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It's Gen Z's World, And We're Just Living In It
If there’s a lingua franca of our digital age—a common language that transcends borders—it’s emojis. Emojis are easy to dismiss as frivolous and fun, but they embody how we communicate in the 21st century. Of the world’s 4.5 billion internet users, 92% use emojis. In 2015, 😂 was the Oxford Dictionary’s Word of the Year. The White House Council of Economic Advisors even issued a report illustrated with emojis. Emojis are internet culture, at a time when internet culture is becoming culture writ large.
It’s important to realize that emojis—like all languages—shape culture. In an effort to make vaccines look less intimidating, Apple revamped the syringe emoji. Removing dripping blood might seem like a small design tweak, but the change likely resulted in thousands more people feeling comfortable enough to get vaccinated.
Apple revamped the syringe emoji when COVID-19 vaccines came out (Image Source)
Many people probably assume—as I had—that Apple and Google govern emojis. Rather, emojis are governed by the Unicode Consortium, a nonprofit that monitors the world’s digital languages. In 2010, the Consortium agreed upon an initial set of 722 emojis. (Note: as with the word “data”, I refuse to treat the word “emoji” as plural—don’t @ me.) In 2011, Apple integrated those emojis into the iPhone keyboard with iOS 5.0, with Android following suit in 2013. Fast forward to 2021 and there are 3,663 emojis, though usage is fairly concentrated: the 100 most-used emojis comprise 82% of all emoji use.
Last week, Unicode announced the 10 most-used emojis of 2021:
As I’ve written about in the past, 😂’s days may be numbered: Gen Z prefers to connote humor with 💀 and ⚰️ . Gen Z humor is gallows humor.
That offers a nice segue: this is a piece about Gen Z, and I started with emojis because 1) emojis are fun, and 2) emojis are the language of Gen Z. This is the generation of the digital natives, the people who grew up online. And how Gen Z behaves and views the world will soon define society: Gen Z is already the biggest generation on the planet (2.5 billion strong, or about 1 in 3 living people), armed with $150 billion in spending power that will swell 70% over the next five years.
In some ways, this piece completes a trifecta of Gen Z pieces from 2021: first was January’s piece on Gen Z behaviors; next was June’s guide to Gen Z through the lens of memes and TikTok trends; and today is a deep-dive into three spaces that Gen Z is redefining:
Within each, I’ll dig into the interesting people and companies pushing forward new frontiers. Let’s jump in.
This is Bella McFadden. McFadden is a professional reseller on Depop, a secondhand clothing marketplace popular among Gen Zs (90% of Depop users are under 26). Last year, McFadden became the first person to make over $1 million selling on Depop. She’s sold 40,231 items (!) through her Depop store, which has 379,000 followers.
Bella McFadden was the first person to sell $1M through Depop
McFadden spends her days sourcing products from outlets and cataloguing them based on their aesthetic, studying 90s fashion magazines for inspiration. She then photographs and lists the items, saying, “I start shooting at about 8 in the morning, and don’t finish till 7 or 8 at night.” Most of her products sell for between $15 and $25, so she needs to sell volume. She also charges $200 for personal styling, designing and curating an entire outfit based on her client’s aesthetic.
Secondhand fashion is one of the fastest-growing but least-talked-about industries. Resale is a $40B market expected to double to ~$80B by 2025 and to triple to ~$120B by 2030. About a quarter of the secondhand market is apparel, which will grow 40% per year through 2025. In 2019, secondhand apparel grew 21x faster than traditional apparel and in 2020, 36 million Americans sold items secondhand for the first time. By 2030, the secondhand fashion industry will be nearly twice the size of the fast fashion industry.
Even today’s biggest stars are getting in on resale. Olivia Rodrigo sold items from her personal wardrobe on Depop.
Fans could buy Rodrigo’s clothes for $30 or $40, connecting on a deeper level with the star. (This is also a testament to the authenticity and relatability en vogue right now.)
