Editor’s Note: This report was originally published on March 11, 2020, right before COVID-19 began to spread across the United States. We’ve updated the content to be more reflective of current events and to add a second part that discusses the implications for our built environments.
At this moment, Millennials and Gen Z comprise the majority of consumers and workers at or under the age of 40. At 56 million and 61 million respectively, these two demographic groups comprise the largest populations in United States history—together known as GenNow.
As a designer, generational research is fascinating. Its fibers weave into everything from arts and culture to design and architecture. So, I consulted colleagues across the research, interiors, and design education fields to better understand GenNow’s current and future impacts on the built environment. Specifically, the objective was to track how the GenNow mindset transcends within the workplace, higher education and hospitality.
When we first launched this piece on March 11, 2020, there were three historical implications in the last 30 years that have left an impression on generations Y and Z. We’ve since expounded our research to include the current events of this year, 2020, which will be formative across these two generations. Together, the vehicles of COVID-19, the Civil Rights Movement, climate change, and the Great Recession will have a compounding influence on the spaces where we live, work, stay and play.
Two days after this piece originally launched on Human Spaces, my home city of Atlanta, much of the US and world, had suddenly shuttered. In just four months’ time, two significant vehicles for change have transpired and continue to unfold. COVID-19 halted our world, challenged the scientific and medical communities, and we sank into an economic recession. Then, the video of George Floyd’s killing deeply affected many of us. This anguish and pain was felt across the globe, and the Black Lives Matter movement reached full momentum.
Given that Gen Z is the most ethnically diverse generation ever, this conversation about race and equity will continue to be at the forefront. Nearly 48% of this generation come from communities of color, and when Yubo polled 38,919 US-based Gen Zers aged 13 to 25, it found that 88% of respondents believe Black Americans are treated differently than others. Despite that, 64% were hopeful about the future because of the widespread support the Black Lives Matter movement has received.
It will be essential for designers to champion social causes with integrity and transparency, as well as advocate for more diversity in the industry. Currently, specialized design services (including Interiors, Industrial, Graphic, etc.) are only 6.8% Black.1 Further, only 2% of registered architects are Black, and it’s even worse for Black women who make up only .3% of registered architects.2 While key members of the A&D community are actively championing the conversation of diversity in the design field and weighing the consequences for the built environment, this will be a cause taken up by the younger generations.
According to the CDC, 2019 was the second hottest year on record, second to 2016. The decade from 2010 – 2019 is historically the warmest ever recorded on planet Earth.
If ever there could be a silver lining to this sobering fact, it’s that sustainability is a shared core value of the younger generations. LEED launched in 1993 and by the time the first Millennials entered college, a stream of eco-consciousness was growing.
In movements throughout history, activism follows awareness. We’re seeing this unfold in real time, from Gen Z elementary school climate demonstrations to Greta Thunberg’s appeal to the United Nations and her appointment as 2019 Time’s Person of the Year.
The Great Recession
Two major recessions have marked the formative career years for one generation.
Millennials remain the most disaffected population from the ongoing fallout of the Great Recession. The average Millennial net worth is $8,000—meaning they are financially worse off than any generation before them. According to a 2018 report from The Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, Gen Y—especially those who were entering the workforce between 2010 to 2016—may be experiencing as much as a 34% loss in wealth compared to where they would be had the financial crisis not occurred. Compounding this is the fact that college tuition rose by a staggering 3700% from 1964 to 2015. As a result, Millennials have largely delayed typical life milestones, such as owning a home, getting married, or having a child.
And experts predict that the financial repercussions of COVID-19 will be the most disruptive to this group. Having already endured two recessions by the age of 40, they will be more conservative investors than their parents. More than half (52%) of respondents under age 45 have lost jobs, lost hours, or been put on leave.3 That’s compared to 26% of those over age 45 who suffered the same economic consequences.
A new, grim term for Millennials? “The Recessionals.”
It may be too early to predict the pandemic’s impact on Gen Z. Some experts see this as a repeat of what older Millennials faced when entering the workforce: recession, cancelled internships and high unemployment rates. That being said, Gen Z may be better equipped to weather the COVID-19 Recession, due in part to learning from their predecessors. Gen Z has less student loan debt and higher credit scores compared to Millennials at the same stage. And their tech-savviness gives them another advantage for readily available remote work opportunities.
As tech natives, GenNow incorporates technology in everything they do. With smart devices in hand, tasks and communication can be accomplished anywhere at any time. Conversely, the cold, constant feeling of glass in our hands has led to an intrinsic need for the tangible and a thirst for immersive experiences with nature.
Made possible by all of the above, the sharing economy is sustainability merged with technology in bootstrapped recession roots. This economic model utilizes a peer-to-peer (P2P) network used to acquire, provide or share goods and services. Society once considered a two-car household a status symbol. Now, a zero-car household is a sexier, sustainable aspiration. Common examples of the sharing economy include car sharing, ride sharing, home sharing, financial lending and rentable fashion. Emerging talent sharing services – such as a Michelin chef hosting a meal at her home — create economic opportunities and adaptable business models.
The second part of this feature explores how this will all transcend into design. What are the challenges associated with designing for GenNow? Perhaps well before the schematic design process begins, the first step is to flesh out the generational paradigms, behaviors, and values in order to focus on the shared vision for a space.
Allen Gaoiran is the Founder + Creative Director of GaoiranStudios, and a lead collaborator at Ames Design Collective. Gaoiran proposes:
“Now is the time to influence, empower and unify. As creators, we must take on this awareness by way of compassion and perspective. Now more than ever we have an extraordinary opportunity to shed light and leverage our unique experiences to encourage others to share, learn and inspire. Not only will this enhance our craft, it’s a collective vision that calls us to push our industry forward.”
1 Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2019. Found at: https://www.bls.gov/cps/cpsaat18.htm
2 Directory of African American Architects, 2019. Found at: https://www.architectmagazine.com/practice/02_o
3 Center for Data Progress, 2020. Found at: http://filesforprogress.org/memos/the-staggering-economic-impact-coronavirus.pdf