decoding gen z with Vince Bertram

Decoding GEN Z: Values, Trends and Insights

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Hi everyone, I’m excited to introduce you to Vince Bertram. Vince is a true innovator. He’s a bestselling author and a speaker who focuses on education, innovation, and career learning. Today, as we approach the back-to-school season, we’ll be discussing education, technology, and Gen Z. We’ll also delve into Vince’s new startup venture, which he will tell us about shortly. Additionally, we’ll explore the world of Gen Z, a generation both mysterious and fascinating to marketers. Vince, who has a deep understanding of this audience from working closely with them, will share some valuable insights that can benefit us as marketers. So, hi Vince, welcome. Thank you for joining us. It’s truly exciting. My first question is, could you share some details about your new project, Recruited? What inspired you to launch this venture in the EdTech industry, and what’s the story behind the project’s vision?

Thank you for having me. I’m thrilled to be here and share this time with you. When I consider the entrepreneurial mindset, a term we’ve been using for innovators over the past decade, those who deeply explore new products and ways to use them within existing businesses, I’ve always had that mindset. But the best entrepreneurs are those who address a problem and then seek solutions. I’ve been working on this project for nearly three decades, focusing on career learning and helping students understand the available careers and how to think creatively about their futures. We’re developing a platform to help students comprehend business operations, industries, and careers, enabling informed decisions before they leave high school. Our aim is to prevent costly trial and error, whether through college or direct entry into the workforce. It’s entirely Gen Z-focused, as many EdTech products target institutions, while we’re directing our efforts at the students themselves.

That’s interesting. What were the most challenging aspects you faced while launching this startup?

I’d say two main challenges. First, generating an idea and creating a business plan is crucial, but fundraising in the entrepreneurial space, securing the right investors, is a significant challenge. Even more so is assembling the right team capable of delivering on promises. A company’s vision requires execution, and having the right individuals on board is critical. I’m pleased with the talented people who are part of this venture.


Indeed, assembling the right team is crucial for success. As we navigate the communication-centric landscape, I’m eager to tap into your vast experience with Generation Z. Having engaged with them for years, your perspective is invaluable. Can you highlight key traits and trends defining this generation? How do these qualities shape their approach to education, career choices, and even daily decisions like consumer preferences?

Yeah, great question. There are several things I’ve heard repeatedly over the last 5-6 years, particularly companies saying, this generation doesn’t want to work, this generation doesn’t have loyalty. However, that’s not true. They do want to work and are really concerned about their future. Loyalty, especially in the job movement, and people leaving positions, didn’t start with employees. It actually started with companies prioritizing quarterly results and performance metrics over people. When they didn’t hit those results, they laid people off, or jobs were lost during a recession.

Every generation has a defining moment that shifts their perspective. For the Millennial generation, it was 9/11. For Gen Z, it was COVID, the pandemic. So, what changed during that time? There are several things. Every generation, from those experiencing wars to the Silent Generation enduring the Great Depression, is defined by such moments. We need to pay particular attention to what changed during COVID for Gen Z.

This was the first generation that could see the other person they’re talking to on the phone. They text with emojis and don’t use email. They can express an entire sentence with emojis. They spend 6 or 7 hours a day on personal devices and apps, which is how they get information, communicate, and learn. They’re influenced like no prior generation. Every generation is heavily influenced by the one before them, and there’s a lot of debate about when these generational shifts occur. But regardless, what we know is the prior generation influences the next.

Gen Z has expectations. They want purpose and are interested in why people and companies do what they do. They also want flexibility, which comes directly from COVID experiences of learning and working from home. They want relevance and value, which has implications for companies, retailers, higher education, and employers. If you can’t make things relevant for them and show them great value, they’re not interested. Gen Z is also frugal and savers. One of their favorite brands is Goodwill. They love to shop at places where brand names and high-cost items are much less interesting than off brands and cheaper items.

In higher education, for example, a four-year college degree is under enormous scrutiny. Gen Z thinks about college very differently than the Millennials. They question the value of a college degree, which is reflected in decreasing college enrollments. Money and benefits matter to Gen Z. They want to know how much you are going to pay them for what they’re worth, and they want benefits. Employers need to be able to tell their story in one paragraph and tell them everything they want to know, or they won’t attract them.

Lastly, Gen Z spends their time on platforms like TikTok and YouTube, not reading traditional media like the Wall Street Journal. The top five influencers on TikTok have almost 600 million followers, which is almost two times the US population. They’re influencing them in bite-size videos, giving information in 1, 2, or 3 minutes, and then they move on to the next thing. If we ignore this, it’s at our own peril. We must take seriously how they get their information, how they consume it, and how they process it, or businesses are going to struggle.

