Technology, diversity, climate change… the advances and challenges we’ve encountered have molded Gen Z. They’re activists, inclusivists, and optimists. They were born in extraordinary times and they have a voice and a force that’s united, unprecedented, and still unacknowledged. In her new book, Generation We, cultural and generational consultant, AnneMarie Hayek sheds light on a generation of created activists and how their influence will transform our lives. From ideas and conscious capitalism and non-binary identifications to political boundaries and the superpower of diversity.

AnneMarie explains how Gen Z thinks and why we should care. This is a coming-of-age story for an entire generation and one that will help us transition, recreate, and progress. Take a peek into the future of this essential examination of one generation and its potential impact on the world.

Drew Appelbaum: Hey, listeners. My name is Drew Appelbaum and I’m excited to be here today with AnneMarie Hayek, author of Generation We: The Power and Promise of Gen Z. AnneMarie, thank you for joining, welcome to The Author Hour Podcast.

AnneMarie Hayek: Thank you! I’m so happy we’re talking about the book with you, Drew.

Drew Appelbaum: Let’s kick this off, I’m excited! Can you give us a rundown of your professional background?

AnneMarie Hayek: Yeah! I would say, for me, my personal and professional background is all merged because I have always tried to follow my intellectual interest and passions. It’s funny, I look back now and I realize, really, my whole life— from the time I was really young— that I have really just been a student of humanity.

I actually talk about it in the book a little bit that when I was really young and learned to read, I would obsessively read my parent’s encyclopedia and would just skip to all the country sections because I was always so, just, compelled to understand how people live and how they think. Just kind of obsessed with the idea that we’re all human but we live in different places and we have different experiences and generations are part of that and our different generations but yet, there’s so much that unites us as humans. 

I’ve really always been a student of humanity and this book is an extension of that too. But I spent my 20s out of undergrad working with multinational companies that were expanding all over the world. I’ve lived on four continents and did work across more than 50 countries, which was so fascinating, and studied how people live and how they think— the things I’ve been fascinated with since I was a child. I really worked, as I would say, a mash-up of a cultural anthropologist and a business strategist for a lot of the world’s largest companies and feel really fortunate.

I literally got to walk with people in their lives around the world. Did that until my early 30s and then just decided I want to continue to learn and do more. So, I went back to Chicago and did a graduate degree, technically in international economics but again— I look back on it now— and it was really about studying the human transitions.

It was really how economics evolve. How with economic and political transitions, how they impact our cultural kind of trajectories, our social-cultural trajectories. Then after I left the University of Chicago, I founded Global Mosaic, my first company, which I call a cultural consultancy. I have been running that for 19 years and we work with all kinds of entities to help them understand cultural trends and movements.

What’s happening in our world? What’s happening in their categories? And have worked with, again, everything from big companies to startups to non-profits, to presidential candidates who want to understand: What is happening in our culture? How are things evolving? What do we need to understand? How do we talk to people? What do people want?

Generations are certainly a part of that so, we’ve done a lot of work in understanding generations and how they impact our larger arc? I mean, generations are imperfect for sure, but they’re really instructive in helping us understand cohorts of people and where we’ve come from, and where we’re going.

As part of that, in the last couple of years, started working specifically with Gen Z and was so in awe, really, of the understanding and savvy and vision and ideas that these young people at this particular point in time. They just felt absolutely compelled, almost like it wasn’t a choice, but absolutely compelled to write a book, sharing what I was hearing and what I was learning and what I was seeing about Gen Z. That’s really what’s taken me to this point now and talking about this.

Drew Appelbaum: Why was now the time to share these stories in the book? You’ve had a long storied career— was there an “aha moment” recently, something inspiring? Did a bunch of people come up to you and said, “Hey AnneMarie, you need to write this down.”

Coming Of Age

AnneMarie Hayek: I feel like it’s a couple of things. It’s probably – it’s really probably about three things that are all kind of converging at this moment, right? I think, here we sit in the summer of 2021 and we all look back at the last year with COVID and I think if we’re all, to be honest, we see 2020 as a big inflection point, right? I think we know that we’re not going back to everything that was before.

