I me mine 

Editor's note: Kimberley Howard is culture and trends consultant at U.K. research firm Join the Dots. 

Much has been said in recent years about the rapid rise of individualism. In March 2014, the very same month that the term “selfie” spiked on Google Trends, Ross Douthat, politics, religion and moral values columnist for The New York Times, wrote, “In the future, it seems, there will only be one ‘ism’ – Individualism – and its rule will never end.”

Douthat’s statement suggests individuality is only increasing and psychological research by Santos and Grossman (Psychological Science, July 2017) supports the claim. Data across 78 markets and 51 years reveals most countries are moving towards greater individualism and this is closely linked to increased socioeconomic development. 

Individualism is on a continual upward trajectory – today’s young people, known as Gen Z, are the most individualistic generation yet. As analysts of human behavior, we questioned what this means for researchers and how we can help our clients tap into the individuality megatrend to make better business decisions.

We conducted a global study of individuality, combining survey data with qualitative interviews and in-depth desk research.¹ From this study, we’ve uncovered three global individuality trends for Gen Z, each with implications and opportunities for researchers, brands and marketers.

Trend 1: Defying the norms 

Gen Z express their individuality through vocalizing their social and political opinions. They’re a generation looking to pioneer change but, contrary to teens past, they’re keen to work within the system rather than destroy it.

One key concern for Gen Z is ingrained cultural stereotypes and inequality. Prejudice towards LGBTQ+ people, gender inequality and racism rank higher in their concerns than they do for older generations. Gen Z want to break down the restrictive norms surrounding identity so that they have the freedom to express their individuality in a nuanced and “true” way. 

Our own research found 70 percent of Gen Z agree traditional gender roles are outdated, compared with only 55 percent of Boomers.

But while Gen Z are looking to change society, they still value community. Seventy percent of Gen Z in our study agreed to the statement: “The wellbeing of society is much more important than my needs as an individual,” equal to 70 percent Boomers. This means they’re voicing their opinions in a way that’s bold but also considerate of others. It’s no longer about anarchy or destroying the system but more about intelligent discussion for long-term change.

An example of this is Indonesian YouTubers the Cameo Project. Popular amongst Indonesian youth, they are pioneering change via their YouTube videos. They challenge existing Indonesian stereotypes through comedy in order to educate older generations in a respectful way, through humor and fun.

This research reveals Gen Z are passionate and driven but still respectful of society as a whole, which counters the wider reputation of them as “lazy” and “obsessed with social media.”² Gen Z’s fluid attitudes to gender, sexuality and race also have implications for researchers, as analyzing consumers in terms of gender, for example, will soon be problematic as people begin to fall outside of these categories. We will need to view consumers through a more varied lens as they begin to challenge the categories on which we build research. It’s also important to be aware of their liberal agenda. As they age, core issues such as sustainability, diversity and equality in marketing and employment, as well as having an ethical brand reputation, will all come further to the fore for our clients.  

Trend 2: Pick ‘n’ mix culture 

Gen Z express themselves through their friendship groups, which are more unique and more exclusive than subcultures of the past. This is largely caused by the amount of information accessible to us now via the Internet. Gen Z have been brought up with culture at their fingertips, able to research and discover niche interests, across boundaries and subcultures – a pick ‘n’ mix of style and culture, rather than subscribing themselves to one clique. They are forming new, even more unique tribes.

According to Ruth Adams of King’s College London, “It’s a lot easier to be promiscuous, subculturally speaking. The semiotic signs are not quite as hard-edged as they used to be.”³

Gen Z’s motivations for joining these tribes are also different. While previous subcultures were a way of rebelling against the mainstream and exerting your individuality against the norms, now the focus is on building closeness over unified interests. This comes off the back of rising youth anxiety and loneliness as they become more isolated behind their screens.⁴

These friendship communities often begin online, usually through invite-only groups with their own codes and norms. An example of this is The Basement – a streetwear community consisting of over 70 thousand members.⁵ They brand themselves as a “family,” bonding over their unified passion of streetwear culture. A similar example is Sneakhers – a positive environment for females to celebrate their love of sneakers. For these groups, it’s less about “us vs. the world” and more about building long-lasting friendships with people who are just as passionate as you are about a niche topic.

For researchers, being aware of these niche groups and how people are formulating identities now is key. They also give us direction on the types of brands successfully building these cult communities; innovative enough to convert a set of people into brand fans (and not just customers). 

For brands and marketers, recognizing the desire young people have to connect with each other is important. Brands should facilitate this need for connection – set up groups, sponsor them and be part of the conversation. But be aware, diehard subcultures of the past are outdated. Individuality for this generation is more fluid. It’s less focused on restricting one’s interests to one subculture and instead is more experimental of different ideas, genres and tastes. 

Trend 3: Genuine connections 

Gen Z are open to brands that make an effort to relate to them and their individual interests – as long as it’s genuine. They’re quick to notice when marketers aren’t being authentic and quick to call them out on social media to damn their efforts.

Some celebrated examples of brands tapping into youth culture include Converse’s partnership with musician Tyler the Creator. For Gen Z, it was obvious this campaign was genuine, as Tyler was seen wearing Converse before the partnership began. Equally, Converse were seen to support a lesser-known artist – helping boost his career and therefore gaining respect from this generation. Another example is Nike’s partnership with female football club Romance FC, which was another instance of a big brand using its status to support grassroots movements relevant to its own values: football and sport. 

However, there’s a fine line in winning the hearts of Gen Z. An example which received backlash is Puma’s House of Hustle,⁶ where the brand set up an event in London’s SoHo, inviting people via a “burner” phone. The house itself was decorated with graffiti on the walls, dirty mattresses on the floor and blacked-out windows. Barbers, tattooists and jewellers offered their services, while DJs and acts performed. From the perspective of Gen Z, this event felt too forced and contrived. It had no real relevance to the brand and also came across as offensive, seen as glamorizing adolescent drug dealing during a period of fatal violent crime in the capital. 

A Puma press release described the event as “designed to celebrate creative entrepreneurial pathways of young urban dwellers” but Gen Z saw through this and could see it was just a marketing initiative.

For marketers, Gen Z are open to brands looking to tap into their increasingly niche and individual tastes. Partnerships and collaborations are a great way to do this but brands need to ensure partners chosen are relevant to their own brand values. Respect is earned through helping these grassroots movements to succeed, rather than simply appropriating youth culture in an obvious marketing ploy.

For researchers, this has implications for Gen Z as our respondents. Young people are keen to work with research agencies who truly want to understand and engage with their needs, so long as they’re approached and briefed in an honest way and their opinions are listened to. For our study of Gen Z, we used our Illume Network – culturally savvy, leading-edge individuals tapped in to the world around them. Our Gen Z Illume Guides are keen to have their voices and opinions heard and consumer insight gives them an outlet to try and pioneer change from brands in a productive way. 

A huge opportunity

Hyper-individuality is only increasing and while it poses some fundamental challenges to both brands and researchers, Gen Z’s passion for individualism acts as a huge opportunity. A more experimental generation, they’re open to trying new products and services, crossing categories to build their individual identities. If our clients can successfully target this generation, they have the chance to build not only loyal customers but loyal brand fans who will celebrate them on social media via engaged brand communities.

For researchers, Gen Z’s vocal opinions and desire for change mean they’re often keen to work with researchers to prepare brands for the future or, alternatively, they want to join our industry when they come of age to influence brands themselves.