This article, written by Carol Van Den Hende, is from the March 2023 edition of Nink, the monthly newsletter of Novelists, Inc. (NINC). Nink, which is packed each month with informative articles for career novelists, is a benefit of NINC membership.
If your contemporary fiction features teens and young adults, and you’re part of an older generation, you may benefit from insights into Gen Z.
Here, we’ll define current generations (specifically in the U.S.), what makes each unique, and how that can relate to your characters.
As with all generational insights, it’s important not to stereotype, or lump all people within a generation together. However, it is instructive to consider the events that shape a particular generation’s world view.
First, a few definitions….
The U.S. government defines people born between the years of 1946 and 1964 as Baby Boomers. Other generations aren’t “officially” categorized. Rather, demographers tend to converge on a set of years where people’s perspectives are shaped by shared experiences, especially those that occur in their formative years.
That’s why generations include varying lengths of time. Gen X (those born 1965-1980), Boomers’ younger cousin, contains a shorter number of years (just 15 vs. Boomers’ 18), one of the factors leading it to being a smaller cohort. (Of course, Boomers are a large cohort primarily because of the plethora of babies born after a strong postwar economy.)
Millennials (also known as Gen Y) have now grown to be the largest cohort, eclipsing Boomers in 2020; they were born from 1981 to 1996.
This chart summarizes the generations and their population size as of 2021.
You’ll see that Gen Z (also previously known as igen), are defined as being 11–26 years old, although the insights about this cohort can apply to people a bit younger or older than this range too. This is a dynamic, savvy generation who’ve grown up immersed in technology and facing enormous societal challenges.
Those younger than Gen Z are tentatively known as Gen Alpha (not shown on the chart). Those who are older than Boomers (aged 78 and up) are known as the Silent Generation or Greatest Generation.
Writing characters from different generations
You’ve likely heard the axiom “write what you know.” Some writers ask whether they can simply write their younger characters by pulling from their own experiences at that same age. The answer: not necessarily.
This can certainly apply to universal truths like emotional responses. However, to craft the most authentic characters it’s important to consider how they’d speak, their cultural references, use of technology, and their vantage point on the world.
What accounts for the difference between generations? Some experiences are universal—for instance, the natural assertion of independence that teens traverse into young adulthood. However, what largely shapes generations are the shared and significant events that occur during the formative years when they’re growing up.
That’s why, the younger the generation, the less clear it becomes what exactly will shape them. The youngest portion of Gen Z (pre-teens) may yet face cataclysmic events that could even overshadow what’s been a cornerstone for the older part of their cohort.
From what we know currently, Gen Z has been largely shaped by significant factors: a global pandemic; climate crises; political/ethical polarization; the evolution of technology into Web3; recognition of diversity, equity, and inclusion, and resulting cries for social justice; and emerging areas like gender fluidity, weighing individual vs. societal good, and questioning traditional economic models against other ways to measure success and happiness.
We won’t dive into all the nuances and ramifications of these multi-faceted issues. However, consider the weight of young people facing this amount of complexity in less than a quarter-century.
You may be thinking that all generations have experienced these same shifts and you’d be right. The difference is that as adults, we have a longer horizon of experience to put these events into context. For younger people, who psychologists have stated feel experiences more deeply, these are tectonic changes in what they’d grown up believing was the “norm.”
Compare this amount of change to earlier generations that may have been shaped by:
- The Great Depression: Silent gen/Greatest gen
- Industrialization/economic boom: Boomers
- Computers becoming the norm: Gen X
- 9-11, economic recession, the weight of college debt: Millennials
Now, of course, this summarized view is greatly simplified and we could dive into any of the generations to gain deeper insight. For this article, we’ll use other generations for contrast, and focus on what’s shaped Gen Z.
In this short article format, we won’t be able to cover everything about Gen Z, but rather will zoom into a few key aspects that should be useful for contemporary fiction authors.
Technology is sometimes the first trait that pops into people’s minds regarding what differentiates Gen Zs. They’re truly “tech natives,” having never known a world without ubiquitous mobile technology. Even more so than Millennials, they’ve grown up taking for granted the ability to converse with technology (“Alexa, order Tide Pods”).