Things are never going to be quite the same. The question is really, where are we going? That’s number one. We’re sitting here at this inflection point, on the cusp of change. I think Z’s are going to be a huge part of that trajectory. So, the second thing is, this generation is just coming of age.

I feel like if we think back about three years, most people probably hadn’t really heard about Gen Z. I mean, maybe they parented Gen Z. Maybe they thought about them as kids but in the way that we’re really thinking about the power of Gen Z, I feel like they’ve really emerged just in the last three years and they’ve gone from not even being talked about to being one of the most dominant generations right now and so many of our current issues of our time— it was three years ago, 2018, that was the Parkland shootings in Florida, right?

That was Emma Gonzales standing up and calling BS on why we weren’t protecting our kids from gun violence and then within a year, there was Greta Thunberg and there were the climate strikes, right? Then last summer, a year later, 2020, Black Lives Matter where we had 77% at the end of last summer, Gen Z saying they had participated in some type of Black Lives Matter march or rally or whatever it was, right?

Down to the inauguration! Think about Biden’s inauguration, right? Who is the standout at Biden’s Inauguration in January? Who stood up in that beautiful yellow dress or coat? It was Amanda Gorman. It was a 23-year-old who stole the show, I would say.

So, we have this inflection point coming out of COVID in 2020. We have this generation, Generation Z coming of age and suddenly involved and vocal in all of these big issues. And I would say, the third thing is that we are at this point where the most critical issues of our time— we’re at a point where we need to make some decisions, right? For climate, this is the decade, you talk to anybody who is involved in climate, this is the decade.

We need to get our carbon emissions under control, we need to slow the trajectory of warming, this decade. Racial Justice, BLM, right? It really has been ignited to the point that we haven’t seen since the civil rights movement in the 60s. I think it’s probably fair to say that we’re coming out of the most divisive political scene maybe since even the civil war. You know, we’re living through a gender revolution, we’ve just lived through the first global pandemic since the Spanish Flu a hundred years ago, so that alone probably makes this the most disruptive year since at least World War II. And Z’s are inserting themselves at the center of all this so, I just feel like it’s a perfect storm. 

We’re suddenly seeing them in the streets. We’re seeing Z’s testifying before Congress. Z’s are suing the US government for failing to protect their right to a healthy environment- they are in it. They are in it everywhere. It’s time that we really tell their story and that we tell their story beyond what has been told so far.

I feel like there’s a false narrative that exists around Gen Z and I’m happy to talk more about what that is but, I feel that the media really only focuses on a couple of things and I think in general, we tend to trivialize youth and not giving them as much credit as they deserve. I wanted to correct that false narrative. 

This book really is the product of work that I’ve done over the last couple of years in literally doing research amongst thousands of Z’s across the US, and interviewing hundreds and hundreds of Z’s across all different kinds of issues, and I wanted to share what I was learning. And I think this is the time. 

Personally, we’ve all lived through a lot in the last, especially a year, year-and-a-half of COVID, you know? I think if we’re all being really honest, we’ve seen that it’s exposed a lot of our flaws, right? There’s a lot in the world that isn’t working. A lot of our systems are broken, they’re not working for huge portions of our population. This is a pivot point right now. This is an opportunity! For us to have new ideas, and consider new approaches, and enact some collective healing… and the work that I’ve done with Z’s has really demonstrated to me that damn, they’re young.

They’re between the ages of 10 and 23 but they’ve got some perspectives. They’ve got some savvy. They’ve got some ideas that we all really should be considering and listening to. They’re voices that we should be hearing.

Gen Z Is the Most Unified Generation That We Have Because They Are Connected

Drew Appelbaum: Now, when you said you were going to sit down and write this book, a lot of times, authors will have the idea of the book in their head but just during the writing process by digging deeper into some of the subjects, they come to some major breakthroughs and learnings. Did you have any of these major breakthroughs or learnings along your writing journey, maybe by doing some research?

AnneMarie Hayek: Yeah, for sure! I mean, along the entire way— and I’ll say that for me, I very much see my role as a student of humanity— for my lifetime and all the work that I’ve done, I think that I have a unique perspective and that I’m able to see and recognize when there are significant trajectories, significant movements happening, significant change happening. I can bring that to that for sure.

