Secondary Logo

Journal Logo

Columns: Enhancing Your Behavioral Toolkit

Understanding and Engaging Generation Z

Hathaway, Liz Ph.D., MPH; O'Shields, Becca MATS, LCSW

Author Information
ACSM's Health & Fitness Journal: 7/8 2022 - Volume 26 - Issue 4 - p 39-42
doi: 10.1249/FIT.0000000000000774
  • Free
FU1
FU2

Eight seconds — if that brings to mind the 1994 movie, then chances are you are not a millennial or belong to Generation Z. If you thought it was a typo and we meant 8 Mile, then you are probably a millennial. However, if you read the first sentence and immediately thought of the attention span of someone who belongs to Generation Z, then either you are well-informed and likely great on trivia nights or you are a “Gen Zer” rolling your eyes and waiting for the typical barrage of insults to come hurling your way. Fear not, no insults will be thrown. In fact, LH is so fond of Generation Z that she works with them every day. And after our deep dive into learning more about them, we have emerged with a new appreciation for this generation. Gen Z has emerged from the pandemic as the new “it” generation with considerable consumer influence that will only continue to grow (1). With increasing power, it behooves us to learn what strategies to use when aiming to engage this ever growing-in-power generation. Let's share what we learned about the new “it” kids on the block, Generation Z.

GENERATION Z: WHO ARE THEY?

FU3

Generation Z, or Gen Zers, were born between 1997 and 2012 and as of 2022 range from 10 to 25 years old. (There is some disagreement about birth years, but we decided to go with the birth years used by the Pew Research Center [2].) In 2020, 20% of the population was classified as Gen Z, 22% millennials (born 1981–1996), 20% Generation X (born 1965–1980), 21% baby boomers (born 1946–1964), 7% silent generation (born 1928–1945), and less than 1% greatest generation (born before 1928) (3). Gen Zers are more racially and ethnically diverse compared with previous generations, with 52% classified as non-Hispanic white, 25% Hispanic, 14% Black, 6% Asian, and 5% some other race or two or more races (4). Gen Zers also are pursuing higher education at a greater rate compared with previous generations. By comparison, the percentage of 18- to 21-year-old students enrolled in colleges was 57% for Gen Zers in 2018 compared with 52% of millennials and 43% of Gen Xers at similar ages (4). Every generation has a set of shared collective experiences; Gen Zers watched their parents navigate through the Great Recession in 2008 and more recently lived through the COVID-19 pandemic. The effects of experiencing the Great Recession as children has led to a pragmatic, financially oriented, and security-focused generation. Gen Zers are the true digital natives, having always known technology. The iPhone was introduced in 2007 (the oldest Gen Zers were 10), Facebook launched in 2004, Reddit in 2005, Twitter in 2006, Instagram in 2010, Pinterest in 2010, Snapchat in 2011, and TikTok in 2016 (5). Because Gen Zers are inundated with a flow of never-ending information, it has been suggested that this generation has developed a highly evolved filter, enter the “8 seconds” often associated with this generation, to quickly sort through enormous amounts of information (6,7). In fact, we challenge anyone outside of Generation Z to try to keep up with their scrolling speeds online. Social media is a way of life for this generation, with those ages 18 to 24 reporting using Instagram (76%), Snapchat (75%), or TikTok (55%) (8). Gen Z was the driving group that enabled TikTok to grow 75% during the pandemic (1). Social media is now a central driver of Gen Z's consumer decisions, and social media has allowed the creation of “influencers” (9). More than 70% of Gen Zers and millennials follow at least some influencers (9). When looking for who and what to follow, Gen Zers and millennials are most interested in authenticity (88%), funny or engaging personalities (88%), knowledgeable individuals (85%), intelligence (83%), and similar interests (83%) (9). Interestingly, 54% of this group would become an influencer if given the opportunity, and 86% would be willing to post sponsored content for money (9). (Insert nerd out moment: according to a CNBC article, a microinfluencer with ~15,000 followers could make $457 on average for a sponsored post, an influencer with ~50,000 followers could make $1,026 on average, and an influencer with ~250,000 followers could make $3,766. Is anyone else looking to increase their followers all of a sudden [10]?) Let’s not forget that Gen Zers love YouTube, whether they are watching their favorite influencers, learning new skills, or deep diving into a new topic of interest (9). Although it may be difficult to initially capture their attention, once engaged, Gen Zers can hyper focus and turn into online “mini stalkers” (11) (and we say that with love and admiration).

