It may be a bit presumptive for us to tell you about Generation Z. After all, those who work and teach in schools have the most consistent contact with kids. You see them every day. You interact with them far more often than any marketer or sociologist. And you see them in greater volume than their individual parents. It would be fair to conclude that you are the real experts, and we should be coming to you for advice on understanding this latest generation. Mysterious because they’re still so young. Mighty because they have the power to make or break your school meals program. Generation Z is a demographic you need to get to know. Still, we’ll maintain the audacity of thinking that we can offer our readers some helpful information about your customers. After all, you don’t have the luxury of simply observing the kids who dine in your cafeterias each day. Your attention is rightfully fixed on the details of serving them. When the hours of your work day are focused on menu development, meal prep, procurement, inventory management, food safety, nutrition education and a thousand other areas, it doesn’t leave much capacity for thoughtful reflection about the characteristics and needs of the current crop of students. It’s likely that you have many observations about Gen Z, but lack the time and skill to translate those into actionable marketing and communications strategies. That’s where we come in. In the pages that follow, we’ve assembled some thoughts about Gen Z and present them here to offer you a reference that you can turn to when you do have the time to dream up fresh approaches to making quality customer connections. You’ll find the conclusions of the marketers and sociologists, of course. But we also offer the first-person perspective of a Gen Zer (page 32), paired with reflections from his Baby Boomer parent (page 33). These insights articulate some of the challenges that are inherent in cross-generational relationships, but also mirror the opportunities you’ll enjoy in your own efforts to understand and meet Gen Z on their turf. But don’t take our words for it—at least not only our words. This article is just a place to start. Because you may find that even in this piece, there are contradictory impressions and opinions. There is no single, definitive voice of a generation. You need to talk to your customers. Whether it’s the eye-crossing, frustrating tendency of two schools in the same district to have wildly different pizza preferences or a pair of siblings who can’t agree on whether Instagram is the preferred social media channel or something only for “babies,” opinions are only as far-reaching as the student who voices them. Ultimately, you need to engage with the kids that you serve—and you need to do this regularly to capture their ever-changing fancies. Consider this magazine a simple introduction: SN readers—meet Generation Z. GEN Z SPEAKS: A PERSONAL REFLECTION BY CHARLES GRYDER One of the developed world’s longest traditions is trying to figure out what those damn kids are up to, and modern day is no different. With the rise of technology and seamless connectivity to the Internet, the current iteration of teenagers, a group to which I belong, has grown up surrounded by a constant flow of information. This was also true for the infamous 20-35 year-olds who have been labeled as “Millennials.” The main difference between them and us, however, is pretty significant. For those born before the late 1990s, the Internet was still on the rise. A significant part of being a Millennial is remembering a time before the Internet. For members of the proclaimed Gen Z, the Internet has always been a major element of our lives. Yes, we were technically alive during the transition from flip-phones to smartphones, but most of us have only ever used the latter, and the flip-phones that did make their way into our hands almost certainly left them shortly afterwards. What makes Gen Z different is that we never experienced the changes that heralded the beginning of the 21st Century. One of the weird parts of being a Gen Zer is all the attempts to relate to us, both in normal everyday things and large-scale entertainment or advertising. There’s a big scramble to figure out what it is we respond positively to, and the truth is that it’s different for all of us. There’s no such thing as being a slave to pop culture anymore, because pop culture itself is just so broad. Due to the infinite online communities and websites that allow us to share ideas with each other, pretty much anything can become a legitimate hobby or interest. This not only gives the “nerds” or “weird” kids a place to express themselves, but it also brings the average teenager into those niche interests. So many companies, schools or adults in general try to find a strategy that can be used to engage all the kids they interact with, but the target is just too wide to hit with only one shot. What we as a generation do have in common, however, is an accelerated path toward adulthood. All of these interests and passions that we develop through exploring the Internet and social media connect us in a way that just using Twitter never could. We don’t see ourselves as kids, but as people, all sharing the same world, and all trying to achieve our dreams. We want to be seen as legitimate; we don’t want to be rounded up into one idea and have that be our identity. When we are asked what we want to do later in life, we don’t picture a stock photo of a veterinarian, we see a specific successful individual whom we have interacted with through social media; we see the accomplishments of others that we want to emulate. Life for us isn’t about forging our own path as much as it is following and modifying the paths of others. What we truly want is to be taken seriously. We want to be given the opportunity to make our own decisions, and try out the world for ourselves. We’ve