But, I really feel like in this book, my role is really to elevate the voice of Gen Z. I’ve always been a student of humanity. I continue to be a student as I was writing this book. I continue to learn about Gen Z, and from Gen Z about what’s possible.

I learned a lot. Two things I would say are the biggest things that I would note. One is, again, just really how off our understanding of Gen Z is. How much our media has trivialized this generation. I feel like the media loves to talk about how Gen Z’s are social media obsessed. You go to Google images and you type in Gen Z, you will get pages and pages of Gen Z’s staring at their phones.

We trivialize them that way and just assume that their social media usage is all about dance videos and sharing funny memes and things like that. Or, the media loves to talk about their cancel culture, how they’re always canceling everybody and that they’re always angry. Because we do see them in the streets and we do— there was the “okay boomer” exchanges that happened, right?

I mean, there is anger there and they deserve to be angry in many ways! If we were growing up, Drew, today in a world where huge swaths of our country were burning because of global warming… they’ve lived through the last, in their young years, the six hottest years on record.

If we had grown up in a world where schools weren’t safe, concerts weren’t safe, movie theaters weren’t safe, we would be angry too. I mean, Emma Gonzales has a right to stand up and call BS and Greta has the right to stand up and say, “You’ve stolen our childhood”. So, yes, they do have a right to be frustrated, for sure, and to be angry. But there’s so much more than that. They’re so well-informed. 

In terms of their media usage; I love to talk about their media usage because, again, we think about them as using their media for all of their social media for all these trivial things when in fact, they are the most connected generation. The name of my book, Generation We, really is based on the idea that they are the most unified connected generation that we have.

Because none of us, even millennials— I mean, millennials— the iPhone didn’t come out until millennials were already in college. So, even millennials didn’t have this level of connectivity during their formative years. They are so connected. The way that I actually love to think about their connectivity, do you remember the movie Avatar? With the blue people?

The Na’vi people, I don’t know if I’m pronouncing it right, Na’vi people. Do you remember how they would connect into that big kind of tree in the evenings? It kind of created this shared consciousness. I think about Z’s in the way that they used their devices, because they’re not just devices. They are literally like a connector to this shared consciousness. They’re sharing their stories, they have access 24/7 to everything happening to the world and so they are so incredibly informed.

I think older generations will say, “Well, they’re 16, they’re 17, they’re 18.” Again, the oldest are 23, turning 24 this year. They don’t have a lot of lived experience. How can they understand the complexity of our climate situation or the complexities of racial justice? But, even though they have less shared experience because they are on and they’re connected to each other and they’re sharing their stories all the time, through that shared storytelling, I think they actually have a greater perspective than most of us that are older.

In fact, you look at an app like TikTok for example. Us older generations, we tend to be on Facebook or maybe we’re on Instagram, right? For Gen Z, it’s TikTok. TikTok is the cultural epicenter of Z’s. The way that that algorithm works is instead of when you sign on, instead of just seeing your friends— like we see on Facebook or Instagram or whoever we follow, that just reinforces whatever our eco-chamber is— Z’s get on TikTok. And the way that algorithm works is you land at a “For You” page which is basically crowdsourcing whatever videos are getting the most likes.

Because most of TikTok are Z’s, they are every morning, opening up TikTok and they’re seeing stories of young people their age around the world, sharing their personal stories. And it’s unlike Instagram where it’s patinated and glossy, it’s real and it’s raw and there isn’t makeup and there aren’t filters.

They might open up their TikTok one morning and there might be a short video of a young, black youth from Chicago and some encounter he had with the police. It might be a plus-sized youth going shopping and how that feels, how the fashion industry makes them feel. It might be a trans youth who is sharing some experience of what it’s like to be trans in the world today. I mean, the amount of storytelling that happens, the diversity of their exposure via their constant connection to this digital epicenter…Drew, we can’t even imagine that, right? 

I feel like the equivalent for us would have been; imagine when you were growing up. If every morning you came down to the breakfast table and there were 10 strangers sitting around your breakfast table. From very different lived experiences, different races, ethnicities, gender identity, whatever it might be, who are just there to tell you their personal story that morning while you had your breakfast.

