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Students shed light on Gen Z: ‘The Free Thinkers’

February 2, 2024

Members of Generation Z may seem absorbed in their phones, but this absorption directly affects their level of economic and political education. There are answers to practically any question someone may have — and they are available in a split second.

This access can be seen as both an extraordinary and controversial thing, but at the end of the day, it is a tool utilized by millions of people every day. There is a sense of independence that comes with having a smart device, whether that be a smartphone, tablet, or computer; and Gen Z has grown up in the age of technology. The mixture of this knowledge and independence leads this generation to have something interesting that other generations did not have: The ability to form their own opinions at an early age.

Before the 21st century, people learned political thought mostly from their parents, and they formed political opinions largely based on their families’ beliefs. When people grow up this way, there are two possible different outcomes: Stick with what their parents taught them to believe when they were young, or learn an unfamiliar perspective and become resentful of not being told all the information and only hearing a biased opinion their whole life. This largely contributes to the polarizing political climate we have been experiencing in the past 10-plus years.

Gen Z, with its never-seen-before independence and vast access to information, is forming its own thoughts and opinions. Gen Z strives to think deeper and instead of looking at political issues as black and white, they see things in a grey hue. They tend to have mixed feelings about each topic; they look at things both economically AND socially (rather than economically OR socially).

Many Gen Zs do not fit within — or identify with — one of the two main U.S. political parties. Yet they have a great social concern while also being some of the most economically-conscious individuals in our society.

Environmentally Economical

Getting rid of plastic straws to save turtles, using reusable cups to cut down on waste, and buying reasonably-sourced produce to avoid GMO’s may make Gen Z seem like tree-huggers or hippies, but the focus on the environment leads to bigger innovations.

Simply being conscious of carbon footprints leads to innovative technologies in energy, shipping, and luxury goods. Gen Z has made strides to make batteries last longer or be rechargeable; these technologies help a lot of different devices and can be used for convenience without the environment even in mind.

Shipping vehicles are constantly being updated to emit less emissions, but the way things are shipped also are getting faster and more efficient as a happy byproduct of this innovation for consumers.

Electric vehicles are seen as a new luxury good; people stimulate the market by buying them just because they are a luxury good — not necessarily because they have less emissions.

These are just a few of the many innovations that started as an environmental solution but had indirect, positive effects on the U.S. economy.

Indirectly Entrepreneurial and Use of Market Power

People are more aware than ever of the carbon footprint associated with buying things overseas. This indirectly affects our market with people buying from local and small businesses to offset the fossil fuel emissions from the shipping of their product. The reason for doing this may be environmental but at the end of the day, this benefits entrepreneurs.

There is a huge push by Gen Z to buy organic or non-GMO produce for the health benefits, which indirectly helps raise the prices of these goods, which benefits farmers who struggle with overpriced produce they need to sell to break even. There has been a rise in respect for restaurants that use locally sourced ingredients. Many restaurants flaunt when they have locally sourced produce or meat, and people are often willing to pay more for these offerings. So, next time you go out to eat, look at the signs and menus, and think about the influence that Gen Z has had on that business.

Members of Gen Z also are willing to pay higher prices for things that are sustainably sourced. Many times, when we think of sustainability, we attribute it to the environment alone, but Gen Z cares about the social sustainability aspect. They are willing to pay a higher price to know workers are taken care of properly; this is an example of the market being sustainable and evening itself out on its own.

Gen Z is a charitable generation. It does not call for the government to bail out businesses or to pass legislation to give workers better conditions; they simply follow the market and give their business to sustainably-run companies. Companies that do not value sustainability are seen as living in the stone age, and are often ridiculed on social media until they change their practices. Gen Z is using the market to make changes; they do not expect the government to intervene. They use social media reviews and boycotting to compel businesses to make changes.

Gen Z is a generation that seems to complain about everything. As annoying as this can be, it helps regulate the market without government intervention because businesses must make changes to remain profitable under these conditions. If a member of Gen Z does not like companies that do not care about their workers, they will make a huge stink on social media and influence others to not support the company in question. If a company pivots, Gen Zers are willing to forgive prior transgressions. A recent example of this would be Nike, which was under fire for making their products in sweatshops overseas. Images of kids making their shoes in unacceptable conditions were circulated widely on social media with captions about how workers had to make shoes all day but could not even afford a pair for themselves. Since then, Nike has bounced back and is one of the core name brands that Gen Z loves after the company changed its standards for overseas workers.

Another story of brands adjusting to what Gen Z wants is Starbucks, the coffee giant, which is trying its best to be as sustainable as possible. Gen Z put Starbucks on blast for greenwashing, which happens when a company preaches sustainability but doesn’t have any actual sustainable practices. In 2023, there was a boycott of Starbucks after people caught on to the sheer number of plastic cups created from that one company every single day. Time will tell what will happen to the retail giant; but it’s clear Gen Z is a force to be reckoned with.

What does this mean for the future? Gen Z needs to be taken seriously. Although they may seem like tree-hugging hippies that complain over social media constantly, they have a powerful sway in the market.

As economists, we need to appreciate this and see this generation for what it truly is: People who are innovative and supportive entrepreneurs who can make change in the free market without government intervention.

Editor’s note: Emily Judd is a Northwood University student from Bay City, Michigan. Paris LeRoy is a marketing student from Saginaw, Michigan. This piece was published in the January 2024 When Free To Choose, a signature publication by Northwood University.

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