Given all these behavior patterns and especially the attitude towards work that you mentioned – they want to get paid and they’re not shy about it, they’re skeptical about the “follow your dream” concept – are there any industries or professions that are more attractive to this generation than others? Is everyone just wanting to be a TikTok Blogger and make millions, or is that just a stereotype?

No, I believe that’s more of a stereotype. It’s easy to create content today, and while it certainly creates a career path for some, it’s like any other career path. Some people make a lot of money, but most don’t. For some, it’s going to be a pathway; for others, it’s going to be a hobby and just what they do in their spare time. When I look across industries, I see some that are struggling right now, but I don’t believe it’s strictly because of Gen Z characteristics. Some of it is just the structural nature of a job and a career.

Take teaching, for example. Gen Z wants purpose and relevance, but school doesn’t necessarily offer them a lot of flexibility. There’s a structured day, and it doesn’t pay well. So, they’re looking at it like, “Why would I want to do that?” Consequently, not as many people are going into education and teaching.

It’s not necessarily about industries that are winning or losing. Consider manufacturing, a robust industry. It’s not that Gen Z doesn’t want to go into manufacturing; they just need to connect with the things that are important to them. Companies have a chance to do that. From a marketing perspective, it’s about getting the right messaging out. It’s not about being disingenuous or intellectually dishonest with them, but telling the story in a way that’s compelling for Gen Z. That’s going to be really important to attract them to any industry. There are some industries that, if they fail to tell the story, it’s going to be much more difficult to get Gen Z to pursue careers in their companies.

From what you’ve just said, it seems like storytelling has become significantly more important for both brands and companies if they want to address Gen Z. So, do we need to find new ways of visual and other types of storytelling? Is that something that marketers should look into?

Absolutely, it’s all about storytelling. I say this ceaselessly, but it must be genuine. We can tell the story, but we need to hit these key elements that are really important to the people we’re trying to recruit as potential employees or customers. Interestingly, in many ways, those expectations are aligned with Gen Z. They seek relevance, purpose, and value, not only as employees but also as consumers. If we can’t communicate that to them, we’re going to have a very difficult time attracting them. As I pointed out earlier, Gen Z is going to significantly influence the Alpha generation. Remember, Gen Z spends their time in specific ways; they’re not reading the Wall Street Journal, for instance.

Did you also mention that Gen Z is affecting the way the generations before them, including the millennials, behave?

Well, I think what starts to happen is that millennials begin using technology, and then you have this shift with Gen Z, who are obviously heavily into technology; they’re digital natives. This is what they’ve grown up with. Often, when we think about innovation and so forth, we consider a generation, even generational changes, where they know nothing else. This is all they know, and this is their experience. It does have an effect on everyone around them because, when they go into the workplace or schools, they bring an expectation that others have to adapt to. So, people are becoming more tech-savvy and finding different ways to connect with Gen Z, and as a result, it starts to change the overall culture of a company or an organization. So yes, it has that influence. They’re certainly going to push it down into the Alpha generation, but I think they push it up too. It’s not uncommon to see people from earlier generations sitting with Gen Z and just talking with them, like, “Show me how you interact with technology, how do you use this app, what is an app for this?” Today, it’s commonplace for everyone to use apps, but that really only came into being and became highly significant with Gen Z.

One more question about relationships with other generations, especially in the work environment. I often hear that Gen Z employees tend to feel entitled, are not very willing to learn, and are skeptical about the authority of those superior to them. Have you observed this? And if yes, what is the best way to communicate with them if not from a position of superiority?

That’s a great question. I hear similar arguments. One competitor in this marketplace that grew tremendously during COVID is the gig economy. When you think about all the things the gig economy has created – you work when you want, you can do multiple jobs, you have total flexibility, you can accept high-value trips and decline lower-value ones – all the things that Gen Z wants are found in the gig economy.

When people go to work, and this is true not just for Gen Z but also prior generations, we’ve had strikes because people didn’t like the working conditions, salary, compensation, or management. We’ve been rejecting what’s happening in the workplace for generations. Gen Z just brings a different perspective to it. For them, there are other things that matter, like what happens in the gig economy. You get paid every day. If you’re an Uber driver, you can take your money out on a daily basis. They go to the workplace, and we say you’re going to wait two weeks for a paycheck. It’s just the opposite of what they can do. Or we tell them about all the workplace requirements, dress codes, and all the things that have been historically part of organizations. We’re trying to apply the same expectations to a generation that has different expectations.