Every generation has a set of shared collective experiences; Gen Zers watched their parents navigate through the Great Recession in 2008 and more recently lived through the COVID-19 pandemic. The effects of experiencing the Great Recession as children has led to a pragmatic, financially oriented, and security-focused generation.

GENERATION Z: WHAT ARE THEY DEALING WITH?

If we are discussing Gen Z, we must discuss the first elephant in the room named stress. The Stress in America survey conducted by the American Psychological Association (APA) allows the comparison of generations. Let's begin with the 2018 survey where more than 90% of Gen Z adults (ages 18 to 21 years) reported experiencing at least one physical or emotional symptom due to stress in the past month, greater than the three-fourths of adults overall (12). In 2020, Gen Z adults reported the highest stress levels during the prior month (6.1 out of 10) compared with 5.6 in millennials, 5.2 for Gen Xers, 4.0 for boomers, and 3.3 for older adults (13). We of course cannot forget the effects of the pandemic; 76% of Gen Z adults reported negative health impacts because of the pandemic, which included disrupted sleep (31%), eating more unhealthy foods than usual (28%), or weight changes (28%) (13). Interestingly, despite being considered the “most connected generation,” 63% of Gen Z adults felt very lonely during the pandemic versus 53% of millennials, 43% of Gen Xers, 35% of boomers, and 17% of older adults (13). Lastly, in 2021, 79% of Gen Z adults reported experiencing behavior changes in the last month due to stress versus 74% of millennials, 64% of Gen Xers, 37% for boomers, and 17% for older adults (14).

The second elephant pressing in on Generation Z is loneliness. Generation Z is clearly “connected” in the digital world yet feel disconnected from one another (11). In Cigna's 2018 loneliness survey, Gen Z adults (ages 18 to 22 years) had the highest loneliness score compared with all other generations (15). A 2019 survey of more than 10,000 adults revealed 61% of all U.S. adults reported feeling lonely with Gen Z reporting highest levels of loneliness (79%) compared with 71% of millennials and 50% of boomers (16). Cigna reported the key determinants of loneliness in America were as follows: (a) lack of social support and infrequent meaningful social interactions, (b) negative feelings about one's personal relationships, (c) poor physical and mental health, and (d) lack of “balance” in one's daily activities (17). We would be remiss if we did not mention the article of Twenge et al. (18) about social interaction and loneliness. A couple of highlights from this fascinating article are as follows: (a) college-bound Gen Zers spent less time socializing with their friends in their last year of high school versus Gen Xers (9.14 vs. 13.51 hours per week), (b) college-bound Gen Zers spent less time at parties per week versus Gen Xers (3 hours 28 minutes less), and (c) 12th grade Gen Zers went out 38 fewer times per year than boomer 12th graders and 25 fewer times per year than millennial 12th graders (18). Twenge et al. (18) concluded that “Gen Z adolescents spend less time than earlier generations interacting with their peers face-to-face during leisure time and that these trends occurred at the same time as a marked increase in loneliness. As digital media encompasses more of adolescents' time, it is important to recognize the potential costs, which may include less in-person social interaction and more loneliness.” That is a mic drop moment. Just in case you were wondering, the average 12th grader in 2016 spent more than twice as much time online as in 2006, and time online, texting, and on social media totaled about 6 hours a day in 2016 (19). Now that we are a bit more familiar with this generation, let's add some strategies to our behavioral toolkit to best engage this specific generation.

The second elephant pressing in on Generation Z is loneliness. Generation Z is clearly “connected” in the digital world yet feel disconnected from one another. In Cigna's 2018 loneliness survey, Gen Z adults (ages 18 to 22 years) had the highest loneliness score compared with all other generations. A 2019 survey of more than 10,000 adults revealed 61% of all U.S. adults reported feeling lonely with Gen Z reporting highest levels of loneliness (79%) compared with 71% of millennials and 50% of boomers.

STRATEGIES TO ENGAGE GENERATION Z

Embrace Authenticity, Values, and Transparency

Nothing sends Gen Z running more quickly than inauthenticity, well maybe slow technology but that's not our point here; with their highly evolved filters, they are highly trained to differentiate real, authentic personalities from fake, scripted ones. They especially like uniqueness as they value individuality. Considered the most diverse and open-minded generation, they want to know more than the basics about an individual, business, or organization; they also want to know values, purpose, and mission. Versus earlier generations who might look at a gym's facilities (equipment, certifications of trainers, and cost), Gen Z is more likely to care about the story behind the gym, the uniqueness of the gym, the personalities of trainers, and the social responsibility of the gym. Knowing these things, aim to create opportunities for Gen Zers to connect with you and your brand. Gen Zers also look for transparency, especially in pricing. Because they are accustomed to finding instantaneous information, they often look for an upfront, all-inclusive price (11). They do not appreciate unforeseen add-ons at time of purchase as Gen Z tends to embrace frugality in their spending.

