Zooming in on Tomorrow
Generation Z in China. 254 million strong.
They have technology, cutting edge infrastructure and the necessary disposable income. China Zoomers have the potential to create a new global youth culture (cf. my previous article). China is a live observatory of Gen Z, at scale.
What can we learn from the Chinese Zoomers? What is the impact of this generation on tomorrow ‘s world?
Three core trends emerge.
TREND 1. New Forms of Social Filtering
It has been commented to death that, in an apparent paradox, technology and social media drives more individual loneliness. The McCann Gen Z Report highlights that Gen Z in China in particular feels this loneliness.
Yes, agree. Just observe any of them walking around. They are at the same time physically and digitally present. Gen Z are swiping, thumbing and suddenly going into frantic typing. Interacting with someone, something. Yet they are alone in their own mind, in a physical bubble.
So we have to set our expectations right.
Feeling lonely does not mean that it will generate a craving or a desperate need to reach out. On the contrary. Picking and choosing with whom and how you interact is a norm for this new generation. After all, Gen Z has the tools to reach out. Gen Z can be instantly reached, 24/7, from anywhere in the world. Reachable in any format, video, picture, text or voice without any lag.
Social filtering is the norm, not the exception
Social filtering will redefine business. Recently on LinkedIn, someone posted this wise saying: “An email creates a reaction, a phone call starts a conversation”. Cue many thumbs-up, support, care, etc.
Now, try that with a target audience under 25. Just try and cold call to a Zoomer. You will fall flat on your face! The likelihood is that the phone call will not be answered at all. The phone call will tag you, your business and your brand as intrusive and needy. Forget the old reflexes. Your Zoomer target sees a phone call as a disproportionate loss of time.
That is literally what comes out of the research with this Gen Z generation. Actually, according to the same research, keep your phone calls for targeting Boomers and keep emails for Gen Xers.
When was the last time you saw cold calling work anyway? That is, anywhere outside of showing off your Sales Force pipeline… Nah, never worked as advertised. No love lost for me.
Virtual Companions, a new emerging trend
For private relationships the same new rules apply. Judge and be judged at the swipe of a button is the standard. Why lose time to try and connect with whomever that does not fit the current target picture? What is the immediate benefit?
A fascinating trend is emerging, both in China and globally: the explosion in virtual companions.
Ever heard of the waifu/hazubendo trend?
If yes, go to the next paragraph, this could take long! If no, read the words out loud. Wai-fu… Ha-zu-ben-do. Wife and husband. Girlfriend and boyfriend. This trend was pioneered (where else?) in Japan’s nerd (Otaku) culture. The companions are proxy partners, imaginary digital boyfriend/girlfriend. They are created constructions.
The waifu/hazubendo trends feels like a live anticipation on the robotic/android/cyborg artificial partners foreseen in so much science fiction movies and novels. It is so successful that it has its own sub-Reddit channel, of course! The waifu/hasubendo trend is an intellectual projection of a perfect partner.
The next step is to upload this personality into an android, to get something like a Blade-Runner replicant.
Social filtering and digital engineering go hand in hand. It makes the individual loneliness bearable in this crowded personal digital world of social media and socially mandatory group chats.
TREND 2. Enhanced Globalisation – Local Identification
China Gen Z follows Newton’s third law: for any action, there is a reaction. As much the generation goes global, as much it goes local too. It has a macro and micro Newtonian effect.
On the macro side, China is already fully integrated and extremely active in many multiverses – the gaming ones, the music ones, Korean Pop fashion and lifestyles, TV shows, movie franchises…
Just one example beyond Gen Z as such: China has become a critical part of Hollywood release calendars. We are very far away from the token appearance of Shanghai as a cinematic background in Transformers.
Let’s look at some examples which are more directly linked to Gen Z. Gaming and eSports.
The global game phenomenon Fortnite decided to stop operating in China. No issues, no QQ (= shorthand for crying). The official statement was that they did not succeed in the game’s monetisation model. Fair enough. Afterall, Tencent has in its own catalogue the equivalent PUBG and Apex Legends Mobile. And both games are also global gaming gold standards.
