Defining Trends of Gen Z’s Youth; a review of AQR’s Webinar
In April we attended a webinar ‘Eavesdropping on Gen Z’ held by the AQR. The full webinar is available to watch here. During the webinar, the panel used their expertise to explore key trends from Gen Z life. Drawing from first-hand experience of what it’s like to be a Gen Z, I will explore these themes to understand their origins and whether they are really so unique to my generation. It is worth noting that my experience is an authentic yet small slice of the Gen Z experience. A label itself that is useful in referencing a large group of individuals, but can be overly reductive.
The panellists described nostalgia as a visceral feeling for a past era, even for those who weren’t there to experience it first-hand. They explained how Gen Z is especially receptive to nostalgia due to the time-shifting effect of social media content. Historical moments are re-lived through TikTok remixes of 90s R&B music; 80s oversized blazers with intimidatingly large shoulder pads re-emerge through Instagram fashion reels. Outside of pop culture, the panel also acknowledged the importance of nostalgia in social justice movements. This was described as Gen Z reclaiming the past in order to shape their present.
The panellists’ description of nostalgia certainly resonated with me, but I wasn’t sold on the idea that it was a uniquely ‘Gen Z’ trend. To understand its current cultural relevance, I looked back to the origin of the term. Nostalgia originates from the Greek words ‘nostos’ (return home) and ‘algos’ (pain). It was coined by Dr Johannes Hofer in the 16th Century to describe the homesickness affecting young soldiers and mercenaries who had been separated from their homelands1.
How did this term, which originally described something fraught and tragic, evolve into the current, fashionable zeitgeist term as used today? In my experience as a Zoomer, nostalgia appears as a generally positive sentiment towards past times. Examples of nostalgia that I experience are prominent signifiers in music, fashion, design, photography, on TV and in movies. Culture is awash with nostalgic references, from the love of old film cameras and cassette players, to fashion flashbacks like mom jeans and bucket hats. Dua Lipa’s 2020 album was titled ‘Future Nostalgia’ as a direct reference to our fondness for the past.
Amongst my friendship group there is a subtle desire for an ‘old soul’ mentality, rather than constantly chasing after new trends. From these and many other examples it’s safe to say that nostalgia exists loudly within Gen Z’s cultural landscape. It’s not an original, new or unique feeling, but it is one which has evolved to play an important role in Gen Z culture. It is an understandably powerful notion, as feelings of nostalgia help us re-connect to belonging and purpose. They root us in the long history of mankind, giving us a narrative to place ourselves within. An anchoring feeling in a world that seems to be untethered. For Gen Z, growing up in times of uncertainty, characterised by global pandemics and the emergence of super-advanced technology, it makes sense that the past provides an escape.
2 Buy now, pay later
According to Forbes, the percentage of Gen Z using BNPL in the US has grown from 6% in 2019 to 36% in 2021’2. Although BNPL is a growing phenomenon amongst Gen Z, the panellists were mostly apprehensive about credit cards and being in debt. So, why is there a disjunct between our actions and our feelings when it comes to payment schemes like BNPL? Figures show that we use them, but are we comfortable with the idea? This incongruence is not wholly unique. Postponed payment schemes have existed for as long as shopping has, however, discomfort with the idea has always been a part of the narrative, stemming partially from religious condemnations of owing money, shame about debt, and fears about loss of control.
The majority of my friends would be sprouting grey hairs at the prospect of using a credit card to pay for things beyond their means, but using delayed payment schemes such as Klarna doesn’t faze them. So, what are the unique environmental factors which breed this acceptance towards BNPL schemes for Gen Z? From what I see around me, the ease of use of BNPL schemes aids in their adoption. The BNPL style is more Gen Z friendly, with its smartphone tap ease, versus managing an account and checking statements to ensure your repayments keep up. In addition, the influencer effect can be held responsible for the constant need to consume outside of one’s personal means. Instagram exhibits a constant flow of new fashion trends, aka fast fashion. Incessantly switching up your style and deeming an Instagram picture as an event worthy of a whole new outfit, provides a good excuse for spending out of one’s immediate means, and utilising BNPL makes it all that little bit easier.
3 Digital Privacy
The Gen Z panellists were ambivalent about digital privacy, which may come as a surprise to those who stereotype them as digital natives. They distinguished between privacy in a personal context, i.e., social media profiles versus larger scale data privacy issues like big data leaks or similarly, accepting cookies when trying to access content. The panellists’ anxieties surrounding privacy seem to play out in a social, personal context, rather than as concern for corporations exploiting their personal data trails.
The concern of digital privacy is inextricable from the era of social media. In this way, it is fairly Gen Z specific. There is no way to trace back the roots of digital privacy before the digital age. In support of the panellists’ views towards digital privacy, a common sentiment I have personally encountered amongst people my age is that digital privacy is too vague a concept to care about. When you lack a fundamental understanding of something, the outcomes become a distant and unrecognisable reality, which makes you less likely to take preventative actions. ‘If I don’t know what I am protecting myself against, how can I protect against it?’
Whilst digital privacy has recently become a personal concern and a likely topic of conversation for any 21st Century family, personal privacy has been an issue for legal scholars for centuries. Privacy can be understood as having autonomy over your personal information. In line with this broader understanding of privacy, we have been taught to be careful about what personal information we share online. We have been educated by primary school teachers on the perils of the digital world, then reminded later by Netflix exposé documentaries to add to the angst. At this point, it is unclear how the future of digital privacy will look, considering the growing desire for clearer information on the topic.
The unique environment of Gen Z – characterised by technological and scientific innovation, inclusivity, uncertainty, connectedness and global crises – shapes the ways they interact with certain themes. Whilst the webinar touched on relevant trends, they are certainly not an exhaustive list. At TPL, we can confirm that these themes do resonate globally but will have a slightly different presentation depending on the market. There is a fluid nature to trends, but keep your eyes peeled, as they are certainly coming and going quicker than ever before. If you want to know more, get in touch!