Versus earlier generations who might look at a gym's facilities (equipment, certifications of trainers, and cost), Gen Z is more likely to care about the story behind the gym, the uniqueness of the gym, the personalities of trainers, and the social responsibility of the gym. Knowing these things, aim to create opportunities for Gen Zers to connect with you and your brand.

Embrace Technology

If you are looking to target Gen Zers, then social media is in your future (thanks, Captain Obvious). Using the correct platforms will be crucial (wave goodbye to Facebook) and remembering what Gen Zers are looking for also will be important (authenticity, funny/engaging personalities, and knowledgeable individuals). Think about not only having your gym's main social media page but also using your trainer's personalities as Gen Z prefers following interesting personalities over organizations. Highlight your expertise and offer opportunities for interaction. Gen Z is fully aware of the multitude of information that exists online, but they are longing for knowledgeable sources that they connect to. Remember when we mentioned Gen Z's fascination with and desire to be influencers? Say hello to nanoinfluencers, those who have as few as 1,000 followers; they are becoming quite a popular group because of their approachability and ease to work with in recommending products or companies because “their word seems as genuine as advice from a friend” (20). It's helpful to follow your gym members and clients on social media to create an online community, increase engagement outside of gym time, and scout out potential nanoinfluencer partners. Having always known technology, Gen Zers are experienced online curators and creators. They are certainly using your talents in coming to you for your expertise and knowledge related to exercise programming. Do not be afraid to use their talents in online content creation. Next, let's talk about your Instagrammable space. Yes, you need to “do it for the Gram.” If you already have it, two taps for you. If not, consider creating an area that Gen Zers cannot help but take and post a photo from. If you are “balling on a budget” as the kids say, consider your logo on an exposed wall with some of your exercise equipment available for interactive photos. Wall murals are quite popular these days and could provide the opportunity to use a local artist to help capture your gym's mission and purpose in art form. Or maybe you want to set up a space where it easily allows action shots during their workout. Bonus tip no. 1, invite your Gen Zers to help you design the space. You'll likely be amazed at what they come up with, and it increases their engagement and connection to your facility. Bonus tip no. 2, make sure this is a space that protects other gym members and clients from inadvertently being photoed. You're welcome to all those gym goers who are not looking to end up in the background of someone's photo fitness shoot.

Embrace the Anxious and Lonely Generation

Generation Z has a lot going for them; they are multitasking machines, able to process information quickly, natural analysts, entrepreneurial minded, pragmatic, financially responsible, online curators and creators, socially responsible, and the list goes on. However, on average, they also are anxious and lonely. APA recommends cultivating social support, getting physically active, and of course seeking help when needed as some of the evidence-based tools to help combat the negative effects of stress (21). An opportunity exists to communicate that your purpose or mission includes providing an environment for cultivating social support and getting physically active (if true, of course). Regarding strategies to combat loneliness, previous interventions have often targeted improving social skills, enhancing social support, and increasing opportunities for social interaction (22). Communicate your facility's opportunities for connection and community. Create your facility's fitness family or fitness tribe — Gen Zers are hungry to belong somewhere. Continuing thoughts from earlier, gyms can use personal trainers or members to create “snackable” (quickly viewable) videos for social media that highlight strategies for helping combat stress and loneliness (e.g., “let's get physical!”). Understanding what Gen Zers are currently struggling with and educating them on how regular physical activity has been shown to be effective seems like a win–win to us.

WRAP-UP

Although not a typical article for us, Generation Z is no typical generation, and we believe better understanding this group will help you to continue to evolve in the highly competitive fitness world. With more and more competition now occurring online with a plethora of apps and workouts to choose from, the importance of differentiating yourself and your facility has never been more crucial. If you're tactful in your strategies to engage the new “it” kids on the block, you'll best position yourself for a long and successful journey with this talented generation.