Or take another cultural phenomenon: the Netflix series Squid Game. No, Netflix is not available in China! Yet, somehow, Squid Game is still pretty much top of the charts in the local Chinese market… One more? Korean Pop music. K Pop is as popular in China as in the rest of the world. So much so that the Chinese government thought necessary to rant against Sissy Boyz and the celebrity culture.
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Gen Z swap global cultures on a whim yet are locally anchored
These Zoomers move from Japanese anime to US Marvel comics, from Korean movies to American soaps. Generation Z is truly global.
At the same time, in the opposite direction, this generation has grown deep roots. Literally and figuratively. The future is not about epic-ness anymore. On a social level, community and belonging are key.
Local brands first
For China Zoomers in particular, this means a deep patriotic feeling. This has a direct impact on consumption attitudes and choices. Local brands come first. International brands disrespecting the country are boycotted. International brands that respect the local markets are still highly valued.
Pride in the country goes hand in hand with international consciousness. This we see not only in China, but in many countries at the moment. Will this lead to a global insularity somehow?
On an individual level, this means the return of common sense. Being down to earth. Ambitions are tailored to pragmatic realities. In the words of the McCann report, what Gen Z looks for is the “extraordinary ordinary”. This is a key difference between China Zoomers and Millennials.
First and foremost, China Gen Z ‘s expectations is to have a decent life
This is radically new.
Remember that China is emerging from the frenzy of the 2000’s and from the radical reshaping of the country, be it physically, visually or economically. For a generation that has as its main expectation “having a decent life”, this is indeed totally new.
And companies are adapting.
If someone has its finger on the pulse of Generation Z, it has to be Bytedance, the company behind TikTok. To a large extent, we can say that TikTok leads Gen Z. So, if Bytedance decides to move from the 996 work culture (9am to 9pm 6 days a week) to a 1075 culture (10am to 7pm 5 days a week), it is not out of charity. Only. Or at all.
How the clock has turned since the glorification of the 996 culture in those ancient times in… 2019. Back then, the 996 work culture was a standard to live up to. It was presented as the norm by none other than Jack Ma, the great ancestor of the China metaverse as it exists today.
TREND 3. What Youth means within Society is Changing
The third implication of the Gen Z value system goes deeper than exotic ways of communicating, generational slang or different life expectations.
The implication is more direct: there will be a change in the way we all look at Youth in general.
Why is that?
In the 50s in the Western world, the great change was to bring forward Youth. Youth as the biggest population segment. Youth as the most critical consumer segment. But even more important, Youth was the default opinion leader. Youth was the future physically, and Youth somehow knew its secrets.
That was then. This is now…
A new population structure worldwide is changing dynamics
There is a structural change in the world population dynamics between the 1960s and 2020s.
In 1960s, 66% or 2 thirds of the addressable population was below 40. Addressable population is the population with the age and the money to spend(*). In 2020, that figure has dropped to 52%!
Hence, today, 48% of the addressable population is older than 40. These are the kids of the 50s and 60s, the boomers. Boomers are still pretty much here, alive and kicking.
“OK boomer” is a cute meme, a snarky catchphrase used by young people to dismiss or mock attitudes and “wisdom” from people born in the 50s and 60s. What a radical idea to think that older people ‘s ideas are just… old ideas. Right? Does not really sound revolutionary to me…
Either way. Numbers speak.
The value of Youth is changing – New values are in the making
Since the 60s, Youth as an absolute value has been at the heart of targeted marketing. This was a direct result of changes in cultural, economic and educational conditions. Young=New. New=Progress. Progress=Attractive. Etc….
Remember some of the slogans: “Be there or be square”? It dates from the 50s. New slang, new lingo, new fashions… a linear timeline until the 2000s. There seems to be a lot of nostalgia at the moment.