So it’s important for you to consider how your Gen Z characters will interact with tech. Are they savvy users who are inventing new business models using OpenAI’s ChatGPT and creating designs with DALL-E’s imaging tool? Or do they purposefully turn their backs on tech, preferring old school flip phones and record players?
Be careful not to accidentally have them using tech that’s not believable. For instance, if they’re on Facebook, it might be to post pics for their grandparents but not to find dates. Rather, they’re more likely to connect with friends via Snapchat, entertain themselves on TikTok, and learn from YouTube. See Pew Research group’s study on teen social media habits for more details.
Technology, and travel, connect Gen Z to more people around the world. As a result, they are exposed to diverse cultures and can be more open to diverse ethnicities and experiences. This is similar to Millennials, who expect diversity and only notice it when it’s missing. However, it’s even more organic among Gen Z and can extend to areas like LGBTQ+ and gender fluidity.
So consider whether the diversity of your Gen Z characters’ backgrounds, ethnicities, and experiences are reflective of the world they live in. Do so in a balanced and natural way. Diversity is a part of many teen and young adult lives, so they wouldn’t necessarily pay a lot of attention to it or go out of their way to point it out.
Snowflakes or pragmatists?
Millennials bemoaned being labeled the “Me, Me, Me” generation, whose slacker image wasn’t completely deserved. Likewise, Gen Z can sometimes unfairly be characterized as delicate snowflakes who expect ultimate convenience and can’t cook a meal or drive. To be fair, they’ve grown up in a time when commerce has accelerated ultra-convenience, creating expectations for 15-minute delivery (think GrubHub or UberEats) and a ride anywhere (Lyft or Uber).
This same push for immediacy and materialism has resulted in climate crises and political polarization that increasing numbers of Gen Z realize will be some of their generation’s greatest existential threats. Rather than simply ceding hope, swaths of Gen Z are turning to activism, entrepreneurial ways to solve the environmental and social crises, and facing into the issues with great pragmatism. Read more from Stanford researchers who studied thousands of teens’ attitudes and behaviors here.
So consider your Gen Z characters’ points of view on social and sustainability issues. Will they shirk from disposable plastic cups at their local coffee shop? Is their nature to take responsibility for their carbon footprint? Are they marching for women’s rights? Remember that fiction has a role to not just mirror what we see in society but to shape what the future can hold.
This week while traveling, I proposed a restaurant for dinner. My teenaged son took a few minutes to locate the place on his phone. He let me know that he finally found it by texting: “nm maps trolled me.”
Then he checked out the menu and messaged: “ngl looks kinda pricey.”
When I told him that I was writing an article about Gen Z, he concluded, “That’s cringe.”
If you’re crafting teenage characters, are you familiar with the shorthand for “never mind” (nm), “not gonna lie” (ngl), and the terms “sketch,” “cold,” “troll,” and “cringe” among others?
Consider whether your contemporary Gen Z characters are using language consistent with their age? Socioeconomic class? Upbringing?
It’s still your choice.
At the beginning of this piece, we started by saying that none of the generational research is intended to stereotype generations. As with all people, our characters are individuals, formed by the experiences in their quite personal backgrounds. How you craft them is still your choice.
However, if you’re writing contemporary fiction with characters from a different generation than yourself, it can be instructive to keep in mind the events that have shaped their perceptions.
Consider your protagonists’ interaction with technology, the level of diversity in your cast of characters, their viewpoint on social and environmental matters, and how their peers and upbringing might affect the way they speak.
These can be powerful decisions in our effort to create authentic characters that feel believable to our readers!
Carol Van Den Hende is an award-winning author, public speaker, and MBA with more than 20 years’ experience in marketing, strategy and insights. Plus, she works in chocolate. (There’s no “sweeter” job!) She’s keynoted and presented at conferences like Writer’s Digest, IBPA, IWWG, Rutgers Writers’ Conference, Women Who Write, and Novelists, Inc. She’s also a regular contributor to DIYMFA, where she pens the Author Marketing Toolkit column.