While there may be disagreement on the boundaries of Generation Z, the cohort of young people now in their early teens through mid-twenties, there is consensus on the vast potential of Generation Z to become the major force in our global society.  This potential is partly due to the size of Generation Z.  In the US, it is one of the larger age cohorts, larger than either the earlier Gen X or Baby Boom cohorts.  Already nearly a quarter of the US population, Generation Z is forecast to become 40% of US consumers by the mid-2020s.  Globally, Generation Z is likely to be the predominant demographic for years to come due to the high birth rate in developing countries.

These soon-to-be adults have grown up with the near ubiquitous influence of a rapidly evolving and diversifying Internet and social media. They are true “digital natives” who are well positioned to take advantage of a future driven by global communications, artificial intelligence, and machine learning.  Due to the size of the Generation Z cohort and their comfort with adopting and influencing new technology, it is likely that they will have a more direct influence on the direction of technological evolution in the coming decades – and thus also on the behavior of older generations – than any previous generation.

Other powerful influences on Generation Z include reality TV, the impact on families of the Great Recession, and increasing limits to college and job access. These are helping to foster independence, alternative thinking and a competitive drive to take action and change society. Many of these factors will define their generation.  Some experts expect Generation Z’s mantra to be “good things come to those who act.”

Many pundits have suggested that due to these influences, Generation Z will be intensely engaged in global issues, such as sustainability and human rights.  According to Anne BoysenThis generation is well beyond “the environment is hurting” and “new tech is cool” narratives. To engage them you will have to get beyond context-less discussions around new technology and environmental degradation. Instead Generation Z will take these discussions one step further, and bring agency and action into the picture.

Engaging Generation Z in the development and implementation of a businesses’ sustainability endeavors makes explicit sense given that they will become a most influential demographic.  A flurry of recent articles offer advice on how to capture the energy, focus, and entrepreneurial spirit of young people through structured programs called Youth Innovation Challenges.  Michael Contreras, in 4 Reasons Youth Innovation Challenges Should Be Part of Your Sustainability Rebrand, advocates for the “enormous reach … strategic branding opportunities… crowdsourcing innovations…. and co-branding and co-marketing opportunities” that Youth Innovation Challenges offer a business sponsor who chooses to engage Generation Z in generating new products or strategies to forward business goals.  Although Anil Rathi’s To Encourage Innovation, Make It a Competition focuses on the optimal design for internal employee competitions, these considerations are applicable to the design of Youth Innovation Challenges as well.

To learn more about Generation Z as you reflect on the upside of engaging with this great generation on sustainability, we recommend How Generation Z Thinks About the Future and What is Generation Z, And What Does It Want?