Do you remember where you were in 1997?

I was 27 years old, straight out of Johannesburg, SA and freshly arrived in Toronto. I had $10,000 in my pocket and had just given my new landlord a year’s worth of post-dated rent cheques for my first condo, so I was in debt before I even had a job. But I was bright-eyed and full of belief that North America was the land of opportunity. I was astonished at all the television stations, but couldn’t afford cable; I used to sneak my favorite shows while pretending to shop for televisions at Best Buy. 

In 1997, most of the members of this year’s class of college freshman were being born. The world they take for granted would have been unthinkable to me at 18 – the stuff of science fiction, really.  Beloit College publishes what they call a Beloit Mindset List every year, and when you consider the world in which these “digital natives” have always lived, you get a new appreciation for how far we’ve come in what seems like a very short time. Some of the takeaways I found particularly interesting:

  • They’ve never lived in a world without Google “to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible.” 
  • Wi-Fi isn’t a perk, but an entitlement.
  • Cell phones have always been around, even though they used to be a lot bigger (and of course now, everyone has one, along with instant access to the universe of data).
  • Hong Kong has always been under Chinese rule.
  •  Surgeons have always used “super glue” in the operating room.
  • TV has always been in such high definition that they could see the pores of actors and the grimaces of quarterbacks. 
  • Humans have always had the ability to use implanted radio frequency ID chips—slightly larger than a grain of rice.
  • The announcement of someone being the “first woman” to hold a position only impresses their parents
  •  The Lion King has always been on Broadway.

These first years are on the cutting edge of what marketers have dubbed Gen Z, and according to the latest edition of Deep Focus' Cassandra Report, their preferences show marked shifts from those of Gen Y, the oldest of whom are now about 34.  Gen Yers loves Amazon; Gen Z prefers YouTube. If offered a choice between a “cool product” or a “cool experience”, 77% of Gen Yers will go for the cool experience – but 60% of Gen Zers will reach for that “cool product”. How they want to find out about these products and experiences are different too, with Gen Z preferring brands to reach out to them via social media, where Gen Y would rather hear from you via email (and none of them want to hear from you via snail mail).

Gen Y values the quality of “uniqueness” when they’re shopping for something, which isn’t as important as “popularity” is to Gen Z, who wants what the next person’s having. Not surprisingly given their comfort level in the digital domain, Gen Z is more tolerant than any other generation with online advertising, and they’d rather see celebrities doing endorsements than experience an emotional connection with the brand.

For a generation that’s been coddled, chauffeured, and showered with participation awards, the Gen Zers also share a sadly grim outlook about what they see as an uncertain future, thanks probably to the financial roller-coaster rides and endless international conflicts that have been the backdrop to their childhoods, according to studies done by author Bruce Tulgan. But interestingly, they’re much more individualistic in their tastes, opinions, and allegiances than you might think, and less likely to subscribe to any predetermined, predictable set of ideological principles, preferring a “mix and match” approach. In other words, it’s harder to extrapolate assumptions about their preferences from a few pieces of information. Remember what “assume” does? Well, with Gen Zers, that’s doubly true.

All of these things don’t matter at all of course – if you don’t hope to sell your product, service, or experience to this very different generation. But the fact is, even if they’re not currently your target market, they will be, so you’d better get comfortable where they are; in the digital realm, on their phones, and on social media.

Where Were YOU in 1997?

That's me in the picture above, standing in the snow in my slippers.

I was 27 years old, straight out of Johannesburg, SA and freshly arrived in Toronto. I had $10,000 in my pocket and had just given my new landlord a year’s worth of post-dated rent cheques for my first condo, so I was in debt before I even had a job. But I was bright-eyed and full of belief that North America was the land of opportunity (and I was right.) I was astonished at all the television stations, but couldn’t afford cable; I used to sneak my favorite shows while pretending to shop for televisions at Best Buy.

In 1997, most of the members of this year’s class of college freshman were being born. The world they take for granted would have been unthinkable to me at 18 – the stuff of science fiction, really. Beloit College publishes what they call a Beloit Mindset List every year, and when you consider the world in which these “digital natives” have always lived, you get a new appreciation for how far we’ve come in what seems like a very short time. Some of the takeaways I found particularly interesting:

  • They’ve never lived in a world without Google “to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible.” 
  • Wi-Fi isn’t a perk, but an entitlement.
  • Cell phones have always been around, even though they used to be a lot bigger (and of course now, everyone has one, along with instant access to the universe of data).
  • Hong Kong has always been under Chinese rule.
  • Surgeons have always used “super glue” in the operating room.
  • TV has always been in such high definition that they could see the pores of actors and the grimaces of quarterbacks. 
  • Humans have always had the ability to use implanted radio frequency ID chips—slightly larger than a grain of rice.
  • The announcement of someone being the “first woman” to hold a position only impresses their parents
  • The Lion King has always been on Broadway.

These first years are on the cutting edge of what marketers have dubbed Gen Z, and according to the latest edition of Deep Focus' Cassandra Report, their preferences show marked shifts from those of Gen Y, the oldest of whom are now about 34. Gen Yers loves Amazon; Gen Z prefers YouTube. If offered a choice between a “cool product” or a “cool experience”, 77% of Gen Yers will go for the cool experience – but 60% of Gen Zers will reach for that “cool product”. How they want to find out about these products and experiences are different too, with Gen Z preferring brands to reach out to them via social media, where Gen Y would rather hear from you via email (and none of them want to hear from you via snail mail).

Gen Y values the quality of “uniqueness” when they’re shopping for something, which isn’t as important as “popularity” is to Gen Z, who wants what the next person’s having. Not surprisingly given their comfort level in the digital domain, Gen Z is more tolerant than any other generation with online advertising, and they’d rather see celebrities doing endorsements than experience an emotional connection with the brand.

For a generation whose every effort has been rewarded with participation awards, the Gen Zers also share a sadly grim outlook about what they see as an uncertain future, thanks probably to the financial roller-coaster rides and endless international conflicts that have been the backdrop to their childhoods, according to studies done by author Bruce Tulgan. But interestingly, they’re much more individualistic in their tastes, opinions, and allegiances than you might think, and less likely to subscribe to any predetermined, predictable set of ideological principles, preferring a “mix and match” approach. In other words, it’s harder to extrapolate assumptions about their preferences from a few pieces of information. Remember what “assume” does? Well, with Gen Zers, that’s doubly true.

All of these things don’t matter at all of course – if you don’t hope to sell your product, service, or experience to this very different generation. But the fact is, even if they’re not currently your target market, they will be, so you’d better get comfortable where they are; in the digital realm, on their phones, and on social media.

Corrine Sandler is the founder and Chief Strategy Officer of Fresh Intelligence Research Corp. (a global Market Research Agency), and CEO of ValidateIt™ ( a technology insight platform). She is also an Advantage best-selling author of Wake Up or Die, from which this is adapted, and is a professional speaker.