seen so many people doing that in their own lives; we wanna take a crack at it, too. If you treat a Gen Zer with the same dignity and respect you would a Gen Xer, you’ll see that we don’t want to slack off and play on our phones all day. We want to be part of the world we’ve been watching on our phones since the day we’ve been born. GEN Z SNAPSHOT BY RACHEL E. O’CONNELL They are a population growing up immersed in technology, fully native to the digital world. They consume their media five-screens at a time, jockeying between tablets, smartphones and the TV screen. (A desktop computer? What’s that?) These teens and tweens also happen to be the most ethnically diverse generation, and they are expected to overtake the famous Baby Boomers in population size. As the most global, diverse generation, Gen Z does not see diversity until it’s absent. And given their immersion in social media, they have kept up with the global recession, terrorism and government controversies, meaning that they are more cautious, more pragmatic and less likely to trust companies than their Millennial counterparts. Their attitude toward the job market, however, is exceedingly positive, with 72% of high school students claiming interest in starting a business. Even in the workplace, their digital immersion comes into play, since it has affected Gen Z’s attention span—83% of today’s students state that three years or less is just the right amount of time to spend at a job. But that screen-time does not color their ability to interact. In fact, 53% of these consumers favor in-person communications due to the availability of Vine, FaceTime and YouTube, which have only made their interpersonal skills stronger. PARENTING GEN Z: IT’S A BRAVE NEW WORLD BY SUSAN DAVIS GRYDER I’ve watched my friends with older kids who hit the teenage years—for some parents it was a soft landing, while others were left reeling from that potent combination of independence, will and vulnerability. When my own two kids reached their teen years, I was convinced I would handle it with grace, calm and poise. Ha! A lot of the challenges of my children’s teen years have been the age-old issues that we all remember experiencing with our own parents. But many revolve around things I could never have anticipated when they were born, back before smartphones and Wi-Fi. Generation Z has access to such vast stores of information online—they are more well-informed and more familiar with formerly adults-only visuals and subject matter than any previous generation. And it’s harder and harder to keep them sheltered from what’s out there online. Even if you don’t get them a smartphone, their friends will have them. Their classrooms will have computers and their teachers will require online research. The shows they watch and celebrities they follow are more likely to be on YouTube or Netflix than on television. The good thing about this technology-driven life is that it doesn’t have to be a mystery. I can watch YouTube, too, if I want to know what’s making them laugh or worrying them at night. I can even follow them on Instagram. I don’t fool myself into thinking I know everything, or even most things, but I do think I have a sense of what’s on their minds. Generation Z is out there, for everyone to see. It’s always discouraging to have a discussion with my kids about technology. I think of myself as a savvy tech user, but they like to remind me that I come from the Stone Age. Nothing makes them laugh like my stories of my first jobs, in the Eighties, when I used my very first personal computer and called my mom (on a landline) to tell her about how amazing fax machines were. (When she was little, my daughter asked me if I had wooden braces when I was a kid, but that’s another story….) I’ve finally made peace with the fact that they are better and faster at technology than I am. In fact, asking them for tech support provides an unexpected way to connect. They can show me their expertise—and it’s really an invaluable confidence booster for a teen to be able to use their skills to help a parent. Plus, the time together as they help set up my new iPhone is a great opportunity for conversation, both casual and profound. Generation Z is a capable and knowledgeable generation, with a lot of confidence in their ability to become competent in a variety of areas. I wasn’t expecting my kids to be so wise and well-informed but, in fact, they teach me something new every day. Just last week, my 17-year-old son (opposite page) gave me a very detailed and fascinating overview of how airlines make a profit and decide where to fly and when to replace their planes. When I asked him, amazed, how he knew this, he shrugged and said, “I don’t know. It’s just interesting, so I researched it.” My daughter, now almost 16, went through a phase where she loved fashion and how-to videos. But she wasn’t a passive viewer; she and her friend made their own craft videos, complete with visual effects and voiceovers. When I asked her how she learned the crafts, she responded, “There’s a YouTube video for that. Mom, there’s a YouTube video for everything.” I’ve taken this to heart, and gotten better at doing my own research when I need to learn some new skill. We have a few more years of teenage-hood in our family, and I’m sure the challenges to come will include some things I haven’t considered in my 2 a.m. worry-fueled insomnia. But when the time comes, I will take my daughter’s words to heart: somewhere out there, there’s a YouTube video for that. GEN Z FOOD FOR THOUGHT BY RACHEL E. O’CONNELL Although young, Generation Z has already started putting its signature on the food and restaurant industry, with marked trends and distinctive tastes. In fact, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, Millennials and Gen Z make up 51% of the population, so their traits and tastes will have a defining impact on the