How do you define Gen Z? On a surface level, it is relatively simple: Gen Z incorporates those born between 1997 and 2012. They are between six and twenty four years old. And they are on the cusp of emerging as the most influential generation of our time – if not so already.


A more difficult question to answer is what defines Gen Z? What are the hopes, fears and contextual factors shaping their thinking? What do their behaviours tell us about the future? How will this generation change the world? What do they want from brands? 

To understand a portrait you must look beyond the paint. Every generation is a product of their unique time and place in history. Understanding the broader context of their lives, and the significant events that shape them, is paramount to understanding the behaviors of this generation. 


The Cycle

Every generation is unique to some degree. But there are broad patterns that reveal themselves when you zoom out and analyse our ancestry from afar. 

The Strauss–Howe generational theory describes a theorised recurring generation cycle. According to the theory, historical events are associated with recurring generational personas (archetypes). Each generational persona unleashes a new era (called a turning) lasting around 20–25 years, in which a new social, political, and economic climate (mood) exists.

There are four stages of this cycle – “The High”, “The Awakening”, “The Unraveling” and “The Crisis”. And each gives birth to an archetype: Prophet, Nomad, Hero, and Artist.

According to this model, Gen Z are the next generation of Artists. They are adaptive, and experienced a significant crisis in their formative years. Artists grow up overprotected by adults preoccupied with a crisis, and come of age in a post-crisis world. 

This framework tells us we are amidst ‘The Fourth Turning’: an era typically involving war, upheaval or revolution, in which institutional life is destroyed and rebuilt in response to a perceived threat to survival. COVID-19 is the crisis which has sparked mass societal change. 

So to understand more about how Gen Z will grow with, and change, society – we should look to the behaviours and preferences of other Artist generations – such as the Silent Generation.


The Context

We are all products of our environment and our experiences. Or, as renowned sociologist Morris Massey put it; “what you are is where you were when”. 

Morris Massey details in his model how we develop our own code of ethics and values throughout our lives. 

The Massey model explains that we are not born with a set of values. These are developed through the experiences we encounter over the course of our lives, shaping who we are now and who we will become. 

Our formative experiences are pivotal in shaping our values. Massey defines three key periods of development. 

Between the ages of 1-7 we are in the ‘sponge stage’, where every experience is taken literally. Here we begin to build our basic understanding of right and wrong that will form the foundations for our moral code.

Between 8-13 we enter the modelling, or copying, stage. We begin to act upon what we’ve learned and copy much of the behaviour we see around us, focusing on parental behaviour again and experimenting with adopting new personality traits.

The ages between 14-21 is where we break away from these two former patterns of behavior and look to those who appear most like us – our peers. 

Gen Z has experienced these key periods under the social austerity induced by COVID-19. This has significant implications on the characteristics, habits and behaviours of this group.  


The Consequences

Living through an era of crisis, under the unique rules of lockdown and isolation is a strong recipe for unique and distinctive characteristics for this generation. 

But when you collide these ingredients with the omnipresent availability of digital devices and the explosive growth of the virtual world – you begin to see a picture of a generation who are coming into age and prominence in a world vastly different to the one they were born into, and one in which they have actively shaped. 

This generation are the first true digital natives – spending 74% of their free time online.  They are hyper-connected to online spaces and confident in their ability to navigate new technology. And digital prowess is already evolving into prominent spending power – with Gen Z representing 40% of global ecommerce shoppers. COVID-19 has only served to cement these habits and behaviours. 

And more than just defining the future of the physical world. The digital big bang has happened and the Metaverse has been born – and Gen Z are shaping what these future digital world(s) will look like. 

The Metaverse is best explained as a collection of 3D worlds you explore as an avatar. Household names like Roblox and Fortnite are the most established spaces—however there are many more emerging Metaverses such as Decentraland, Upland, Sandbox and the soon to launch Victoria VR. 

Some brands are already profiting from these digital spaces. Gucci sold a virtual bag for more than the real thing in Roblox; Nike dropped virtual Jordans in Fortnite; Coca-Cola launched avatar wearables in Decentraland, and Sotheby’s have an art gallery that your avatar can wander in your spare time.Meanwhile JP Morgan, Morgan Stanley, and Goldman Sachs have invested roughly $640million into crypto currencies and blockchain technologies. 

But these are barely scratching the surface of the Metaverse’s potential. The Metaverse is a new frontier with limitless possibilities. As it expands, brands and businesses will need to consider how they exist across both worlds. 

What does this mean for brands?

The complex forces shaping the behaviours and habits of Gen Z are important to understand. 




On 16th September, join Butterfly as we highlight how your brand can build empathy with this generation, understanding their drivers, needs and preferences – and how you can adapt and evolve your brands communications to authentically engage them. 

What can you learn from joining us?

  • What legacy will COVID-19 leave on Gen Z? Does this experience compare to previous generations? 
  • How has COVID-19 impacted the formative years for Gen Z & how will this influence their attitudes & behaviours as they grow into adulthood? How is this generation shaping the future in both physical and digital spaces?
  • How will your brand build empathy with Gen Z? How should it adapt and evolve to engage this audience now and in the future?

Get face to face with our Gen Z experts who have led projects in 18 countries to build your empathy with them and learn how best to connect with them.

Register here for your free space today.