That’s essentially what Z’s do every morning and the way that they use digital media. They have so much perspective and they have so much knowledge and they are super solutions-oriented. They are so much different than the media makes them out to be.

I also talk a lot about, again, the book, Generation We, the other thing I would say is just really how unified they are and how collaborative they are and how they operate as a collective. In the book, I talk a little bit about the new math. I call it the new math of inclusivity, which is two fractions, one half and one third. One-half of Gen Z are non-white which is amazing. When you think about boomers, 82% of boomers are white.

This is incredible that we have about half of the population of Gen Z, white, and everybody else? Non-white. One-third identifies as non-binary, as outside the binary of male or female. Somewhere else on the spectrum.

So, even within their generation, they represent so much diversity of perspectives and it makes them inherently inclusive because there is really no us-versus-them or other as there has been in previous generations or majority in minority. It is very much a unified generation with so much shared empathy in such a collective nature and that’s been incredible. 

The last thing I’ll just say about that really quickly, is as I said, we’ve done it over the last year and a half, we have done so much research across the US. With Z’s in blue states and red states, and urban areas and rural areas, and of course, made sure our sample sizes were always inclusive of all different kinds of racial and ethnic identities and gender identities. What was so fascinating is whenever we ask for perspectives on anything; on issues, on our systems, on the future, on their ideas, we would look at the data and we would slice and dice it. 

What we found over and over and over again is there was no statistically significant difference between Z’s live in a red state or blue state or rural state or a city and that’s so unlike older generations. They’re very much defined by geography; when we look at polling, politics, etc. And it’s because, for Z’s, they’re not limited to their geography. Their worldview is not being created as much around the dinner table or the people that they interact with in real life every day. 

It is this larger perspective. It’s these larger stories. It’s everything that they have access to 24/7 digitally. So, to me, that’s one of the most exciting outputs of all our research. We have a generation that truly believes there’s more that unites them than divides them and that is free from a lot of the geographical divisions— again, between say red and blue state or urban-rural areas— that we see and we know exists with older generations. That’s a big exciting learning. 

Drew Appelbaum: Yeah, I mean what do you think that the overall big impact that you are projecting that the generation will have on the modern-day society? 

AnneMarie Hayek: I think it’s going to be in a number of areas. Actually, the book is divided into two parts and the first part is the roots of their power. It talks about the incredible diversity and inclusivity. It talks about how they’re an incredibly creative generation because the way they grew up creating all the time— even if you think about something like Minecraft— Even the video games they played were all about creation. About how they’re the most activist generation we have certainly seen since the 60s…

The areas that they’re most passionate about right now are climate, racial justice, gender equality, and also gun regulation, for sure. Those are things that they’re incredibly passionate about and I think that we’re already seeing an impact change in all of those areas. But, we will continue to see that. In climate for example— the Z’s really heated up their involvement with climate in 2019 with Greta Thunberg and then the climate strikes. But if you look, the three largest climate organizations in the US— those movements, that would be Zero Hour, Fridays for Future, and Sunrise— were all started by youth. 

They were all started by Z’s or slightly older than Z’s and you think about the impact. Those climate strikes in 2019 where they engaged more than seven million people around the world and had a direct impact on discussions around the Green New Deal, around really creating a climate mandate for Biden, for our government moving forward. They have really elevated the conversation so that it cannot be ignored around climate anymore.

We see them leading a gender revolution. I think some of us that are older either joke or sometimes worry that we’re going to mess up pronouns, right? The whole pronoun thing though, she/her, he/him, they/them, sometimes she/they, right? It can get complicated. But it goes so much further than pronouns. Because Z’s really believe that because they’re so diverse— as I explained, one-third don’t even identify on the gender binary. You know, half of them are non-white—They really believe that everyone should be able to create their own identity. 

Nobody should be defined or limited by anything that they show up on the planet with, right? Just because they show up with certain genitalia does not mean that you need to act or look a certain way or dress a certain way or have a certain gender identity or love a certain kind of person. And the same really is true for race and ethnicity, which is why they are working and have continued to keep the Black Lives Matterniche racial justice movements alive. 

