What does self-expression really mean to gen z?

by APRIL BRYCE| Published on February 11, 2021

Gen Z are no longer the generation “coming next”. Born between 1996 and 2010, this year they will represent 41% of all people on the planet, and with the oldest members turning 25, they now make up a sizable proportion of the workforce, and of consumer spending. We always knew that Gen Z would be distinctive. They are the first true digital natives, and grew up during times of uncertainty (the wake of the last financial crisis and Brexit in the UK). But over the last year the identity of this generation has been further shaped in a profound way as some of their most formative years are taking place against the backdrop of a global pandemic, with the significant interruptions that has wrought to school, university, and early working lives, as well as social connections. Gen Z were on the precipice of progress when COVID hit “pause” on life. And yet many Gen Zers are emerging as resilient, energized, and eager to express themselves and have their voices heard.

For me, this paints a picture of a generation who are unafraid to speak up and challenge convention. Assertive. Dynamic. Maybe what I might call “a force to be reckoned with”. Which is why it surprised me to read that Gen Z in the UK are 3.7 times more likely to describe themselves as introverts rather than extroverts (2.4 times more likely across Europe). But perhaps for a generation who, on average, got their first smartphone at age 10, the quest for self-expression takes a different and more nuanced form.

According to a Facebook Live Webinar from September 2020, the three words or phrases Gen Z would most likely use to describe themselves are “introverted”, “fast learner”, and “driven”. These language choices portray a pragmatism and adaptability that was not nearly as pronounced for millennials. And, along with the desire to express themselves, there appears to be an earnestness which aligns with research showing that this generation are driven by purpose and meaning – both in career choices and consumer choices.

I was still intrigued. So I decided to look to Gen Z’s complex relationship with brands for some clues as to what self-expression really means to this generation, the roles brands play in realising this, and whether it tells us anything about their career choices.

They trust tech brands

Gen Z are savvy. They’re comfortable having more than one online identity (30% have both Rinsta (real) and Finsta (fake) social media accounts, often to keep certain aspects of their life hidden from family, potential employers, and others outside of their close social circles). Yet – on the whole – they trust the technology brands and platforms themselves. In fact, Google, Amazon, Netflix, YouTube and Playstation are five of Gen Z’s most trusted brands.

It’s worth noting that these brands provide a highly personalised experience, and are intimately intertwined with our lives, probably even more so over the past year. I don’t think Gen Z lack an appreciation of the ways these brands use data: I think that they understand it better than other generations, and consciously engage in a value exchange. In return, they get a phenomenal personal experience, which actually builds trust.

Do these brands promote self-expression? For Gen Z YouTube vloggers with thousands or even millions of subscribers, certainly. But for every vlogger, there are many more who aren’t necessarily creating and promoting their own content. That’s not to say that self-expression is not an important aspect of their relationship with trusted tech brands. I would argue that the opportunity for entertainment, connection with others, and access to information and knowledge, all fuel self-expression by exposing young people to a broad range of content that can inspire them to discover the things that matter to them, and to form their opinions. And that’s the kind of brand experience that can empower an informed, insightful type of self-expression.

It should be no surprise, that the same priorities are valued within Gen Z’s candidate journeys with potential employers. Growing up with tech brands, they expect a highly-personalised experience that enables them to actually express themselves and the things that they have to offer, which is supported by the rise of more candidate-centric recruitment processes, such as video interviews or the ability to make your application in whatever way helps you to express yourself best, whether video, written content, or a link to a blog or social channel.

They express themselves through brand alignment

69% of Gen Z believe that brands should make their stance on social and political issues known publicly. I believe this is what Gen Z mean by brand authenticity. One of the brands that Gen Z considers to be most authentic is Nike. Nike has been unafraid to take a stance on issues from the gender pay gap to racial injustice, showing us that authenticity does not just mean having a clear point of view, but also using your clout as a brand to share and amplify the causes that matter to you.

This is where self-expression comes into play. But it’s less about posing in a pair of trainers, and more about showing your own alignment with the purpose and intent of a brand. Gen Z see the brands who they follow, ‘like’, and buy as a personal reflection of them as individuals, which is why they are prepared to pay more for brands that they believe support sustainability. Likewise, they’re happy to walk away from brands who don’t align with their own beliefs, in part for fear of damage to their own image.

If that’s how profoundly Gen Zers believe the impact of their consumer choices can affect the way they express themselves, it stands to reason that this will cut even deeper with regard to career choices, which is one of the reasons – even during this time of great uncertainty – feeling a sense of purpose from their career is still important to this generation.

A brand is more than an image

But Gen Z’s concern for the authenticity of brands goes beyond image, Gen Z want to know what brands can actually do to help promote the causes that matter to them. This is about expressing yourself through action, and 72% say they have become more interested in causes and activism since the pandemic began.

The importance of going beyond image was highlighted during the protests surrounding racial injustice in June 2020. While posting a black box on social media to show that you muted your voice in order to amplify others became a movement in itself, it was also criticized by many as entirely performative unless you took action to help change things for the better. The action did not have to be newsworthy. Quieter, more personal actions mattered too, such as taking the time to educate yourself on issues, or being willing to express your opinions to others and engage in discussion – perhaps with older family members who share a different perspective. 

This seems an important aspect of self-expression. Gen Z share a willingness to discuss issues in an open reflective way, and to seek out different opinions, which is one reason social channels are increasingly viewed as credible sources of news. To give another example, Gen Z are more comfortable talking about mental health issues than previous generations. While this can be attributed in part to the overall rise in awareness and acceptance of mental health issues over the last fifteen years, it is a noticeable shift from previous generations.

What have brands got to do with this? In return, Gen Zers expect brands to also take steps to help these causes. With mental health awareness specifically, there is a closer relationship to brands who champion the cause, including Dove and their work to promote body positivity, Lululemon advocating for equality between mental health and physical health, and youth lifestyle brand Bando curating a jewelry collection that promotes mental health – and donates proceeds to mental health charities.

The same focus carries through to the brands that Gen Z want to work for. Openness and a focus on employee wellbeing are paramount. I think those employer brands that are able to amplify such cultural issues with actual proof that goes beyond a page detailing the benefits package on their website, will stand apart for Gen Z. What might be even more powerful, is brands who are open enough to welcome employee self-expression on such issues – actively listening to what they have to say, and acting on the feedback.


So when we talk about Gen Z and their quest for self-expression, it’s a much deeper and more complex phenomenon than the ability to post videos on YouTube, TikTok, or Instagram. For the first true generation of digital natives, there is a sophisticated understanding of the values exchange between themselves and brands – and how they can amplify one another to better express themselves.

Perhaps they are a more introverted generation, but that doesn’t mean they lack the bravery to stand up for the things that matter to them. On the contrary, they do so with an openness and earnestness that I believe will see them emerge from COVID even more focused on the future, more determined, and without doubt a true force to be reckoned with.