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Marketing and Comms
Gen Z Believes in Its Own Power to Make Change, But That Companies Must Lead the Way

While Gen Zers feel personally responsible to make a difference and 76% believe we will have made headway on important issues in five years’ time, 90% also believe companies must drive action on social and environmental issues.

Nearly nine-in-10 (87 percent) of Gen Zers are worried for the environment and the planet, according to the 2019 Porter Novelli/Cone Gen Z Purpose Study. The study, which surveyed US youth ages 14-22, examines this emerging generation’s expectations of and attitudes toward company involvement in social and environmental issues — and the actions they are willing to take to positively impact topics they care about.

“The events of the past year show the steadfast determination of Generation Z to make their mark,” says Porter Novelli CEO Brad MacAfee. “This research not only reinforces what we’re seeing in the marketplace, but also how companies can engage this generation that is so driven to change the world for the better.”

Tired of the divisive narrative that has taken over the national news, 94 percent of Generation Z believes our country needs to come together to make progress on important issues. In fact, 85 percent would rather focus on the positive progress we’ve made rather than the negative.

This generation feels profoundly influenced by events that have impacted them directly in recent years. 86 percent say events such as the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in 2018 have made them care more about issues affecting them. This cohort feels they are the key to change moving forward. Nearly nine-in-10 (87 percent) percent are inspired when peers including Emma González and Greta Thunberg take stands on issues; and just as many (88 percent) say their generation has the power to change the world for the better. And even up against increasingly insurmountable and urgent problems, Gen Zers remain hopeful — with more than three-quarters (76 percent) stating they believe in five years’ time, we will have made advancement on important issues.

Looking to align with Purpose-driven companies

While they feel personally responsible to make a difference, the vast majority of Gen Zers (90 percent) follow the growing consumer trend of the past few years in believing companies must take action on social and environmental issues — and they’re holding these organizations accountable: More than nine-in-10 (93 percent) say if a company makes a commitment, it should have the appropriate programs and policies in place to back up that commitment; and three-quarters (75 percent) will do research to see if a company is being honest when it takes a stand on issues.

Companies that demonstrate authentic Purpose to this astute demographic will be rewarded, as Gen Zers use Purpose as a core filter in deciding which companies to associate with. Like Millennials just before them, 83 percent of Gen Z considers a company’s Purpose when deciding where to work and nearly three-quarters (72 percent) factor in a company’s Purpose when shopping.

“In the ever-increasing war for budding talent, companies must understand that Purpose is a strong filter for Generation Z,” says Alison DaSilva, EVP Purpose & CSR at Porter Novelli/Cone. “Gen Zers are not willing to check their values at the workplace door, so companies need to clearly communicate how they are making an impact to appeal to this driven but discerning generation.”

Priority issues among Generation Z

While Generation Z feels unprecedented urgency around many pressing issues, the environment (26 percent) is the top priority that they want companies to address. This issue superseded poverty and hunger (19 percent), which led in 2017, as the one issue they want companies to solve for. Other ranked issues include:

  • Human rights (19 percent)

  • Economic development (14 percent)

  • Health and disease (13 percent)

  • Education (10 percent)

When looking specifically at the hot-button issues of today, Gen Zers feel companies must do their part to solve a myriad of topics. Although environment is a priority, it is not exclusive: Job creation (91 percent) is at the top of the list, followed by racial equality (90 percent), sexual harassment (90 percent) and gender equality (89 percent). Other topical issues include:

  • Climate change (85 percent)

  • Religious freedom and tolerance (83 percent)

  • Immigration (81 percent)

  • Gun control (80 percent)

  • LGBTQ rights (74 percent)

  • Fake news (67 percent)

Notably, the research saw a significant jump among two specific topics: The percentage of Gen Zers who saw gun control and LGBTQ+ rights as priority issues for companies to engage around both grew roughly 15 percent from 2017 (from 68 percent to 80 percent for gun control and 65 percent to 74 percent for LGBTQ+ rights).

“As a generation that sees a school shooting every twelve days on average and the rights of their LGBTQ+ friends become compromised, it’s no surprise they are looking to companies to engage on and influence these issues,” DaSilva says. “Gen Zers are seeing the impact of many of these issues first-hand, and they are determined to change the course.”

Taking action for impact

Generation Z does not expect companies to go it alone; they’re willing to roll up their sleeves and participate. Around three-quarters of Gen Zers stand ready to support companies that care in a variety of ways, including: sharing their positive opinion about a company doing good (85 percent), buying a product with a social or environmental benefit (84 percent) and learning what they can do to make a difference (84 percent). Engagement spans both on- and offline actions:

  • Volunteer (83 percent)

  • Sign a petition (82 percent)

  • Donate (81 percent)

  • Boycott/refuse to buy from a company (77 percent)

  • Research if a company is helping or hurting society or the environment (77 percent)

  • Share social or environmental information with social networks (77 percent)

  • Take an online action to trigger a donation (76 percent)

  • Protest (67 percent)

Social media as a change driver

As truly digital natives, Generation Z uses social media not only to learn about issues, but to make a meaningful difference. 91 percent say they use social media to learn about and participate in issues they care about. They feel so well-informed, in fact, that more than three-quarters (77 percent) say they know more about important issues than their parents or guardians.

This generation sincerely feels social media engagement can drive change. 80 percent feel they can have an impact on issues by using social media, so much so that 64 percent believe supporting issues online is more effective at making a difference than doing something in their communities. They view their engagement on their social channels as a powerful way to motivate others to care (35 percent). They are less motivated by more self-serving reasons such as making themselves look like a good person (7 percent). Other motivations include:

  • It shows others what they care about (17 percent)

  • They want to be a part of the conversation about the world around them (15 percent)

  • It shows they are informed (9 percent)

Over the past two years, Generation Z’s habits and preferred social media platforms have changed. While Facebook remains relevant (61 percent vs. 66 percent in 2017), it dropped in importance. Now Gen Zers are more likely to turn to YouTube (64 percent vs. 50 percent in 2017) as the priority channel, followed by Instagram (63 percent vs. 51 percent in 2017). Other channels include:

  • Snapchat (47 percent)

  • Twitter (38 percent)

  • Pinterest (21 percent)

  • Reddit (15 percent)

  • LinkedIn (9 percent)