As the world becomes ever more connected, generational differences could become greater influencers than socioeconomic differences. That's the premise of a new in-depth study into the influence of Generation Z from McKinsey.

In short: what makes this digital-native generation (those born between roughly 1995 and 2010) tick, and what does that mean for brands and consumption patterns?

What the study reveals is that Gen Zers look for individualism and avoid labels; they back a variety of causes, and they believe deeply that dialogue is the way to solve conflict and make the world a better place. Finally, they are analytical and pragmatic when making decisions and about how they relate to institutions.

And it’s these core drivers, the study suggests, that influence the way Gen Zers view consumption and the way they will influence others beyond their group.

Here are the three key takeaways for brands from all the data collected:

Access not owning – Gen Zers analyse before they buy, expecting to be able to access a wealth of information. Most importantly, they see consumption in a different way: it’s now about having access to products and services rather than necessarily owning them. Examples include car-riding services, video streaming, and subscriptions.

This attitude is increasingly influencing older generations, too, says the study.

Consumption as an expression of identity – Gen Z is all about individual identity, and so consumption is a means to express that identity. Whereas previous generations tended to buy brands to conform to certain groups or fashions, Gen Zers want more personalised products.

Among the wealthiest consumers studied, 58% said they’d pay more for personalised offerings. The authors highlight another standout finding about individualism – 48% of Gen Zers, but only 38% of other consumers, said they value brands that don’t label goods as either for men or women.

Consumption based on ethics – If brands want to impress Gen Zers, they need to get their ethics in order, communicate the fact – and mean what they say. This generation increasingly expects brands to “take a stand”, rather than make bland, politically correct statements on a wide range of issues.

These young consumers don’t distinguish between the ethics of a brand, the company that owns it, and its supply chain. A company’s actions must match its ideals, concludes the study, and those ideals must be apparent throughout a supply chain. 

The good news is that consumers— and in particular Gen Zers— say they accept brands that make mistakes – so long as those mistakes are corrected.

Sourced from McKinsey; additional content by WARC staff