It is not only the aging population that creates a change in what youth means. It is also the attitude of the Zoomers themselves that make the role of Youth evolve in our societies. Also in China, the value of Youth has changed. It is less of a virtue in and by itself anymore. It is another niche in a new marketing landscape, alongside others. Being young does not have the same weight anymore. And Gen Z seems quite OK with that.
What will be the full balance of values in this new generational landscape? They are still in the making. From the data collected, Gen Z in China is our mine canary on this new landscape.
In this fluid, evolving situation, let’s have a look at social or group communication.
How would you go by to address Gen Z as a whole?
You could do Twitch. You could “do young”, as politicians of many stripe have done before. Nice gimmick. It did introduce at least the medium to many of us. Amazon certainly welcomed the new traffic. Did it stick? I doubt it. Let’s be frank here.. Twitch slots belong with dad jokes and drunken uncle wedding dances.
Cringy! Twitch is Twitch.
On to Discord, something else entirely
The way Discord is used is truly fascinating. Forget the technical aspects. Look at the way it was morphed over time by its users.
Discord started off as a group voice system. It replaced more dedicated (and complex) solutions, which required private servers and a minimum of technical proficiency to play games. With an extremely simple interface and technical solution, Discord democratised voice channels for game raids. Did you ever saw pictures of gamers hunched in front of their screens, with a gigantic headset with blinking lights and a hoodie? Chances are, they were chatting on Discord.
From this, Discord went on to becoming live engagement on nearly any and every topic. It moved into real social interaction, with thematic communities such as Reddit also using it. A dormant Discord channel(s) on the backburner is pretty much the communication backbone of Gen Z.
Take the “meme stocks” saga of January 2021. During the whole Gamestop saga, the Reddit sub-forum /wallstreetbets hosted heated discussions on its Discord server. The discussion where of such nature that Discord temporarily banned the sub-forum. It is still today a highly recommended channel to follow. If only to have a look at what the retail investors are thinking.
To give you a feel for the /wallstreetbets discussions on Discord, let me toggle to their Discord channel right now (25/11/2021).. 571747 members, 41404 online simultaniously! During the Gamestop saga, it was 80k on live chat!
A complete natural digital social engagement ecosystem
Beyond these social solutions, Discord is even operational with companies such as TakeAway.com. The popular food delivery company uses Discord as a communication backbone. This means that Discord is now the go-to tool for their delivery drivers to receive orders, check with the back-office and possibly talk to each other. Sounds like usage and practise disruption, or not?
A continuous conversation with your own passionate dedicated group? Count me in! It’s called Huya Live in China and you have a completely new, uncharted, natural, digital social engagement ecosystem.
China Gen Z is our mine canary when it comes to observing, at scale, what we can expect from the global Generation Z. Chinese Zoomers give us a glimpse of what this generation will look like in the future.
The future will be likely scripted in Shanghai and Beijing, rather than in New York or Los Angeles.
Zoomers collectively decided to take a momentary step back
Truth be told, Millennials are not anymore the “youth”. This happens inevitably to each generation. Move over Millennials, enter Zoomers. Zoomers are native to the endless world of opportunities and choices.
The novelty of this new generation is that they seem to have collectively decided to take a momentary step back, and to enjoy and assess their environment. Possibly to jump at a later stage?
We could stay on the exotic aspects of the way Gen Z interact, with us and between themselves. We could try and find what is different. For example their language, which prominently features mistrust. However, this would simply reduce this new generation to being the new turn in the wheel of time, the next fashion cycle or simply the new Youth.
Gen Z is more than that.
Generation Z heralds a completely new take on what youth will mean in our societies. A new take on what youth values will be and what it will mean for their expectations, aspirations, ambitions, successes and failures. That in turn will impact our own future. It will create new drives and new directions, whether we are boomers, Xers or Millennials.
In that, China is our best outpost to look at this Generation Z, at scale.
Can’t wait for tomorrow, to be honest.
(*) Globally addressable population = Asia+Europe+Middle East/North Africa+Americas, over 10years old