Olivia Rodrigo’s Depop store was priced to be accessible to all fans
When we think of climate change, we think of solar panels and carbon offsets. But industries like fashion will also be turned on their head, reinvented by a younger generation relentlessly focused on sustainability. Fashion contributes ~10% of human-emitted greenhouse gases and the average American disposes of 80 pounds of clothing each year. There are an estimated 9 billion little-worn or never-worn clothing items sitting in American closets.
Over the past few years, we’ve seen secondhand marketplaces like Poshmark, thredUP, and The RealReal go public. Depop was bought by Etsy. And innovative new companies are building the infrastructure for secondhand: Archive, for example, is a white-label peer-to-peer marketplace that lets brands own the resale experience. Archive launched with MM LaFleur as its first customer—you can see here Archive’s white-labeled site on MM’s website:
Archive is powering resale for MM LaFleur
By bringing resale in-house, brands control the brand experience, communicate sustainability, and acquire younger, thriftier customers. I expect to see a significant portion of commerce shift to resale in the coming years, largely through brand-controlled channels.
Beyond commerce, Gen Z’s focus on sustainability will have ripple effects across corporate America. Younger workers are pressuring governments and companies to track and manage their carbon footprints. Solutions are emerging to help organizations keep up: Watershed, for instance, is a software platform helping companies cut carbon; Sylvera (which we’ve partnered with at Index) provides data on the relative quality of carbon offsets.
Climate is also a key piece of the crypto movement. Simply put, crypto uses a lot of energy. Bitcoin uses more energy than Finland, a country of 5.5 million; mining a single Bitcoin today uses as much energy as a household uses over nine years. This is a massive problem, and it’s dragging down the movement. When Discord’s founder hinted that Discord is working on NFTs in a recent tweet, there was a sharp backlash. Most of the backlash centered around environmental concerns.
Migration from proof of work to proof of stake (you can read about the differences here) should help crypto’s environmental impact, but fixing this is key to mainstream adoption. Gen Z cares about sustainability—in fashion, in capitalism, in crypto—and “climate-friendly” is becoming a mandate for success.
Bella McFadden, the Depop reselling sensation, circumvented the fashion gatekeepers to become her own business—all from her bedroom in Canada. She says: “The fashion industry seemed all about knowing the right people. I didn’t think it was possible for me to do that in Ottawa.”
McFadden embodies Gen Z entrepreneurship: 80% of Gen Zs want to be their own boss and 50% want to start their own business. Gen Zs are endlessly reimagining the types of careers they can create. Take my favorite recent example, Miss Excel.
Miss Excel—real name: Kat Norton—has over a million followers on TikTok and Instagram, where she posts content about (you guessed it) Excel. But Norton’s social channels really act as a funnel for her Excel training courses. She earns six figures a day through her courses, all as a one-woman business.
Miss Excel earns six figures a day (Image Source)
“Excel TikTok creator” wasn’t a form of entrepreneurship available 10 years ago. As young people enter the workforce, they’ll embrace and invent new forms of work—work that is self-directed, flexible, and creative, with meaningful financial upside.
Younger people recoil from the path their parents and grandparents followed. One 23-year-old woman put it this way: “There’s this underlying resentment because our parents were able to have a 60/40 stock/bond portfolio and be fine and retire with no worries at all. But that’s not the case for this generation.” We see rejection of past norms in the shift away from credit toward debit, in the 50% of Gen Zs investing in crypto, in the rise of freelancing. (One wild stat: more than a third of Millennial millionaires have at least half their wealth in crypto and about half own NFTs.)
Gen Zs won’t wait for a promotion; they’ll become their own bosses. As with much of Gen Z culture, Lil Nas X is the best example. Last summer, I wrote Lil Nas X Is Gen Z’s Defining Icon to chronicle how a kid from Georgia bought a $30 beat online and turned it into the longest-running #1 hit in Billboard Hot 100 history. While traditional artists rose to fame top-down, Lil Nas X rose bottom-up; he manifested his own success. Lil Nas X embodies his generation: children of the internet, redefining entrepreneurship and hustling their way to success.
