Generation Z Now Has a Cohort of Adults

Filed Under: Generations, Youth & Family


Mary McIlrath

Senior Vice President, C+R Alum

At YouthBeat®, we spend most of our time investigating trends among kids, tweens, and teens.  Every year, we “graduate” a batch of 18-year-olds from our panel, but we don’t stop caring about them.  The oldest members of Generation Z, 18-22 years old, are college-aged now.  It’s a dynamic time of transition, discovery, and experimentation for young adults.  We’re devoting this blog to the special condition of being college-aged in the U.S. today.

Adulthood will feel to some Gen Z’ers like a slap in the face, much as it did to Millennials after high school graduation.  Entering the workforce or going to community colleges or vocational schools are appealing options to some, but those opting for traditional four-year postsecondary schools have a hefty price to pay.  In a New York Times OpEd this September, Caitlin Zaloom quoted the average American year of college as having a $50,000 price tag. Her research shows that the sacrifices middle-class American parents are making to help foot the bill can jeopardize families’ futures—with no guarantee of securing a stable future for the graduate.

And that’s only if they can get in the door to the school of their choice.  College admissions today is complex, and sometimes riddled with controversy.  Recent celebrity and other wealthy parent fraud cases notwithstanding, having the best grades, test scores, and applications don’t always translate into admissions. Consider this spring’s conflict at Harvard, where top-performing Asian-American applicants were oversaturated in the pool of those hopeful for admission—and affirmative action policies kept some of them out.  Harvard is now being sued by the Students for Fair Admissions for having policies that allegedly discriminate against Asians on the basis of race.  The Supreme Court will ultimately decide the legality of Harvard’s practices and presumably influence other institutions.  Originated to provide opportunities for people of color who did not have the same advantages as Non-Hispanic White students in primary education, affirmative action policies have come under fire in recent years as disadvantaging to high achievers and hard workers.  It’s a thorny issue and one on which we at YouthBeat® do not take a stance.  But it’s worth considering the balance of opportunity and hard work—how can the American Educational Dream be made best available to the greatest number of students?

At the extremes of jumping into adulthood, some Gen Z’ers are already becoming parents.  One of the most famous, Kylie Jenner, gave birth to a daughter last spring.  Though many of this generation are planning on delaying marriage and families to focus on experiencing the world and careers, the young parents in this cohort are worth watching.  They have grown up as savvier shoppers than their Millennial counterparts—they’re frugal but will spend their money on brands that fit with their values.  They care where products for their children are sourced, and they want to support companies who give back to communities in a way that is authentically relevant to the products they sell.

Some smart brands are hoping to help ease this segment’s transition into adulthood and create lifelong loyalty among Generation Z.  Our favorite recent example is United Airlines, which announced a program of discounts for 18-22 year-olds in the fall of 2019.  Registered participants get a flat 10% discount on domestic airfares.  Plus, the first 25,000 of them to register through the United app will have the carbon footprint of their flights offset through the airline’s Eco-Skies program, which strives for fuel efficiency and emissions reduction as well as using sustainable fuels and other products.  It’s a savvy move in our eyes, appealing to the thriftiness and also the ecological responsibility of the next generation of frequent travelers.

Enough talk about adulthood–what about the folks in this group who aren’t quite ready to let go of their teenage obsessions?  Well, they don’t have to.  The growth of eSports has made “video game champion” a viable career aspiration for some.  For others, they can keep reading their guilty-pleasure young adult (YA) books.  Cosmopolitan even published an article this August about how to make new friends in college by bonding over favorite youth genres.  Let’s face it, these young adults’ brains won’t finish developing for a few more years, and it would be cruel to expect them to grow up and mature overnight.


Young adulthood is sometimes romanticized as the best years of one’s life.  That’s a lot of pressure—and, in our experience, generally untrue.  Extend a proverbial hand to those who are starting to navigate the waters of adulthood.  Honor their values and help them move forward at their own pace, and they will hold longstanding and positive memories of your brand.

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