Generation Z’s Individualism is Being Used Against Us

Opinion writer Hailey Gates talks about how Gen Z is being commercialized.

Last week while browsing The New York Times I encountered a distressing phrase. 

“Inside the World of Gen Z,” it read. 

It was used as a way to categorize and entice — the headline was suggested at the bottom of the article “Gen Z Wants Feminine Care Brands to Just Say Vagina.” It effectively lumped together a series of related stories obsessed with the phenomenon of Generation Z individualism. 

I found this headline and its fetishized alienation of Gen Z, which encompasses anyone born from 1997-2012,  incredibly frustrating. It’s counterintuitive to capitalize on individualism using an epithet. This marketing strategy imposes a rhetoric of idiosyncrasy which is undermined by its attempt to collectivize — and monopolize — our diversity.

The irony of this monopolization is that despite Gen Z’s pride in being pioneers for diversity, the advertisements that appeal to individuality work on the majority of our generation. 

In an advertising partnership between Amazon and The Wall Street Journal titled “Building Trust with Gen Z,” the opening line reads, “Gen Z is in a league of their own.” The advertisement continues to emphasize the market significance of Gen Z consumers while positing different strategies for resonating with a Gen Z demographic. 

The last line of the ad reads, “With a generation as values-based as Gen Z, they may also see a brand as a critical collaborator in addressing the social causes they are most passionate about.” 

The irony of this quote is its being described in an ad by Amazon, a company who has been under investigation by OSHA since July 2022 for exposing workers to ergonomic hazards, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

Despite these questionable ethics, 60% of Gen Z adults in the United States are Amazon Prime members, according to a 2019 study

If Gen Z was truly committed to promoting the multi-faceted individual, then these ubiquitous headlines wouldn’t work. Our generation’s celebration of diversity wouldn’t be so easily commodified. 

There is an obsessive othering of Gen Z in contemporary mass media and marketing — and it’s largely perpetuated by members of Gene Z itself. This is especially apparent on Gen Z TikTok, which involves discourse ranging from the consequences of growing up chronically online to the validity of internet culture and slang. 

This form of content creation as a means of interpersonal connection is unique to our generation. We find community within Gen Z by embracing and displaying what makes us different from each other as individuals but also distinct from previous generations as a collective.

This isn’t to say previous generations haven’t been subjected to pervasive stereotypes. All generations have been shaped by the world they inherited, and the magnitude of world-historical change has created overt distinctions that characterize individuals based on their generation. 

What distinguishes Gen Z is that one of the defining characteristics imposed upon us has been our diversity. In an article by Johns Hopkins University analyzing values across different generations, Baby Boomers are described as “conservative,” Generation X-ers as “independent,” and Millennials as “questioning.” 

Members of Gen Z are described as “diverse.” 

There is an inherent disjunction to existing within Gen Z that makes our generation difficult to characterize — and subsequently difficult to sell to. The effort to quantify our generation’s complexity and capitalize on our widely-acknowledged diversity is exemplified in the sheer amount of contemporary media and marketing focused on the spectacle of Gen Z. 

According to the 2020 Forbes article “50 Stats All Marketers Must Know about Gen-Z,” 52% of Gen Z U.S. population is composed of Non-Hispanic Whites, making it the most diverse generation in history. The article also says 58% of Gen Z is willing to pay more for products targeted to their individual personalities and 71% wants to see more diversity in advertising. 

This article’s very existence perpetuates the marketization of seemingly universal Gen Z ideologies. It shows just how dedicated modern media is to quantifying and commodifying our generation’s interest in preserving uniqueness. 

Despite the aggravating nature of this marketing strategy, what is perhaps even more aggravating is that it works. These appeals are everywhere — advertising promoting Gen Z’s uniqueness feeds into our pride in distinction and plays into our commitment to activism and inclusivity.

Brands have used Gen Z’s proud diversity and public identity to create a branding narrative centered around trust, inclusivity and individualism. 

And Gen Z itself has propelled this strategy’s success.

What then is the point of Gen Z’s commitment to individualism if it’s going to be commodified against us? Why do we feed into this obvious rhetoric despite our knowing it’s a facade? 

Unfortunately, I don’t have an answer. I, too, simultaneously relish in the diversity of my generation while scrolling through Amazon for used textbooks. But there’s a kind of power in acknowledging this hypocrisy within ourselves and within the narrative of our generation. There is something to be gained from awareness, even if we haven’t quite figured out how to reconcile Gen Z’s duality. 

One of the articles in The New York Times’ counterintuitive Gen Z category is the article “900 Voices from Gen Z, America’s Most Diverse Generation.”  This article focuses solely on the voices of actual members of Gen Z in all of their poignant, hypocritical and individualistic glory. 

Even though this collection of quotes currently sits amidst others stories preoccupied with Gen Z consumerism, articles like the one above provide a reprieve from the commodified rhetoric. They offer a peek into the true nuance of our generation and leave us with hope for a future in which our individual voices are listened to rather than cashed in on. 
Still, using diversity and individualism as mechanisms for selling to a generation of over 69 million is inherently paradoxical, and we shouldn’t let it work as well as it does.

Feature image by Aidan Cahill / The Phoenix

Hailey Gates

Hailey Gates