When you think about how they have this collective empathy really that has been created through the shared storytelling online, it’s really compelling because only 14% of Gen Z— so even though half of Gen Z is non-white, only 14% of Gen Z is actually black. But more than 90% of Gen Z supports Black Lives Matter. And as I said, at the end of last summer, 77% of them are actually actively participated in something. 

Same thing if you think about the LGBTQ+ community, that 16% of Gen Z identifies LGBTQ+ but 88% absolutely support equal rights for LGBTQ+. So, there is going to continue to be so much work that they are going to lead and do around the areas of gender equity, racial, ethnic equity, climate, and gun regulation. Those are really their biggies and we see them showing up. We saw them. We had record numbers of youth showing up in the 2020 presidential election. 

Youth typically has been criticized for not showing up. The youth vote has been as low as 25% sometimes for previous elections but 56% of youth showed up in the 2020 election. They are showing up. They’re voting. They’re taking to the streets. They’re really engaging every and all tactics possible to really activate change in these areas. 

Drew Appelbaum: You know, you touched on it a bit earlier but I love to bring it up again because some companies are really getting on board with this. Can you talk about conscious capitalism and how these Gen Z are practicing it? 

AnneMarie Hayek: Yeah, absolutely. It’s a great topic, I love to talk about this. I think we have to take a step back for a moment because what’s actually really interesting— and we joked a little bit earlier about the whole “Okay Boomer” memes from about a year ago— but the reason that I want to go back to that is because Boomers are really the last really dominant generation if we think about it.

Boomers are called Boomers because their birth year begins in 1946, the year after World War II, The Boom, the baby boom. That’s their name, boomers. And boomers are people born between ’46 and ’64, and again, classifying people via generation is definitely an imperfect science. But people do have a shared experience growing up. Whatever is happening in the world that at the time, Boomers, because they were growing up during the largest really economic expansion of our time, what really worked for them is a very individualistic kind of approach to the American dream.

If you ask Boomers for their definition of the American dream, most of them will tell you that definition was, “I, myself, have a right to work hard, to achieve success, to work toward owning a home, maybe a couple of cars, having a family, saving for retirement, having a nice retirement…” So, we’re really coming off of, really since ‘46 and this economic boom. The boomers have created a system— and this includes capitalism. It also includes our approach to politics, for example— it was more based on individualism.

An individual success. What I want and what I achieve and how I achieve that. The challenge now for young people— and this is why I think Z’s are so fascinating when we actually listen to them because they actually have a clear view of our systems. They’re just coming on the scene now and they’re looking around and they’re saying, “Well wow, it looks to us like we’ve never had” or “It’s been a long time since we’ve had these levels of economic inequality.”

“Wow, it looks to us like our approach to capitalism has really damaged the earth. It looks like we’ve extracted a lot of resources and we haven’t really assessed their true value. When we buy a hamburger, we haven’t really assessed the true value of what raising cows at a corporate farm had done to our environment,” for example. “Or extracting whatever resources we needed to produce these products and then have them produced using questionable labor in a developing country somewhere.”

Z’s look at this really honestly and I think more clearly than the rest of us do and they see the real value of things. They also really believe— and this is where conscious capitalism comes in— is [that they are] really conscious of the whole ecosystem. What goes into making something? Where are those resources coming from? Who is producing this thing? What impact does it have on our world? And Z’s, they are highly conscious as they think about the choices that they’re making. 

They really think about every dollar that they spend is a vote on how our planet is used and how people are treated and how animals are treated. So, it’s very interesting because if you talk to Z’s, you know they are the ones that are online and they’re looking to see where things are made, how things are made, what are companies’ track record is on something. One of the industries we talk a lot about in the book, which is fascinating, is how fashion is evolving because fashion is one of the biggest contributors to environmental degradation, certainly unfair labor practices, harmful labor practices, and Z’s are really aware of that. 

I will talk to Z’s and I will hear 13-year-olds saying— which isn’t to say that they won’t always buy something that they love because they’re 13 and they want to look cute in their social media post! They will sometimes buy fast fashion but they will say, “You know, I feel really guilty that I bought that shirt. It’s really cute but I know that it was made by X company and I know that they don’t treat their workers well and I know that they’re one of the largest contributors to pollution in this or that place but what I’m going to do is I’m going to thrift it when I’m finished with it, so that will help.” 

