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- The youngest millennials and Gen Z are divided by the fact that Gen Z does not remember 9/11, according to an expert on millennials.
- Millennials and Gen Z are also separated by differences defined by technology and mobile adoption — Gen Z doesn’t know a world without either.
- The aftermath of 9/11 created two generations with different financial habits. They are also influenced by how they experienced the Great Recession.
There are several differences between millennials and Gen Z, but they all begin with the key event dividing them: 9/11.
"This is our ‘Where were you when …?’ moment, similar to baby boomers and the JFK assassination," Jason Dorsey, a consultant, researcher of millennials, and president of CGK, told Business Insider. For a generation-defining moment to stick, he said, it must create a deep emotional connection, often associated with fear and uncertainty about the future.
"We were able to see that in order for 9/11 to be a generation-defining moment you had to remember it, feel the emotion of it, and the uncertainty of what was going to happen next," Dorsey said, adding that Gen Z is too young to remember 9/11 — most of the generation wasn’t even born yet.
"Those born from 1996 on do not remember 9/11, and certainly not in the way those even two or three years older do," he said. "Other than the defining moment, everything else tends to be more trend-like and you can see more of a path of continued change from millennials to Gen Z, including technology, mobile adoption, etc."
Ongoing research, he said, will help them discover if, when, or how these continued changes affect a generation that has grown up with these things since birth, rather than being introduced to them.
But not knowing a world without technology isn’t the only difference setting Gen Z apart from millennials — Gen Z is also more social justice oriented, less brand conscious, and more connected to global interests and culture than millennials, reported Business Insider’s Rachel Premack, who interviewed 100 Gen Zs.
"However, it is 9/11 that is the defining and dividing event," Dorsey said. "Either you remember it and all the emotion that goes with it or you don’t, and if you don’t, then you’re in Gen Z."
9/11 and The Great Recession shaped Gen Z’s practical money habits
In dividing two generations, the aftermath of 9/11 created two groups with varying financial habits.
Its aftermath showed the uncertainty and fragility of the world, Dorsey said. "This, in combination with Gen X as parents and The Great Recession, [is] what we believe to be shaping Gen Z’s very practical view of money," he said. "Our research into this generation shows they are much more conservative with their spending and many are trying to graduate college with as little debt as possible."
Many Gen Zs expressed to Premack that they’re worried about college debt, which is affecting where they’re choosing to go to college. "Why sink yourself into exorbitant amounts of debt when you can learn everything online or learn a specific subject matter at a fraction of the price?" Tiffany Zhong, a Gen-Zer who dropped out of University of California, Berkeley, to become a venture capitalist, told her.
Almost 10% of teens said the key issue their generation will have to face relates to the economy and debt, according to a Business Insider survey on Gen Z.
That might be because the Great Recession marked Gen Z’s childhood — the oldest were around 11 years old when the recession hit, Premack reported. By watching it unfold and observing its long-term effects on millennials, Gen Z became mindful of financial issues.
As teenagers, they’re already saving money for "emergency funds" via mobile apps, choosing thrift store over malls, and in one CGK study, 12% said they were already saving for retirement, according to Dorsey.
Millennials are taking longer to build wealth than Gen Z
Unlike Gen Z, older millennials grew up during a healthy economy, only to enter the job market as the recession hit. They had to delay traditional markers of adulthood, like marriage and children, and building wealth — they weren’t able to save or accumulate the amount of wealth they anticipated, especially if they didn’t move to markets where job prospects were better or wages were enough to allow for savings, Dorsey previously told Business Insider.
Younger millennials experienced the recovery period and were able to learn from the older millennials who bore the brunt of the recession, according to Dorsey. This has made them risk-averse and practical with money, from saving for emergencies to contributing to a retirement account, he said.
While Gen Z and millennials share this practical approach to money, Gen Z is simply beating millennials to the same landmarks: They’re building wealth and financially preparing for the future earlier.
Ultimately, while many millennials are playing catch-up with their finances, Gen Z is increasingly trying to get ahead of the game.
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