Lil Nas X makes heads turn at Met Gala 2021 in Versace ensemble | Fashion Trends - Hindustan Times
In 1994, the economist Paul Krugman wrote:
The growth of the Internet will slow drastically, as the flaw in “Metcalfe’s law”—which states that the number of potential connections in a network is proportional to the square of the number of participants—becomes apparent: most people have nothing to say to each other! By 2005 or so, it will become clear that the Internet’s impact on the economy has been no greater than the fax machine’s.”
Yikes. That…didn’t age well. It turns out that people have a lot to say to each other. In fact, if you could chart the volume of human conversation over time, I’d be surprised if we’re not at the highest point in history: never has it been easier to text your friend while chatting on the phone with your mom, all while writing an email in the background and casually perusing Twitter.
Everything is becoming social. Take commerce. This is Li Jiaqi, better known as China’s “Lipstick King”. He’s at the forefront of China’s livestream shopping boom, a $350B industry growing 60% to $550B next year. The Lipstick King makes commerce social, chatting endlessly with viewers during marathon livestream sessions.
Li Jiaqi, the Lipstick King, sold $1.7B of product during one 12-hour livestream
In October, he sold $1.7 billion worth of product during a single 12-hour livestream; 250 million people tuned in. That isn’t Li Jiaqi’s first time making headlines: he once tried on 380 lipsticks during a 7-hour livestream, and then sold 15,000 lipsticks in just five minutes.
Social commerce is more advanced in China than in the West, with companies like Pinduoduo gamifying shopping. But slowly, the West is becoming more social: YouTube just held its livestreaming event Holiday Stream and Shop, corralling big names like MrBeast and Gordon Ramsay to host QVC-style shopping events. In Latin America, Facily (“Pinduoduo for LatAm”) is injecting social into commerce.
Social is bleeding into categories beyond commerce. Lines separating gaming and social networking have long been blurred. Content is becoming social, with live tweeting and Netflix parties with friends and Bilibili-style bullet commentary. Even finance is social: Commonstock lets you share your trades and peruse your friend’s portfolio. Speaking about the meme stock phenomenon of 2021 (stocks like GameStop and AMC), one woman said:
I say the C in AMC stands for community, because I think that’s what [the frenzy] is about. Post-pandemic, I think there’s a sense of loneliness. People are finding community within the stock market, in the Discord servers, in Reddit. People are just craving community because we don’t have that in the same way that we used to.
Gen Z grew up online. They don’t know a world without constant online communication—notifications and texts and emails and DMs. That social inclination—that ease of passive and endless conversation—is invading every sector. We’re social animals, and the internet magnifies our needs and wants. Everything is becoming social.
When I think of Gen Z, I think of Bella McFadden and Miss Excel and the Lipstick King. I think of young people pushing us toward a more sustainable, social, and self-realized future. Earlier this year, I wrote that Gen Zs trade Millennial idealism for Gen Z practicality. A report from Facebook Meta frames this as “practical idealism.”
That report is an analysis of “Young Adults” that Meta conducted back in May, recently made public and shared with Congress. It’s an interesting read (here’s the PDF), with the main takeaway being: kids don’t care about Facebook. Only 40% of 13- to 17-year-olds even have a Facebook account, and most abhor it.
But the report did emphasize many of the characteristics demonstrated by everyone from Olivia Rodrigo, to Lil Nas X, to Emma Chamberlain. Young people, Meta found, “gravitate toward public figures and emerging creators” and “crave interest-based communities.”
As one slide showed, young adults are authentic and practical, values-first and morally-anchored.
We see this in sustainability, in entrepreneurship, in socialization. Each of those three is a horizontal throughline, not a vertical trend; each will ripple across everything from commerce to gaming to finance. It’s becoming Gen Z’s world, and we’re all just living in it.
Sources & Additional Reading
If you’re interested, Unicode had some fascinating data on the relative popularity of emojis. It’s broken down by category and you can read it here. For instance, here’s data for the “Objects” category (left = more popular):
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