D2C Summit: Getting to know your future consumers – Chloe Combi on Gen Z and Gen A

“Baby boomers are reduced to a caricature of self-centred workaholics; Generation Xers are labelled as ‘slackers’; millennials are materialistic and narcissistic; and Generation Z is viewed as fragile and hyper-sensitive.” If generational characteristics can be summed up as such, per this article in The Conversation, then what should we make of the newest cohort: Generation A?

Chloe Combi is well placed to answer such a question. As host of the hit podcast You Don’t Know Me and author of a 2015 book, Generation Z: Their Voices, Their Lives, Combi has spent over a decade researching the lives of teenagers across the globe and learning about the way that technology and social change is impacting their lifestyles and outlooks. 

On the final day of the FIPP D2C Summit, Combi joined FIPP President and CEO, James Hewes, by livestream along with four young members of the journalism club at Radley College, Oxford.

Defining Gen Z and Gen A

Although the terms are somewhat elastic, demographically Gen A encompasses those born between 2009-2019. Gen Z precedes Gen A, having been born roughly between 1996 and 2010. “They’re the younger siblings of Gen Z,” said Combi. Older Gen Zs are now approaching their mid-20s.

As a teacher, Combi observed that Gen Z was the first generation to be born enmeshed within a network of digital relationships. “By the time they were born, even Facebook seemed ancient,” she explained. “From sex, consumption, entertainment, relationships, education – all of it was viewed through a social media lens.”

Some of the members of the Radley School journalism club, who joined Combi in the session

Combi said that for Gen Z, the idea of studying or working from home isn’t such a big leap, because they have cultivated a WFH way of life since early childhood. “Because of their immersion in the world of digital devices and technology, they had this complete ability to do everything through a screen well before Covid made that the norm for many of us,” said Combi.

She also notes a dark side, one many of us will have heard of by now. “This impacts the older end of Gen Z especially. There’s this default of stay-at-home socialising – which leads to a kind of hyperconnectivity and yet dislocation. It’s an apocalyptic generation in some ways, manifested in social issues and mental health problems.”

Behavioural shifts during the pandemic

The students in the theatre with Combi agreed that the human element has been missing from at-home socialising, especially during the pandemic. They’re glad to be back at school in face-to-face lessons, recognising that human interaction in person cannot be replaced by contact through screens.

Combi noted that a lot of questions were raised and discussed by young people during the early stages of the pandemic especially. “The interesting thing has been that there is a discussion about the practical and philosophical aspect: are we destined for a future where no one ever sees each other? Do we even need human interaction?” she said. “But the pandemic has highlighted how necessary those relationships are. We often only value something once we can’t do it anymore.”

Anxiety and freedom

Gen Z has had their lives bookended by the 2008 crash, and now Covid-19 has resulted in another major blow. “For Gen A, born in the shadow of these things, it will be interesting to see how it impacts them,” said Combi. 

She anticipates it going one of two ways. Firstly, there could be an even more extreme version of helicopter parenting common today – “a hyper version of hyper-anxiety about security, safety, and governing children’s lives,” she said.

The second option is that parents accept, in the wake of Covid-19, that many things are out of their hands – “and if there’s no way to control anything, then you allow kids to be kids again. There’s also this increasing awareness in parents that screens are damaging – we might see them be more measured and careful about it, rather than for Gen Z who were essentially guinea pigs.”

Combi can already see this conflict beginning to play out. “You can see the difference already between independent kids who are given the chance to do their own thing, versus children who’ve had a childhood defined by ramped-up security which leads to anxiety later, for example when they go to university and they are unprepared for spending time alone.”

For parents of Gen Z and Gen Z themselves, Combi thinks the anxiety is stronger because they see everything unfolding in real-time through social media. “The world is terrifying – parents see the threats all around to their children,” she added.

For millions of Gen Z children, the subsequent minimising of risk by parents has actually contributed to creating a hyper-anxious generation. Combi thinks there’s a chance that Gen A might end up being more relaxed, with parents that micromanage less. “It’s a bit like the late 1960s attitude to smoking, when early evidence was emerging of how dangerous it was,” she explained. “Now, there’s both qualitative and quantitative evidence that screen time has negative effects on young children’s creativity and wellbeing.”

Accessing young people in context

Combi spoke about her methodology for encountering teenagers and young people. She has a journalistic background, and began by reporting and investigating from different schools across the UK, and now the world. 

