Editor's note: Gary Rudman is president and founder of GTR Consulting. He can be reached at gary@gtrconsulting.com.

When discussing research with Gen Z, I frequently encounter clients reminiscing about their own teenage experiences. I find it necessary to clarify that while certain aspects of adolescence remain constant – the physical changes, the emotional turmoil, the quest for self-identity – everything else is different. Gen Z’s upbringing, shaped by digital technology and a profoundly changed world, have led to distinctive perspectives and ways of navigating life that has set them worlds apart from Gen X and Boomers.

This article will outline five ways that Gen Z is different and five factors that researchers have to consider when conducting qualitative research among this critical marketing target.

Five differences

FOMA (fear of [even] mild awkwardness): We often describe technology as both the cause and solution to many of Gen Z’s problems. While it benefits them in numerous ways, it has also affected their social interactions. For instance, Gen Z exhibits a pronounced fear of awkwardness and embarrassment, amplified by reduced in-person social contact. Growing up in a highly connected digital world subjects them to constant scrutiny and comparison on social media, fostering a fear of awkward moments and public humiliation. Cancel culture exacerbates their risk aversion, prioritizing self-preservation. Additionally, extensive digital communication reduces face-to-face interactions, leaving Gen Z feeling less prepared for real-life social situations. The comfort of screens promotes a polished online persona, discouraging spontaneous in-person interactions and reinforcing their fear of awkwardness.

Awareness arbiters: Gen Z has emerged as a prominent arbiter of social consciousness, wielding their influence on various social and cultural fronts. With an acute awareness of social justice issues and a passion for inclusivity, this generation has been unapologetic in boldly educating adults, parents and teachers about appropriate language and behavior. Gen Z’s activism has sparked vital conversations about pronoun usage, cultural appropriations, mental health and other sensitive topics that were once overlooked or dismissed.

Next-gen nuances: Gen Z exhibits distinct and evolving priorities. These digital natives have distinct goals, viewpoints and life experiences that often diverge from the traditional life stage aspirations of Gen X or Boomers. Data shows, for instance, that many Gen Z are less inclined to prioritize obtaining a driver’s license or buying a home and more inclined to have concern about the environment and racial justice. 

Cultural shifters: Gen Z have a distinct viewpoint when it comes to respect of people and established traditions. They see themselves as equals and peers to their elders, parents and teachers. They feel comfortable and are even brazen about inserting their opinions into the conversation. In addition, this generation is more inclined to embrace innovation, challenge conventional wisdom and pioneer new paths to address contemporary issues and challenges. This cultural shift is a reflection the changes in society rather than a calculated decision. A major factor is that their upbringing has been marked by unrestricted access to a wealth of information and diverse viewpoints readily accessible online. This exposure has cultivated a greater willingness to question established norms and conventions. 

Course correctors: Gen Z possesses a distinct perspective on the world and how they navigate through it. They have developed an effective strategy to swiftly change course when dissatisfied with their current direction. Some critics argue that Gen Z lacks grit and tends to seek quick solutions, potentially undermining their commitment to long-term goals. However, it’s essential to acknowledge that their behavior is shaped by the environment they grew up in. Their actions may not necessarily indicate a lack of determination but rather mirror their adaptation to a digitally driven, fast-paced world. Gen Z’s capacity to explore multiple options and quickly pivot showcases their adaptability and resilience. They excel in handling change and seizing opportunities, a valuable skill in today’s rapidly evolving landscape.

Five factors

They’re different: It is essential for researchers to recognize that Gen Z has entirely different customs, approaches, goals, expectations, priorities and beliefs – all of which cause them to constantly reevaluate established norms and conventions. This can have great impact on how Gen Z reacts to discussion, communication, stimulus and even a moderator’s tone in research. Prepare to be surprised by their reactions to and feelings about the topic at hand.

Practical illustration: Despite my three decades of experience, I approach research with an open mind, devoid of preconceived notions, and consistently advocate for my clients to invest in research rather than making assumptions.

Practical illustration: When conducting research with this population, regard them as if you were exploring a foreign culture. Allow them to offer insights into their unique perspectives and behaviors and refrain from assuming shared viewpoints.

They’re safe-spacers: Gen Z are all about engaging with the community in a safe space. It is also important to recognize that Gen Z is extremely sensitive to awkwardness. Researchers should approach discussions with empathy and a genuine desire to understand Gen Z’s perspectives. Avoid judgment, validate their concerns and create an environment where they feel comfortable, safe and heard in a two-way conversation.

Practical illustration: Before I begin the research, I will bring respondents out of the research environment, whether it’s a physical hallway or an online breakout room. Along with reconfirming screening questions, I pose a thought-provoking question such as “What is something that is really pissing you off?” This not only jump-starts conversation and establishes rapport but also fosters common ground, as their responses often revolve around shared experiences such as school, parents, teachers and jobs, creating opportunities for bonding among participants.

Practical illustration: I like to present myself as a blend of a favorite teacher and a peer, striking a balance between maintaining some structure and creating a comfortable and amicable atmosphere.

They have strong opinions: Researchers must do their homework to get a clear sense of the Gen Z headspace, especially concerning social justice, inclusivity, mental health and appropriate language. This is not to suggest that they aren’t forgiving of mistakes, but they appreciate when an authentic and sustained effort is made to work within their generational guidelines for social correctness. 

Practical illustration: I initiate the research process by asking respondents to share their preferred pronouns during introductions. I ensure they understand that I may occasionally make mistakes, emphasizing my receptiveness to corrections and asking for their understanding in advance. This practice fosters an inclusive environment that promotes a sense of safety and acceptance.

They’re all about change: Gen Z is highly focused on change and lacks tolerance for limited options. They don’t respond positively to ideas that cannot be altered, personalized or customized in some manner.

Practical illustration: In research, marketers might have more success allowing Gen Z respondents to build their own concept from a variety of features rather than exposing them to preexisting, set-in-stone concepts.

They want it short and to the point: Gen Z is ready to move on to the next thing. They have neither patience nor interest in wading through copy that is tl;dr (too long; didn’t read) in research or being repeatedly asked the same questions. Discussions and copy must be kept short and to the point.

Practical illustration: We constantly tell our advertising partners that they should reach Gen Z with five words and a big picture, because that’s all Gen Z has the patience for. Given this, I frequently revisit all discussion guides and copy to weed out the extraneous fluff to make the discussion and stimulus concept as tight as possible.

Creating a secure environment 

Conducting effective qualitative market research with Gen Z necessitates creating a secure environment where their distinct perspectives, strong opinions and affinity for change can shine. Meeting their preference for brevity while respecting their unique viewpoints is essential for insightful outcomes.