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Ideas Strategy

Generation Z in lockdown

Zeynep Arat

While all generations have had unique pressures and challenges related to COVID-19, Gen Z has been especially impacted with their education on pause or restricted by virtual formats, no ability to see friends, and many stuck with their families (for longer than they wanted!)Now, with the UK government borrowing at similar levels to those seen during the 2008 financial crisis, and a recession very likely, their immediate economic and career opportunities are looking bleak.

The defining sentiment of Gen Z during lockdown

Early in 2020 (before lockdown restrictions), we spoke to a number of individuals from Generation Z across the UK. In Part I of the resulting study, we sought to go beyond this myths about what was expected youthful behaviour and what was truly unique about this group of true digital natives born roughly between 1997 to 2012. In this, Part II, we look to understand whether there is a specific, defining quality of Gen Z during lockdown. We conducted a retouch survey—specifically curated for Gen Z—to gain insights about how they lived during the lockdown period and how their behaviours changed as a result.

In the retouch survey it was evident that there was one clear defining sentiment for them in lockdown, and it was: BOREDOM. 

Gen Z’s boredom compared to other cohorts is unsurprising. Ordinarily they spend twice as much time with their friends than any other generation and they really, really miss them. When we followed up with “what they’re looking forward to the most when lockdown is over?”—again, it was a collective  answer: they want to see their friends and just go to the pub!

As with many other groups, but to a greater extreme, this boredom catalysed significant spikes in media consumption. They had a lot more time on their hands, and used it to discover new outlets, spend a lot more time on their favorite platforms or ‘officially finish Netflix’.  (67 percent say they spend ‘more time than before’ watching the platform according to GWI)

Similar to other generations this spike in total Gen Z media consumption (seen during the first phase of lockdown), is showing signs of leveling off as the measures ease. However, not all channels have seen this slow return to normality. Time spent on Social Media and Video Streaming has continued to increase, while the likes of Online Video, TV and News Consumption continue to see a downwards trend showing signs of stabilisation.

The lockdown period also saw increased adoption of offline activities like cooking and hanging out with family.

The big question, of course, is will these behaviours ‘stick’. As the world changes again, and adjusts to a new normal (whatever that may look like), will everything snap back to pre-pandemic levels, or will some of these newly discovered enthusiasms stick around?

Four behaviours that will outlast the pandemic

These are not necessarily new behaviours, but their prominence across Gen Z has been  intensely accelerated during lockdown and we believe they are now here for good. Let’s have a look at each one and  the opportunities they may afford.

Shift 1: Substitutive media becomes normalised

Substitutive, or replacement, behaviours mean doing the same thing in a different way. People are still working out, but they’re now doing it via Zoom or Peloton from the comfort of their homes vs. going to the gym and spinning in an airless room with 30 other people.

For Gen Z, the leap to virtual experiences is a relatively easy one. This is a generation that already thought digital-first when it came to audio or shopping, and the pandemic has forced the rest of the world to catch up. They can now be (digitally) anywhere, anytime, and with anyone.

During lockdown they watched Major League Rugby virtually on Twitch—which saw a 24 percent increase in visitors—listened to their favourite artists performing on Instagram and a lot more...all on their screen of choice. This even impacted quite intimate areas of life such as dating. Members of Gen Z looking to meet someone couldn’t, at least not face-to-face. Luckily Bumble, Hinge and others quickly began offering virtual dating solutions where users could add ‘virtual date’ badges on their profiles to show that they were open to video chats on the platform. “We saw an 84 percent increase in video calls,” said Priti Joshi, VP of strategy at Bumble. Will this fully replace actual dates? No. But several responses from our qualitative survey show how it may become a permanent piece of the equation: “it's way easier—and takes less time if you don’t get on.” A virtual screening process is likely here to stay. 

The implication for brands  

Take a moment to explore what it means to have live, digital-first experiences as another route to go native with this audience.


Shift 2: Gen Z develops their own language

Looking for belonging when you are young is not new or unique to Gen Z. But what is new is that in the physical absence of friends, this generation has gone online to find that belonging. And they are doing it in increasingly new and different ways to other generations. If Gen X had SMS and chats, and Millennials had initial social- now we have Gen Z who talk to each other in 15 second (or shorter) video loops.

