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The Generation Throwdown: Millennials vs. Gen Z

Angie Tran

Content Marketing Manager @ AdRoll

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This is it, folks! The event of a century, the clash of titans that will determine marketing for the next 40 years: the Generation Throwdown. 

In this corner, we have the world-weary warriors — the generation that gave us tight jeans, flannel shirts, and beards as a lifestyle — the millennials! Marked by adolescence bookended by 9/11 on one side and the Great Recession on the other, millennials have had it rough, and it shows: They’re scrappy and angry, and they’re not putting up with it anymore. 

And in this corner, we have a group of bright-eyed and bushy-tailed Gen Zers, coming up fast in a world of deep-fried memes and an ironic detachment that puts David Foster Wallace to shame. The first true generation of digital natives, these kids were born with cellphones and Instagram accounts in hand. 

Together, these two generations are quickly turning into the biggest force the market has ever seen, so marketers are charged with finding new ways to reach them. But what are the differences between the two? Does it even matter? Find out in the Generation Throwdown!

The Generation Throwdown infographic that highlights differences between Gen Z and Millennials. Round 1: population size. Millennials, who were born from 1981 to 1996 has a population of 72.6 million in the US while Gen Z, who were born from 1997 to 2012, has a population of 67.2 million in the US. However, it’s unclear if the slight size advantage gives Millennials the edge. Either way, both generations easily match the Baby Boomers for size. We consider this round is a tie. Round 2: Combined spending power. Currently, Millennials have a combined spending power of 1.4 trillion vs Gen Zers, at $140 billion. This round’s winner: Millennials. Round 3: UGC and reviews: Both generations lean heavily on reviews and word-of-mouth when making buying decisions. Winner of this round: tie. Round 4: Mobile Usage. Gen Zers spend significantly more time on mobile, but have less spending power (43% of millennials make purchases primarily on their phone). Winner this round: Tie. Key takeaway: At the end of the day, these two demographics are more similar than different. Find their similarities and focus there: fast, mobile-friendly, cheeky but serious, video-and consumer-forward, and with a strong emphasis on brand value.

Bigger and Better?

Coming out strong after the bell, the two generations appear to be evenly matched, at least in the U.S. There are approximately 72,600,000 millennials, born between 1981 and 1996, and 67,170,000 Gen Zers, born between 1997 and 2012. But is the slight size advantage enough to give millennials the edge? It’s not clear. Either way, both generations easily match the Baby Boomers for size.

All About the Benjamins!

Comparing overall size doesn’t help too much in weighing one generation against another. So in the next round, we’ve got a matchup that makes more cents — spending power. Of course, this isn’t a fair fight as the oldest Gen Zers are just now graduating from college while the youngest millennials have a few years of work history behind them. Currently, millennials have a combined spending power of $1.4 trillion, while Gen Zers have some serious catching up to do at $140 billion

A quick note, though: It’s likely that Gen Zers may be on their way to overcome that deficit in the next decade. Millennials’ potential earnings were derailed twice already: in 2008, when many of them were graduating into the worst recession in modern history, and again in 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic threw careers into a tailspin right as they were entering prime earning years.

Lights, Camera, Action!

Every marketer knows that video content is huge for millennials and Gen Zers, but things get messy when we zoom up close to the action! About 54% of millennials watch YouTube daily, compared to 85% of Gen Zers. That’s a big difference, though it’s important to note these numbers are fuzzier than they appear — Youtube stats use age cohorts that don’t perfectly line up with demographic lines, while stats for other platforms are all over the place.

Consume vs. Create

This round, we look at one of the core drivers behind what these two generations purchase: user-generated content and reviews. Both generations lean heavily on reviews and word-of-mouth when making buying decisions, but there’s one key difference: Millennials are consumers of content — 80% of millennial consumers research products online before buying. Gen Z, on the other hand, are creators of content — 40% of Gen Zers give online reviews “very often.” Remember: Millennials grew up with the internet, but Gen Z doesn’t remember a time when it wasn’t ubiquitous.

Phoning It In

Kids these days are so glued to their phones that they can’t see things right in front of their noses. Of course, the oldest millennials are in their mid-30s now, so “kids” is a bit of a stretch, but everyone knows these two generations never put down their smartphones. And it’s true: 43% of millennials make purchases primarily from their phones. But Gen Z spends almost twice as much time on their phones than even millennials

Fighting to a Draw

And that’s it, folks, the end of the grudge match of the century is… largely a draw! Let’s look at the play by play so we can see how the judges reached their decision:

  • Both generations are about the same size, and both are as big or bigger than the Baby Boomers. Neither can be ignored.
  • Millennials have more buying power now, but Gen Zers are catching up fast and will probably surpass them.
  • Video and social media are the keys to capturing both generations, especially by focusing on user-generated content, influencers, and reviews.
  • Both are completely reliant on their phones, either to do product research or to make purchases.

At the end of the day, these two demographics are far more similar than they are different. The steps brands are taking to capture the millennial market are the same steps they need to win Gen Z, only they’ll need to learn how to deep-fry Spongebob memes, too, to win the latter. 

Instead of thinking about how to succeed with these two groups separately, find the similarities and focus there: Fast, mobile-friendly, cheeky but serious, detached but earnest, video- and consumer-forward, and with a strong emphasis on brand value.

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