With Gen A, observation is more the norm. School visitations enable her to carry out qualitative research on eight- to 12-year-olds through conversation with them, or simply listening in. “Some of the things they say are jaw-dropping,” said Combi. “They are so conscious, and in some ways are overexposed to the world.” 

A generation with a strong social conscience 

Combi pointed out that Gen A already has a strong collective identity. “The social consciousness is incredible,” she said. “There’s a real sophistication about major issues, like gender, plastics, climate change, sustainability – even at the very young ages of five, six, seven years old.”

She also sees the fingerprints of social media everywhere. “There’s evidence of strong ideological sign posts,” said Combi. “Gen A consumes new media, like TikTok, Amazon, Fortnite, gaming – all the time. It’s a form of mass consumption that’s in constant circulation, and brands and companies are moving into the space of directing opinions and taking ideological positions by taking advantage of this hyperconnectivity.

“Older Gen A especially are very aware of the ideological positions of brands and media. When brands get it wrong or are seen as jumping on the bandwagon and being tokenistic, for example by brandishing a rainbow flag during Pride Month – it doesn’t go down well with Gen A. This is a performative type of branding that they can sniff out so easily.”

The boys agreed: “We can tell when a brand does something inauthentic versus something they actually believe in.” But they also have a keen understanding of why: “Firms exist to make money, and if social opinions are favouring one thing in particular, they’ll want to appeal to that.” 

Radical politics are favoured by this generation, but it’s nonsense to say that they’re all socially liberal, said Combi. “The very opposite is also true. What we do see is extremes of opinion – unfortunately, the more balanced moderate opinions simply do not break through.”

No more content gatekeepers 

One very important thing for media brands to note about Gen A and Gen Z is that they’re not really listening to the people at the top – politicians, CEOs – because the most influential people among them are their peers on social media.

“One of the key things to remember is that this is the first generation to create what they consume,” said Combi. 

“There are no traditional gatekeepers – no Hollywood, no media owner, no politicians telling them what to think. It’s all coming from them and their own age group. Social media influencers have far more influence than media moguls. You even see it in politics – there’s a notable decline in power of traditional politics.”

Relationship with the media 

When it comes to Gen Z’s and Gen A’s relationship to media, therefore, they tend to consume via social platforms rather than more traditional means. “It wouldn’t be unusual to be in a class of year 10s (14-15 year olds) and have none of them raise their hand when asked if they’ve bought a print magazine or newspaper in the past year,” explained Combi. “Buying a magazine or newspaper is quite an antiquated notion for them.”

Combi believes strongly that media literacy should be taught in schools. “It’s hard to be savvy when you don’t know what’s real and what’s not,” she said, “especially with the modern tendency to extract news from social media.”

However, both Gen Z and Gen A are much better at distinguishing between different types of news and are more aware of filter bubbles. “I hope that this generation will be taught to use tools to identify deepfakes and other false information,” Combi said.

Asked about this, the boys agreed that the clicktivism of social media cannot be competed with by traditional media, and that this contributes to polarisation of opinion. “We’re exposed to so many different sources and opinions and the danger is that people already have in-built biases, and these get stronger,” they said. “If you want to, you can find so much that backs up your opinion, so you can very easily argue from any position.”

Combi added: “They think more in terms of team sports when it comes to issues of gender, race, politics – sticking with the tribe rather than intellectually weighing up an issue and coming to their own conclusion. There’s this increasing elimination of the middle ground. 

“You almost seem like an ideological turncoat and you can get abused if you don’t have a strong opinion on something, and this is a good metaphor for the media I think – nobody wants the middle any more.”

How the media can stay relevant with Gen A

With a strong social conscience that sometimes becomes tribal, and social lives lived out through social media, how can media organisations stay relevant with Gen A? “There’s this assumption that everything has to be three seconds long and must be video-based,” said Combi. “But it’s obviously more complex than that. If you’re telling interesting stories that is what matters. I still think there’s space for long reads and other kinds of content.”

The critical thing for the media, as she sees it, is to focus on authenticity. This is ultimately what makes a brand successful with younger generations. “Don’t become an imitator,” she said. “I think the media is very guilty of taking a formula that works and just copying it, like when BuzzFeed got big, and suddenly the whole of the internet looked like BuzzFeed.” 

The boys in the school journalism club agreed. “Media brands should state their bias more openly, it makes you appear more genuine,” they said. “Transparency is key. Not painting yourself as a non-biased outlet, when you clearly have a position.”

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