During lockdown, one platform especially allowed them to fully express themselves in a new light, and exemplified the ability to be social outside the bounds of a “network”. In Q1 of 2020, TikTok had 315 million downloads, the best quarter by any app, ever—and grew even stronger during the isolation period. Looking at TikTok’s current user base by demographic, it’s likely that much of that success came from Gen Z who used the platform in a very unique way. With the new creative tools that TikTok allowed them to play with, they completely evolve meme culture and how they engage with each other. What was once limited to a picture with some text now involves dance challenges, lip syncs, duets and even cults.  Move over “Beliebers” and BTS ARMY, and meet Melissa Ong, the “mother hen” of the platform’s largest and most powerful “cult,” the Step Chickens. Cults on TikTok aren’t the ideological ones most people are familiar with. Instead, they are open fandoms revolving around a single creator. All you need to join is to post a blue selfie and then unlock a totally new community, who create their own secret challenges and rise up to the other cults on the platform.

Gen Z loves absurdist humour, and this permeates many of their digital and social behaviours. Each announcement from Boris Johnson detailing a new measure of lockdown rules could instantly be found on social media platforms, ridiculed, and eventually turned into a meme.

With the help of these new tech advancements on platforms, and loads of time to perfect their online language, it’s now inevitable that Gen Z reacts, shares and bonds in digital realms in a different way.

The implication for brands 

If you want to communicate with this audience while staying authentic, you have to allow Gen Z, or at least partners that understand their language, to be your guide and translator. They will sniff out any disingenuous brands trying to act like they ‘get it’.


Shift 3: Gaming sheds niche status

One of the most shared moments in lockdown was when artist Travis Scott announced that his "Astronomical" event would be streaming live on Fortnite. According to stats released by Epic, in addition to the 12.3 million watching live on 23 April, more than 27.7 million viewed the concert across the five events that ran until the 27th. As a result Travis got a great amount of traction in earned media (as it was a Fortnite first), reached to a much bigger audience in under 15 minutes (for scale world largest concert venue is in North Korea with a 150,000 capacity), and saw an immediate bump in listeners- around 50 percent- following the show. 

Gen Z already loved gaming, but with more time on their hands during lockdown, they’ve had the chance to explore new games and revisit old favorites (‘spending more time gaming’ was up by 60 percent on the first month of lockdown- GWI).  And our inability to physically get together without worry has helped push forward gaming’s potential as a third space.

Nintendo’s Animal Crossing showed us that not all games need to be complicated and hard to download worlds. Animal Crossing sold over 13.5 million copies since its release in March, and provided many with a whimsical universe to escape from the monotony of quarantine living. One of the members of our Gen Z qualitative group even said “... it’s this happy place where there is no COVID and I’m by the beach all day.” We’ve seen great brand partnerships on this platform too; the trendsetter brand Glossier launched their favorite branded pink hoodie on the platform and now your virtual self can be as fashionable as you are IRL. The digital sweatshirt sold out in minutes.

For such a long time, territories related to gaming showed up in media plans as a ‘nice to have’ as the opportunities were limited, content was hard to produce and in the end, it was difficult to prove the effectiveness of all the efforts. But with the recent acceleration of gaming for Gen Z, this space is evolving into a ‘must have’ for advertisers—especially where it makes strategic sense for the brand—with proof of extended reach and more possibilities for integrations.   

The implication for brands   

Gaming is growing up, and doesn’t intend to remain a fancy case study on a trend deck anymore! As advertisers we can stop treating gaming as a niche and explore the possibilities of non-interruptive, pioneering experiences in these virtual spaces. Through a test and learn approach over time, you can define the right opportunities & levels of investment for your brand in an effective way. 


Shift 4: Serious focus on digital wellness

We mentioned in Part 1 of our report how ‘digital first’ and ‘always digital’ this generation is. But ‘digital pressure’ is also very real to them. There is an aspect of digital performance expected of them everyday, be it from their friends or school. We know that this always-online lifestyle can trigger a variety of mental health issues—with anxiety and depression reaching alarming highs during lockdown. We heard unanimous concern across our qualitative group about their digital dependence. Nearly all of them said “I am super aware of my screen time” or “I am trying to spend some time away from my phone during the day.”

Part of this “time away” led Gen Z to (re)discover hobbies during lockdown, realising that the thing they do outside of work or school doesn’t always have to be a ‘side hustle’. They found the joy in baking endless banana breads and sourdoughs, and knitting their own clothes- which happens to be huge for them at the moment- For evidence just go ahead and check the content under #harrystylescardigan 

They enjoyed this conscious break from screens, and are keen to continue doing so. Platforms are hearing them and responding to this shift as well. During lockdown Snapchat introduced a new ‘Here for You’ feature where users can find resources from local experts on topics including anxiety, depression, stress and grief. 

The implication for brands  

Respect Gen Z’s digital boundaries and don’t presume you can speak to them in digital environments whenever and however much you want. Instead, be helpful by providing fulfilling experiences away from screens.