This month, our trends breakfast featured an exploration of Generation Z, asking “What’s next for the Next Generation?”.

Much of Gen Z aren’t even teenagers yet, let alone fully-formed adults, and so compared to older generational groups, robust, data-driven insights have been in short supply and stereotypes have emerged. Depending on what you read, Gen Z are happy or unhappy, they’re optimistic or nihilistic, they’re fearful of climate change, but not so fearful that they won’t get on a plane to an exotic & instagrammable location. Using data, we’ll interrogate these stereotypes to identify some of the most important features of this new generation.

There’s something to the stereotypes – but only if you take them together.

Generation Z are highly complex, with identities that shift from one state to another, and often holding multiple – somewhat contradictory – attitudes and beliefs at the same time. How they present themselves is another story, with their relationship with their identity, and how they reveal it to the world mediated my multiple – sometimes deliberately misleading – social media accounts. It’s here that Generation Z reveals itself as a generation defined by its ‘quantum’ nature; a generation of individuals with multiple, shifting identities, only revealed by looking directly at them – and then they shift again.

In our Trajection exploring Generation Z we outlined the challenge that young consumers pose to some of our traditional demographic understandings such as gender, sexuality, nationality and ethnicity. Gen Z are more complex than their predecessors in this regard; they are the products of multiculturalism, growing in a world in which homosexuality is less stigmatised, and gender better understood as a spectrum, rather than a binary. As a result, we’ve seen a generation more likely to identity as bisexual, or more likely to consult gender identity development services than any that has gone before.

This complexity has been described as a form of fluidity of identity that defines this generation, but this is a misrepresentation. Fluidity implies that Gen Z are better able to transition between forms of identity and while this is true, it misses the most interesting thing about Gen Z. They don’t just exhibit an ability to transition between forms of identity – they can perform multiple, perhaps contradictory, identities all at once.

Gen Z are the products of our globalised world; 53% agree that they see themselves as world citizens, with each generation more likely than the one before it to identity as a global citizen. But they are also the products of polarisation, and while every generation had viewed national culture/identity as less important than the one that has gone before it in accordance with greater identification as world citizens, Gen Z view this as more important than both Gen Y & Gen X.

Source: Trajectory Global Foresight, 2018

Elsewhere, we see the same pattern. This is reportedly the healthiest generation ever, with significantly reduced alcohol consumption compared to their elders when they were the same age, and lower levels of smoking and teenage pregnancy than in other generational cohorts. However, it’s also a generation which has seen activity levels reduced and staggering growth in hospitalisations for obesity, while the data around mental health among young people unambiguously negative.

Complicating matters is how they portray themselves to the world. Generation Z are super-digital natives, with a new understanding of the relationships between the physical and digital worlds. This has implications for how they portray themselves, with 62% of Gen Z in the United States more comfortable expressing themselves digitally than in person, and complicating matters further, 46% of Gen Z in the USA have ‘Finstagrams’ – fake Instagram accounts – “to better express themselves”.

In quantum physics, an object can be a blue cube and a red ball at the same time. It’s only upon observation that the object ‘decides’ to be one or the other, and so it goes with Generation Z – the quantum generation. Generation Z exhibit enormous complexity, not only in their attitudes and values, but in how they express them dependent on a particular context.