We need to figure out if we want to embrace them and create conditions that allow for people to grow in our company. Gen Z wants value, relevance, and an opportunity to grow. People joke about them being there for two months and wanting a raise and a promotion. Maybe we should think about that a little differently. For example, let’s say you’re going to give a 3% raise for the year. Why not give it to them every month or every quarter? It’s the same amount of money. There may be some cash flow issues, but you’re doing the same thing while meeting their needs. They want a raise not every year, but more frequently. They want an opportunity to grow in their career path. Create those career paths for them. Show them that you can actually do this instead of sitting back and complaining about their expectations. I believe we should align with them, and they’ll tell you what Their Expectations are.

Putting all that together, this is a tremendous opportunity for us and for the marketers. Companies who get this right are going to win. But look who’s winning right now.

That was actually my question: what brands are winning right now in communicating with Gen Z?

YouTube could have been viewed as this somewhat archaic platform, but it’s interesting. Do you know who owns YouTube? It’s Google. So, Google has the number one and number two search engines in the world with YouTube and Google. They have a platform in YouTube that Gen Z really likes. It’s the second-largest app they use, right up there with TikTok and things like Instagram. They’re winning. Gamification is winning, providing students with short, different kinds of experiences. A lot of traditional companies are struggling and will continue to struggle. Some are just fading away because they’re not aligning with how purchases are made today.

Amazon is winning. Why is Amazon winning? They’re one of the most trusted companies in the world. Gen Z expects things to happen fast. They go to Amazon, order something, and it’s delivered the same day or the next day, consistently on time. So, what does that mean? It means that these companies are aligning with their customers and meeting their needs. Why would you spend five hours in a mall when you could spend five minutes on Amazon? They’re questioning that. That’s the value proposition that companies like Amazon are bringing to them. So, there’s a lot of opportunity here.

It’s interesting that you mention Amazon, a huge corporation. Given that Gen Z is very attentive to values, how might a small business or a startup enter their consumer landscape if they can’t provide the same level of service as Amazon, but offer a super sustainable product or something that aligns with their values in a different way? Will corporations win just because they offer better logistics, or do startups also have hope here?

I believe we all hope that startups have a significant chance here. Any business enterprise can treat their customers exceptionally well, regardless of size. While there are scale advantages, it doesn’t mean a small business can’t be laser-focused on meeting customer needs and expectations. The moment you deviate from that, you lose. Small businesses need to remember that their customer is the key relationship and they can’t lose sight of that.

If they create value, and I do believe there are instances where Gen Z is more forgiving when they see the purpose of an organization and understand why they’re doing what they’re doing. Focus on purpose, focus on customer satisfaction. A good friend of mine ran a bank and had many shareholders. When I asked him how many of his shareholders had direct access to him, expecting him to mention large shareholders and institutions, he said, “they all do.” Even if that might not be entirely true, that was the culture he created because he wanted all of them to feel like they had direct access to him.

I see companies that are incredibly frustrating, using AI and other types of experiences, where they’re starting to lose customer connectivity. Gen Z does like efficiency. They want to cut through things quickly. If you give them eight different options because your menu items have changed, they’re not going to stick with you. They get tired of that. They want something that’s simple, answers a question, and is efficient. Any size business can do that really well.

To sum up our discussion and offer businesses some advice or tips, what are the most crucial aspects for their marketing to cater to Gen Z? We would advise them to think about their purpose, customer satisfaction, being accessible and available for customers, and storytelling. Is there anything else I’m forgetting here?

I think you’ve covered it. Those are the key issues. However, it’s vital to convey all that in a succinct way for Gen Z and not to hide behind things. Tell the story transparently. For instance, some companies, even with new laws requiring it, are not posting salaries, opting instead for vague terms like “competitive compensation.” That approach doesn’t work for Gen Z. Be upfront about how much money they’re going to make. Many people avoid this transparency due to concerns about internal equity questions and competitors seeing their salaries. But ultimately, people want to know their pay and benefits. Treat them with respect, treat them equitably, and tell that story. It’s incredibly powerful.

So, in addition to purpose, storytelling, and customer satisfaction, we will add honesty and transparency, right?

Yes, and treating them with respect. That’s a great start, which might seem straightforward on paper. But I would also add one more thing, not necessarily a marketing strategy but something that ends up influencing it: take care of the culture of your company. Ensuring the right people are in your company is crucial. I’ve made mistakes at times by hiring quickly instead of hiring smartly, allowing people to impact our culture in a less-than-desirable way. If you want to drive people, especially Gen Z, away, just place them with individuals who don’t treat them well and don’t share the same vision and conviction as your company. Surround them with a supportive and encouraging system, and we can win with this generation. I’m convinced we’re going to. So, you have a long list now of things to add to the marketing strategy, don’t you?