References

1. Hoffower H, Kiersz A. The 40-year-old Millennial and the 24-Year-Old Gen Zer are in Charge of America Right Now. 2021 [cited 2022 March 30]. Available from: https://www.businessinsider.com/24-gen-z-trends-40-millennial-spending-changing-economy-2021-9.
2. Dimock M. Defining Generations: Where Millennials End and Generation Z Begins. 2019 [cited 2022 March 30]. Available from: https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2019/01/17/where-millennials-end-and-generation-z-begins/.
3. Statistica Research Department. Population Distribution in the United States in 2020, by Generation 2021. [cited 2022 March 30]. Available from: https://www.statista.com/statistics/296974/us-population-share-by-generation/.
4. Parker K, Igielnik R. On the Cusp of Adulthood and Facing an Uncertain Future: What We Know About Gen Z So Far. 2020 [cited 2022 March 30]. Available from: https://www.pewresearch.org/social-trends/2020/05/14/on-the-cusp-of-adulthood-and-facing-an-uncertain-future-what-we-know-about-gen-z-so-far-2/.
5. Maryville University. The Evolution of Social Media: How Did It Begin, and Where Could It Go Next? [cited 2022 March 30]. Available from: https://online.maryville.edu/blog/evolution-social-media/.
6. Finch J. What Is Generation Z, and What Does It Want?2015. [cited 2022 March 30]. Available from: https://www.fastcompany.com/3045317/what-is-generation-z-and-what-does-it-want.
7. Sparks & Honey. Gen Z 2025. 2015. [cited 2022 March 30]. Available from: https://www.sparksandhoney.com/gen-z.
8. Pew Research Center. Social Media Use in 2021. 2021. [cited 2022 March 30]. Available from: https://www.pewresearch.org/internet/2021/04/07/social-media-use-in-2021/.
9. Morning Consult. The Influencer Report: Engaging Gen Z and Millenials. 2019. [cited 2022 March 30]. Available from: https://morningconsult.com/form/influencer-report-engaging-gen-z-and-millennials-download/.
10. Locke T. 86% of Young People Say They Want to Post Social Media Content for Money. 2019 [cited 2022 March 30]. Available from: https://www.cnbc.com/2019/11/08/study-young-people-want-to-be-paid-influencers.html.
11. Weise S. Instabrain: The New Rules for Marketing to Generation Z. 2019.
12. American Psychological Association. Stress in America: Generation Z. 2018. [cited 2022 March 30]. Available from: https://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/stress/2018/stress-gen-z.pdf.
13. American Psychological Association. Stress in America 2020: A National Mental Health Crisis. 2020. [cited 2022 March 30]. Available from: https://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/stress/2020/sia-mental-health-crisis.pdf.
14. American Psychological Association. Stress in America 2021: Stress and Decision-Making during the Pandemic. 2021. [cited 2022 March 30]. Available from: https://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/stress/2021/october-decision-making.
15. Cigna. Cigna 2018 U.S. Loneliness Index. 2018. [cited 2022 March 30]. Available from: https://www.multivu.com/players/English/8294451-cigna-us-loneliness-survey/docs/IndexReport_1524069371598-173525450.pdf.
16. Vultaggio M. Gen Z is Lonely. 2020 [cited 2022 March 30]. Available from: https://www.statista.com/chart/20713/lonlieness-america/.
17. Cigna. Loneliness And the Workplace. 2020. [cited 2022 March 30]. Available from: https://www.cigna.com/static/www-cigna-com/docs/about-us/newsroom/studies-and-reports/combatting-loneliness/cigna-2020-loneliness-report.pdf.
18. Twenge JM, Spitzberg BH, Campbell WK. Less in-person social interaction with peers among U.S. adolescents in the 21st century and links to loneliness. J Soc Pers Relatsh. 2019;36(6):1892–913.
19. Twenge J, Martin G, Spitzberg B. Trends in U.S. adolescents' media use, 1976–2016: the rise of digital media, the decline of TV, and the (near) demise of print. Psychol Pop Media Cult. 2018;8.
20. Maheshwari S. Are You Ready for the Nanoinfluencers?2018. [cited 2022 March 30]. Available from: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/11/11/business/media/nanoinfluencers-instagram-influencers.html.
21. American Psychological Association. Healthy Ways to Handle Life's Stressors. 2019 [cited 2022 March 30]. Available from: https://www.apa.org/topics/stress/tips.
22. Masi CM, Chen HY, Hawkley LC, Cacioppo JT. A meta-analysis of interventions to reduce loneliness. Pers Soc Psychol Rev. 2011;15(3):219–66.
Copyright © 2022 by American College of Sports Medicine.