Gen Z Identity is Contextual. For them, having one static “self” simply doesn’t make sense for the ever-altering, instantaneous, always-connected world in which they live. Where the world says adapt or die, Gen Z has responded by becoming identity shifters like we’ve never seen.

They can’t be summed up in a tidy statistic. Understanding who they are requires a qualitative, holistic, inclusive exploration (like this one).

Why We Made This Report

RPA is one of the largest independent advertising agencies in America. We help companies significantly grow their business by connecting their brands with people.

When we looked to understand Gen Z, we discovered a need for a more human portrait of this next generation—one not limited to numbers and stats bereft of depth. What distinguishes this study is our holistic approach, from analyzing emojis used on Tinder profiles to interviewing Bible-study teachers. This report also contains several Gen Z-led pieces, providing a voice to this generation.

A year in the making, the Identity Shifters report reflects the responses of more than 1,090 Gen Z researchers and research participants. This exploration gives a richer representation of the identity of the next gen and how their shifting selves will affect marketers, brands and the world.

Let's shift your perspective on Gen Z.


How Z defines their bonds are uniquely shifted—you choose your family, have friends you’ve never actually met in person, friendships that exist purely as social stats, and romantic partners you never really ‘date.’ Technology has become a third-party in any relationship Z maintains. Playing up or down different parts of their identity isn’t disingenuous, it’s just a natural part of interacting with multiple audiences.


Teens these days are having less long-term girlfriend and boyfriend pairings. They are still dating, but casual relationships are much more common, there is less emphasis on exclusivity.

— Pediatrician in underserved and high immigrant community, Fitchburg, MA


Gen Z is more likely to say they trust social media and influencers when they are looking for answers (52%), even more than people that they actually know — like friends and family (47%)

(multiple select, n=333)

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Z has grown up in a world where acronyms like LGBTQA+ and words like heteronormativity and cisgender are familiar. However, some feel a deep tension between a generational zeitgeist of avoiding labels and passing judgment of any kind, and their own discordant discomfort and beliefs. Gen Z still largely waves the banner of “you do you,” and feel that acceptance and allowing individual choice is paramount.


In Oklahoma focus groups, the Gen Z college student researchers partnered with for this report asked questions about depression, bullying, loneliness, but refused to ask fellow Gen Z students any questions about their feelings around gender, 'for fear of being offensive.'

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I’m part of the LGBT community as a queer man, I’m also originally from Venezuela which makes me a part of latin community as well, I’m also a big fan of video-games and comics and love modeling for art, I’ve done photoshoots for my friend that is a photographer. I think whenever I explore these subcultures I’m getting to know myself even more, so I would say I’m the same person but a better version.

— Guillermo P, 22, Fort Lauderdale FL

35 percent of Gen Z identified themselves as bisexual to some extent, compared to 24 percent of Millennials

(JWT 2016)


With such a keen sense of group dynamics, Z often struggle with their own identity among their varying cohorts—to play up, play down, or push against what is expected of them. Zs are resistant to anyone else labeling them—because others so often get it wrong. With so many different facets to their identities, they see the diversity of who they are as more of a dance and a complicated, ever-changing state.

The hashtag #praisintheasian was made for people to embrace their culture. I use it every now and then to show I am proud of who I am. Many others also use it, in showing how 'the model minority' stereotype doesn't affect who they really are.

— Khushi S., 14, Orlando FL

Who is accepted as the stand-in as the 'every man' has changed. they want a multiplicity to honor the multiplicity of their identity.

— Digital media anthropologist working with LGBTQ and low income Latinx families, Los Angeles

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People are struggling with the pressure to put yourself in a box - 'I'm a mixed race couple', 'I'm genderfluid', etc. - people are asking so many questions about what are you, who are you? They are both empowered to speak out about it and burdened by it.

— Clinical Psychologist, Boston MA

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Gen Z are hyper-sensitive to being situationally correct; they’re attuned to how they will be received by their peers, and go out of their way to avoid criticism. If their beliefs infringe on the beliefs of someone else, they deflect risk of blowback by throwing out a “you do you.” By not injecting their own beliefs into a situation—not “taking it personally,” not having an opinion—Gen Z is able to navigate today’s hyper-polarized landscape more freely.

I think this generation is way more emotional because we take everything so seriously. Chill, it's just a joke, dude.

— Oklahoma high school respondent

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I don't usually go on facebook to share my exact thoughts and opinions and get too deep into myself just because so many people can see it.

— Steven C., 21, Salt Lake City UT


Gen Z shifts their identity between the realness of Snapchat to the feigned perfection of Instagram, aiming to show the side of themselves they want to highlight at that moment. Their identity shifts into a position of power online. They’ve taken note of the keys to success from start-up brands and influencers; social media is a place to start your empire by building your personal brand. While juggling the imperfect self and the personal brand of You isn’t easy, they’re convinced there is a reward to it—status and power and more await.

It's less of a blatant contradiction and more of a massaging of who they are ...these kids are very savvy in manipulating how they present different fronts on different platforms ...they're expert curators in how they present an identity where and who your audience is and what they see.

— Digital media anthropologist, Los Angeles, on this generation's behaviors and attitudes

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Social media makes me feel superior.

— High school respondent, Oklahoma

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Key Takeaways for Marketers

Download the full 80+ page report for additional chapters and takeaways for marketers.

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If you're a marketer and would like to learn more about what this study means for your brand, we'd love to chat. If you’re a press member who would like to get a POV on a particular topic through the lens of Gen-Z, we’d love to chat. And if you’d like to book our team for a conference, keynote or internal presentation, we’d love to chat with you too.

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