Not all that comfortable with technology.

Photographer: Olivier Morin/AFP/Getty Images

Will Generation Z Disconnect?

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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Today's hot tech companies may soon be in for some nasty surprises. Teenagers are pushing back against the technology dependence that previous generations have developed -- in fact, against anything the corporate world pushes at them. That's one of the surprising findings in a survey just released by Northeastern University.

Attempts to quantify Generation Z -- those born after 1995 -- are becoming more frequent. The marketing and research agency Sparks & Honey recently produced a detailed presentation on the subject. Investment bank Piper Jaffray's semi-annual Taking Stock with Teenagers survey also provides numerical insights into how "kids these days" -- a phrase even 24-year-old Taylor Swift uses, albeit in quotation marks -- interact with the world.  

The need to define generations in this way is a bit unhealthy in the way Buzzfeed listicles are: We should understand our children better from talking to them than from polling a broad group they're part of because of the year they were born. Nevertheless, some common features do pop up in these surveys that might help us parents -- and companies interested in the kids' medium-term future -- avoid some basic mistakes. 

The Northeastern study, which surveyed 1,015 teenagers ages 16 to 19, confirms some of Sparks & Honey's major findings: Gen Z is less pampered and more worried about money than Generation Y (aka the millennials) has been. Two-thirds of them say the cost of college is a major concern. A fourth believe no amount of student debt is acceptable, and 44 percent say they can live with only $100 per month of student debt. Apparently, this generation has been inoculated against debt by the 2008 financial crisis, one of their childhood's major shocks.

A full 64 percent worry they might not be able to get a job. Perhaps because of that fear, Gen Z kids are highly interested in entrepreneurship: 42 percent expect to work for themselves at some point, 63 percent say college should teach students how to start and run their own business, and 72 percent want the right to design their own majors.

It may seem illogical, then, that 61 percent of the teen respondents said the U.S. income gap is harmful to their generation, and 64 percent agreed with the suggestion that big corporations and banks control too much in America. How can would-be entrepreneurs be so anti-capitalist? 

I wouldn't write that off as adolescent inconsistency. Generation Z, as previous studies also showed, is innately liberal, overwhelmingly supporting gay marriage and transgender rights, for instance. Fifty-five percent of teenagers surveyed believe anyone should have the right to become a U.S. citizen regardless of how that person came to the U.S. And 64 percent say the U.S. gets involved in too many wars. That may reflect youthful idealism -- previous generations, too, have started out as leftists and slid gradually toward the center -- but Gen Z may be different in being genuinely bigotry-proof. It may be the first generation for which diversity is a natural concept that will not be ruined by anything older people do or say.

Combine that with the entrepreneurial spirit and the desire to shape one's own education, and picture a world with few constraints, in which individual freedom is the greatest value. The capitalism of big companies and fat cat managers is not something kids these days want to keep.

You might say that this attitude, too, is not particularly different from that of previous young people: It's natural to rebel against the system. But I think there's more to Gen Z's rebellion than that, and here's why.

The Sparks & Honey survey found that Gen Z is overconnected, playing with multiple devices, online all the time. The Northeastern University study confirms that -- showing, for example, that 49 percent of teenagers get their news online, and only 21 percent receive it from television. But it suggests this generation is beginning to push back against what we saw as the technological revolution. Teenagers have put down our rose-colored glasses.

Perhaps they are less comfortable in cyberspace because 61 percent of them know somebody who has been cyberbullied or stalked online. Maybe this makes them yearn for the "real world." Sixty-six percent say they prefer to interact with friends in person, while only 15 percent would rather do so online, and 69 percent would not use the Internet to ask someone out. Though 77 percent have a bank account, only 38 percent make most of their purchases online; 43 percent favor brick-and-mortar shops.

Given the ubiquity and convenience of various Internet services, it seems hard to believe that teenagers could be so resistant. Yet I see this in my 12-year-old stepdaughter, too. She appears much more comfortable with real-world interaction than with the online variety. The excitement that we and, to some extent, millennials felt when all this powerful technology became available, is gone. Our digital machinery is now something that's just there, and not always nice or safe to use. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Mary Duenwald at mduenwald@bloomberg.net