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Understanding Gen Z: Rising, Falling Trends and New Behaviors Reflect Social and Economic Realities

college marketing, consumer trends, digital natives, Fluent, Gen Z consumers, Gen Z in the workforce, Generation Z, immediate gratification, Marketing, marketing insights, Pr, Public relations, technology adoptionAs the first generation of true digital natives, Generation Z is solidifying a number of consumer trends initiated by their Millennial predecessors, with seamless adoption of new technologies and expectations of immediacy ever more the rule than the exception. At the same time, according to college marketing and insights agency Fluent, this generation is coming of age during more global economic and political uncertainty than any other generation has faced in a century—making them more cautious and disciplined than they might first seem.

“There are huge creative opportunities in reaching Gen Z if you appreciate the tightrope they walk,” said Fluent EVP Michael Carey, in a news release. “Our digital capabilities provide instant gratification on so many fronts. Yet the world is surprisingly similar to that of their great-grandparents, who were shaped by the Depression and the World Wars. Given that Gen Z represents a quarter of the U.S. population, and is even more significant worldwide, it is critical to understand what this mindset will mean on several fronts as today’s college students mature as consumers and into the workforce.”

The Winners & Losers with Gen Z

Gen Z increasingly works harder and shops smarter, and brands keyed into college student interests and preferences are already enjoying a boost, while others may need to rethink strategies heading into 2017.

  • More Work, Less Play…Station. The stereotypic past-time of students is on the decline, with the number of students saying they do not play video/online games rising from 38% to 44% over the previous year, and the number using gaming apps dropping from 63% to 53%. At the same time, not only do 75% of respondents work, but the number with part-time jobs increased slightly, rising from 55% to 59%, while those working at internships, which tend to be unpaid, dipped from 24% to 21%. Students are working more hours per week at whatever job they do hold, as well, and 15% work full-time.
  • Cash No Longer King. The number of students walking around cash-free continued to rise, up to nearly one of five at any given time. And while 40% used to carry $20 or less, now 50% carry smaller amounts. Those with credit cards, especially multiple cards, rose, while checking and savings accounts decreased year-over-year. And Venmo replaced PayPal as the primary method for electronic payment, moving from 34% of payers to 65%.
  • Brick-and-Mortar Holds Its OwnAmazon Rules Online. Some 54% prefer in-store over online shopping, down from 62% last year. When Gen Zs shop online, 62% cite Amazon as their top choice. Wherever they shop, 75% of students use coupons; 95% seek to pay less than full-price at least some of the time, with 43% refusing to pay full-price at least three-quarters of the time. Interestingly, 55% say an ad on social media has influenced a purchasing decision, up from 42%.
  • Cable Falls, Amazon Prime Rises. In only 18 months, use of general cable as a programming source dropped from 42% of students to 25% of students. Netflix continues to lead the pack, used by 71% of students. Rocketing into second place from a bare mention last year, Amazon Prime is used by 36% of students. iTunes as a source dropped from 12% to 9% of students.
  • Digital Killed the Radio Star. Music streaming on Spotify in particular continues to rise, increasing from 40% of students in 2015 to 50% in 2016. As a source for new music, radio’s influence dropped from 49% of students discovering music there, down to 31%. The three top sources for getting introduced to new tunes are friends (56%), social media (49%) and YouTube (48%).
  • The Food Network Effect? The number of students who never cook for themselves is dropping, from 19% last year to 13% this year. The number who are cooking at least 3 to 4 meals a week rose, from 26% to 32%. When they choose take-out, the top apps are Yelp/Eat24, which is used by 32% of students, up from 25% last year, and GrubHub, at 14%.
  • Screen Wars: David Beats Goliath. Small screens are personal theaters. In 2015, 42% of students cited mobile device use of 1-5 hours per day. Now 40% of students cite use of 6-10 hours per day, up from 35% last year. Students also increasingly think they are on their devices too much, with two thirds believing that to be true. Laptop use is declining for viewing content as mobile devices enjoy slight but steady increases.

Economic and Convenient Wins in Transportation

  • Car ownership slid slightly from 57% to 54%. Most still own or lease a car, usually used, and leases of used cars was the category that saw the greatest shift, going from less than 1% of students last year to 4.4% this year.
  • Ride sharing has increased as ownership decreases, with 78% having used Uber (up from 57%), and Lyft use increasing from 25% to 46% of students.
  • Driving is best, but… If students have to get to a destination within 30 minutes, those with cars would drive, a fifth of students overall would walk, 13% would first turn to public transportation, and about the same number would first turn to ride sharing.

No Such Thing as Downtime 

  • Living the digital life. When students head back to their rooms, they head to social media. Most check in with friends (83%), or news (41%). After that, they work on career networking and event organization.
  • Facebook leads for social sharing, but Snapchat gaining. Facebook is used regularly by 36% of students, down from 38%. However, it still leads the pack, over Instagram (23%, down from 28%) and Snapchat, which rose from a few percentage points to 19%.
  • Respected news sources still rule, Buzzfeed gaining. CNN is the dominant news source among college students with 18% saying it’s the best app for news, followed by the New York Times, which rose slightly from 16% to 17%. Students citing Buzzfeed as a news source rose from 11% to 13%.

Fewer Entrepreneur Wannabes. More Company Men/Women

  • When students graduate, some 50% want to work for a mid-sized company with between 51 and 500 employees. Those seeking to work for smaller companies declined slightly, as did those who are considering starting their own businesses. It could be that even though students want a workplace that feels more personal, they are also risk-averse, so mid-size employers are ideal!
  • Most expect starting salaries between $50,000 and $60,000.


The 2016 Fluent Annual Survey was conducted October 17-November 17, 2016 and drew 501 completed responses from college students representing all regions of the country. The 2015 Fluent Annual Survey was conducted in May 2015, and drew 507 completed responses from students nationwide.

Source: Marketwired; edited by Richard Carufel

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