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Gen Z: The Real Game Changers

In 1995, while covering AI for InfoWorld, I saw a futurist speak at Stanford University who declared “the death of the newspaper within a couple of decades.” The prediction wasn’t wrong; the timing was off, however, because it takes roughly 25 years for generations to turn over and, in this case, more than one demographic grew up with newspapers. Which means physical printed papers, although in steep decline, won’t go away completely until the last Boomer -- or possibly X-er (my husband loves paper) -- have tossed their final dog-eared issue.

The Washington Post recently published an article that suggests Millennials will put Costco out of business. Based on my horrible holiday experience with the famed warehouser there’s no question I agree with the assertion but think WaPo is wrong about timing for the same reason the futurist was.

Why? Because of haptic memory, which is defined by Wikipedia as the form of sensory memory specific to touch stimuli. It is used regularly when assessing the necessary forces for gripping and interacting with familiar objects and also influences one's interactions with novel objects of similar size and density. Generation Z -- not Y -- are the first-ever cohort whose principal haptic memory is of the Smartphone, which we all know was introduced in 2007. In effect, playing Angry Birds on their parent's phone at age three was so intuitive and entertaining it defined their belief that all interactions, not just online ones, should be similarly awesome. My theory goes that since Millennials have more context for the difference between the real and virtual world, they will have slightly more patience with the likes of Costco and other blue chips who deliver digital poorly -- but Generation Z most certainly will not, and that makes them the real company killers. If I'm right, it means CEOs/CIOs/CTOs have a little more time to build digital ecosystems able to support seamless omni-channel experiences. The bad news is expectations are high when they do, and deadly if they don't.

The world has only recently become fascinated by Gen Z so let’s talk about them:

1. Their media habits differ even from Millennials, shorthand for: they are way into video. Cisco predicts that by 2019, 80% of global Internet consumption will be video content -- a statistic YouTube helped create and TV execs abhor.

2. They prefer products over experiences (also opposite of Gen Y).

3. They want to co-create culture – and do. A whopping 80% of Gen Z say “finding themselves creatively” is important. Over 25% post original video on a weekly basis, while 65% enjoy creating and sharing content on social media. As the mother of a 12yo boy with restricted social media access, I can confirm that he finds every possible way to post videos on Instagram (aka, “Insta”).

So, back to generational turnover. In less than 10 years, Boomers are retired; Gen X wants to be retired; Millennials are middle-aged; and today's 12yo's are out of college asking: What have you got? I dare say anyone that can't answer with exceptional experiences everywhere their customers are will disappear like print held too close to the eye.