tic of Gen­er­a­tion Z. Many Gen Zers grew up watch­ing their par­ents take huge finan­cial hits dur­ing the Great Reces­sion. Hav­ing wit­nessed their par­ents’ strug­gles, this gen­er­a­tion is dri­ven by prag­ma­tism and security.

While Mil­len­ni­als came of age dur­ing an eco­nom­ic boom, Gen Zers were shaped by the eco­nom­ic pres­sures their fam­i­lies and com­mu­ni­ties faced, like the finan­cial stress of the rental mar­ket. Thus, they val­ue the sta­bil­i­ty that comes with con­ser­v­a­tive spend­ing, sta­ble jobs and smart investments.

Many Fac­tors Con­tribute to Their Men­tal Health Challenges

Men­tal health chal­lenges are a sad char­ac­ter­is­tic of Gen­er­a­tion Z, which has been referred to by some as the loneli­est gen­er­a­tion,” as their end­less hours spent online can fos­ter feel­ings of iso­la­tion and depres­sion. More time spent on smart­phones or watch­ing Net­flix means less time spent cul­ti­vat­ing mean­ing­ful rela­tion­ships. Addi­tion­al­ly, many young peo­ple fall prey to the com­pare and despair” trap that social media presents.

Gen Z kids also find their men­tal health affect­ed by the tur­bu­lent state of the world. As polit­i­cal activism among Gen Z has increased, many Gen Zers have inter­nal­ized the unrest sur­round­ing issues like gun con­trol, police bru­tal­i­ty and cli­mate change — lead­ing to increased lev­els of stress.

They Are Shrewd Consumers

As con­sumers, Gen Z’s behav­ior reflects their val­ues — and the influ­ence of an increas­ing­ly dig­i­tal world. Gen Z kids can rely on their tech savvy and exten­sive social media plat­forms to make informed pur­chas­ing deci­sions. Their prag­ma­tism leads them to explore and eval­u­ate a range of options before set­tling on a prod­uct. In addi­tion, they are more like­ly to be swayed by the rec­om­men­da­tions of real-life users than by celebri­ty endorsements.

In much the same way that Gen Zers use social media as a means to curate their own per­son­al brand, they also look at their pur­chas­ing deci­sions as an expres­sion of their val­ues and iden­ti­ty. As an exam­ple, they are drawn to sus­tain­able prod­ucts and brands — and are often will­ing to pay more for them. They val­ue per­son­al­ized prod­ucts, and they are drawn to brands who share their point of view on polit­i­cal issues.

They Are Polit­i­cal­ly Pro­gres­sive — Even Those on the Right

Most gen­er­a­tions tend to be more left-lean­ing than the pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tion, and Gen Z is no excep­tion. While Gen Zers look a lot like Mil­len­ni­als on many key issues, they are the most polit­i­cal­ly pro­gres­sive gen­er­a­tion yet. They are the gen­er­a­tion most like­ly to see the advance­ment of LGBTQ rights as a pos­i­tive devel­op­ment. Even among Repub­li­cans, Gen Zers take a more pro­gres­sive stance on social issues: they agree that Black Amer­i­cans are treat­ed more unfair­ly in this coun­try, they believe the gov­ern­ment should play a greater role in solv­ing prob­lems and they are more like­ly to attribute cli­mate change to human activ­i­ty, as opposed to nat­ur­al patterns.

Con­tin­ue Learn­ing About Gen­er­a­tion Z

Gen Z is still grow­ing up, but as they con­tin­ue to come of age, ear­ly signs indi­cate that they will grow into engaged, con­sci­en­tious stew­ards of our world — by being social­ly-mind­ed, inde­pen­dent thinkers, who rec­og­nize their respon­si­bil­i­ty in shap­ing a more equi­table future for all.

More Resources on Gen­er­a­tion Z

Go to the KIDS COUNT Data Cen­ter for the lat­est sta­tis­tics on chil­dren of all ages, includ­ing a new dataset on youth and young adults ages 14 to 24, cap­tur­ing the major­i­ty of Gen Zers.

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