foodservice business. Here is a roundup of recent research on preferences and attitudes about what they eat and how they spend their food dollars: • They favor commercial brands or franchises with a perceived social cause. • Gen Z is highly prone to snacking; 94% of kids in this age group snack between meals at least once per week. • Generation Z loves fresh, traditional, simple food across all of their meals (and snacks). • Although the simple food format is key for this demographic (and by simple, we mean the basics: pizza, sandwiches, chicken, etc.), Gen Z also has notable interest in customization and a fairly sophisticated palate. Introducing familiar foods that students can request made to order or jazz up on their own with a variety of condiments is a good way to please this consumer. • They prefer on-the-go eating; 44% of Gen Zers opt for quick service restaurants (QSRs). Subway is particularly popular with this demographic. • Despite their interest in QSRs, this generation is expected to end the trend of increased rates of obesity and overweight. They have an awareness of and enthusiasm for wellness initiatives. • Due to their immersion in the online world, Gen Z is highly influenced by both family and friends when it comes to their food choices; 15% of these students use social media to interact with and learn about brands. • Gen Z is clearly invested in eating tasty food that improves their quality of life. Educating them about the choices that are best for their bodies and their minds might be as easy as opening an Instagram account. WHAT’S IN A NAME? BY RACHEL E. O’CONNELL & PATRICIA L. FITZGERALD Everyone knows the Millennials, idealistic adults who came of age early in our new century, roughly between the 9/11 attacks and the Great Recession. But what about the generation that follows the Millennial, which “officially” stopped its span with those born in 1995? The next generation is made up of today’s tweens, teens and young adults. But what, exactly, do we call them? And who makes that decision? Let’s take a look at a little generational history for context. There’s no definitive authority that defines and determines the different generations. If you thought this was the purview of the U.S. Census Bureau, think again. This agency is on record disavowing any formal generational tracking beyond the Baby Boomers. Generational definitions are driven more by marketers and the media seeking to identify age-based demographic groups for their respective purposes. The science of generational identification isn’t science at all—it’s more about what “sticks.” For example, a Wikipedia list of generations starts with the Lost Generation. Ever heard of it? Probably not, since its members have disappeared into history. For the record, it was a term originated by author Gertrude Stein to describe those who fought in World War I. Next, we have the G.I. Generation, alternately used to categorize those who fought in both World Wars or only World War II, depending on whom you ask. How many of you have heard of this one either? Not many, huh? Well, that’s because in 1998, journalist Tom Brokaw came along and published a best-selling history book about this demographic, coining them the “Greatest” Generation—a term that resonates with marketers, historians, sociologists, psychologists and anyone else who writes or even thinks about generational definitions. This is the designation that is most likely to stick with us over time, rather than the G.I. Generation. Baby Boomers—both the label and the highly definable characteristics associated with this group—likely will stick, too. The name refers to the population explosion at the end of World War II, the years with the largest U.S. birth rates on record, until recently. But after the Boomers, the generational labels get fuzzier, as U.S. cultural changes have gotten fuzzier. Take, for example, Gen X, born 1965-1979. They were called the Baby Busters, the Me Generation and the MTV Generation, before the X label took hold. Why? In part, because we’ve started seeing societal changes occur at a much faster rate and there were characterizations that were inherent in the actual name that might have applied to those born on the earlier end of the spectrum, but were no longer resonant with those at the tail end. Some contend that the “X” refers to this generation’s desire not to be defined! So, we’ve got Gen X and now Gen Z—what happened to Generation Y? That was the original name for the Millennials. But you can see how the association with a definable point in time has much greater resonance than the 25th letter of the alphabet. Bye-bye Y. Hello Millennial. That brings us to Gen Z—and this generic label is not likely to stick over time, either. Marketers have been testing out several options: Multi-Gen, Post-Gen, Re-Generation, Plurals and Generation Wii. So far, two terms have become front-runners, iGeneration and Generation Z. The latter is the most popularized term so far. Its competitor term, “iGen,” has no definable source, having been claimed by magazines, a demographer and even a rap artist. Its popularity is in part due to the flexibility of the term, standing equally for Apple products, individuality or something yet undiscovered. We’ll see what Gen Z itself decides to embrace. Its members have a unique advantage: As social media natives, they can control the narrative and define themselves! Rachel O’Connell is SN communications coordinator. Patricia Fitzgerald is SN editor; Charles Gryder, a junor at Blair High School in Silver Spring, Md., is her godson, and the eldest child of Susan Davis Gryder, a freelance contributor to SN since 1998. • BONUS WEB CONTENT MIGHTY & MYSTERIOUS GENERATION Z Check out more about this generation in this month’s exclusive web content. Visit www.schoolnutrition.org/snmagazinebonus to access.
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