They are really making choices, they’re so aware of every choice that they make even though they have limited money and it doesn’t mean that they always make the perfect decision. They’re really pushing companies to do things differently and companies need to listen to this. For example, the fashion space, they’ve really driven the growth of this whole thrift industry as well over the last couple of years.

Because that is a really eco way to be able to create a more circular economy where things don’t just go into a landfill but when I am finished using them, I sell them or I pass them along, somebody else uses them. Now, it’s the whole lifecycle, the circular lifecycle of an item. There are some really significant changes. Retail was down last year. Fashion, retail was down— of course, part of that is COVID, for sure. Thrifting and second-hand is on a tear and this is driven by Gen Z.

They have a lot of power and will have increasing power as time goes on, obviously, as they come into earning their own money, having more consumer power. 

Drew Appelbaum: Well, AnneMarie, we just touched on the surface of the book here but I just want to say that writing a book that will really educate the world on our next generation is no small feat, so congratulations on being published!

AnneMarie Hayek: Thank you!

Don’t Be Afraid to Kick Up Dirt and Dust!

Drew Appelbaum: I do have one question left, it is the hot seat question. If readers could take away only one thing from the book, what would you want it to be? 

AnneMarie Hayek: The reason I wrote the book is because I wanted to share what I saw. I wanted to share what Z’s were telling me around how they view the world and their vision for what’s possible. That’s what I would hope for people to take away is a broadened perspective, really inspired by how Z’s see what’s possible for us. Again, I think as older generations, we think that we see things clearly but I think sometimes we don’t realize how conditioned we’ve already become.

Z’s have told me that they see us older generations— you remember the analogy with the frog in the pot of water? That doesn’t know that the water is boiling, I don’t know if you know that analogy— and Z’s really look at us that way, at older generations like we’re frogs in this pot of water that’s slowly heating up and coming to a boil. As our climate gets to a point of greater degradation, as our politics become more indecisive, et cetera, et cetera. 

Z’s are saying, “Jump out of the pot. We have a better way, listen to us.” And they are frustrated that we’re not listening and we’re not giving them credit. My dream really for this whole book is that it creates a movement. As we talked about, Z’s really do see our shared humanity and that there’s more that connects than divides us. They believe our diversity is our superpower as a country and my dream is that more people listen to them and to each other and engage and believe in the potential for positive change. 

You know, Z’s are not afraid to kick up dust and dirt, that’s why we see them calling BS. We see them in the streets protesting. We also need to do that, to not be afraid to kick up dust and dirt. The very, very end of the book, the very last thing that I write is that we all get to start writing the sequel to my book right now! Going back to how we started this conversation, if we’re at an inflection point right now, in 2020, exposed our flaws but it also raised our collective consciousness!

We’re at this point where we all get to decide what this next decade looks like. We all get to decide how we behave. When we look back at this juncture, in this larger trajectory of our shared humanity, what do we want to see? What do we want to see that we did right now? There are three billion Z’s in the world and there are 5 billion of the rest of us. So what happened if the 5 billion rest of us really listened to these three billion Z’s and what happened if we could actually work together?

To your point, what power could capitalism have to improve the world? What kind of change could we enact in our climate projection? There is so much opportunity, so that’s my hope. That’s my wish. I hope that it increases perspectives and gets people talking about what’s possible. 

Drew Appelbaum: Well, AnneMarie, this has been a pleasure and I’m really excited for people to check out the book. Everyone, the book is called, Generation We, and you could find it on Amazon. AnneMarie, besides checking out the book, where can people connect with you? 

AnneMarie Hayek: Probably the best, of course, I’m on LinkedIn, I’m on social but if you’d like to read more about the book and about the movement that’s being created around this, go to my website, AnneMarieHayek.com and that’s probably the best place to start from there. I’d love to engage with anyone who’d like to continue the conversation!

Drew Appelbaum: Wonderful. Well, AnneMarie, thank you so much for taking some time out and coming on the show today, and best of luck with your new book. 

AnneMarie Hayek: Thank you, Drew! So fun to talk to you! I really appreciate it!