Our identity is constantly evolving. Its formation is a process that starts in infancy and culminates when we die. While there is no universal roadmap for how our identity is shaped, there are certain agreed-upon pit stops and mile markers along the way. These key factors include every- thing from a person’s stage of development (childhood, adolescence, adulthood) to their specific social structures (ethnicity, religion, economic class), though few are as influential—or hotly debated—as gender.
If it seems like the way we talk about gender and sexuality has changed a lot in the last five years, it’s for good reason. As Gen Z (defined here as anyone born between 1996 and 2011) has entered adolescence, the national conversation around gender identity and sexual fluidity has shifted from taboo to openly encouraged, especially online. The shift can already be seen in our language, too. Identifiers like a gender, bigender, gender-fluid, gender-queer, and pansexual have become culturally pervasive, indicating a widespread need to identify—and accept —a growing collective of gender-nonconforming individuals.
On the political front, we’ve passed national laws to protect same-sex marriage and rallied around state legislation to ensure that people who identify as transgender have safe access to public restrooms. Beyond politics, mainstream consumer culture is also feeling the impact. In the last 12 months alone, brands like Gap, Target, and Abercrombie & Fitch have started rolling out entire lines of unisex products. Meanwhile many refer to Gen Z as “The Gender Neutral Generation.”
Supporting statistics show that the transgender population in America has doubled in size since 2011, while the number of young people who identify as bisexual has risen by 45%. A recent study,conducted by J. Walter Thompson Innovation Group, claims that 56% of 13-to- 20-year-olds say they know someone who goes by gender neutral pronouns such as “they,” “them,” or “ze,” compared to 43% of people in the 28 to 34-year-old age group. The same study found that young people believe (81% strongly, in fact)that gender does not define a person the way it used to.
So Why the Shift?
In many ways, Gen Zs’ desire to move away from traditional gender labeling is in line with their larger world view. As a group, they place more value on individuality, agency, and identity than any other generation. They also want choice and they understand the importance of experience. Studies have shown that this desire to stand out and control their own destiny has placed them in direct opposition with everything from organized religion to a strong national identity. Instead, they rally behind issues like racial equality, gender equality, and sexual orientation equality.
Social media has also played a massive part in changing the way young people think about their gender and sexual preferences. As the first digitally native generation, Gen Zs have grown up using the internet to research, connect, and form communities. In knowing how and where to interact, they’ve built safe spaces for conversation around all types of identity issues.
“I think the internet plays the greatest role in the self-discovery process today,” said Tyler Ford, an a gender writer with more than 130,000 social media followers, in an interview with Vice. “Young people have more access to information and to other people than ever before. Marginalized folks are building communities and platforms online and are talking about their everyday experiences on public forums. I can’t tell you how many times someone has written some- thing and I think, Oh my God, that’s a real thing? That’s not just me? There’s a name for this?”
But teens aren’t the only ones exploring gender issues online. Across the web, parents are discussing and debating how to raise their children in gender-norm-free environments. Last year, Forbes published a piece titled, ‘10 Science-Backed Tips For Bringing Up Your Child Gender Neutral,’ which urged parents to point out sexism to their kids, and “remember that toys do not have gender.” The hope, researchers say, is to give children space to find themselves and create their own identity, rather than ascribing one to them. While the issue is still hotly debated in the U.S., the concept of gender-free child rearing is already well established in Sweden, where they recently added the gender-neutral personal pronoun “hen” to their vocabulary.
For marketers, it’s a change that can feel both daunting and freeing. Since the dawn of advertising, brands have meticulously tailored their messages by gender. In the 50’s, that meant selling cigarettes to men through pictures of rugged spokesmodels in cowboy hats. When television took over, advertisers aired their female-focused TV spots in the middle of the day, when stay-at-home moms were, at least in theory, tuned in. Step into a children’s clothing store and you’ll see first-hand how brands model product based on gender roles: boys’ outfits are emblazoned with trucks, firefighters, and monsters, girls get ballerinas, princesses, and flowers.
Though we’re still in the early stages of the so-called “gender revolution,” it’s imperative that brands recognize its presence and react sensitively. Case in point: Vogue’s July 2017 issue,which caught the publication a fair share of flack after it placed model Gigi Hadid and singer Zayn Malik at the center of a conversation about gender fluidity, despite the fact that neither identified as such.
In short, marketers looking to win over Gen Z need to
first understand the language being wielded around
gender issues. And if they have questions, they should
feel encouraged to ask. No longer can brands blatantly
target any group based on gender. Instead, brand messaging needs to feel inclusive, accepting, and approachable. Most importantly, though, marketers should tread
lightly, listen intently, and be willing to admit ignorance.
In a landscape that’s fastly evolving, gender is no longer
as black and white — or pink and blue — as it once was.