At five years old, North West, the famous daughter of Kim Kardashian and Kanye West, has captivated the digital realm with her cross-generational appeal. Without a public Instagram or YouTube channel of her own, she’s too young to fully understand what a digital footprint is. And yet, hers is already wildly popular.
We’ve watched North West grow on Instagram and “Keeping Up With the Kardashians” and magazines — here, she poses for her first solo cover. Her distinct fashion sense belies her age, and lately, so does her eye for makeup.
West, whether she knows it or not, is at the forefront of a generation that is highly connected, engaged with fashion and beauty and individualistic in style. Called Alpha, signifying a new beginning, this age group is unlike any the world has ever seen.
And combined with Gen Z, their slightly older counterparts, their numbers are strong. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2025, people aged 18 and under will comprise 21 percent of the U.S. population. Already, they are significant consumers of beauty: According to NPD, 69 percent of Gen Zers use color cosmetics and 68 percent have a skin-care regimen.
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With numbers like that, Alphas and Gen Z are expected to have a sociocultural and economic impact equal to that of their parents or older siblings, the Millennials.
In terms of age breakdown, Millennials are largely defined to now be between the ages of 23 and 38. The Pew Research Center initially referred to those born starting in 1997 as “post-Millennials,” but the term Generation Z has since been widely adopted. If, like Millennials, Gen Z spans a total of 16 years, that means those who are now between the ages of seven and 22 are Gen Z, with Alpha’s oldest members at just six years old.
Unlike previous generations, Gen Z and Gen Alpha are more fluid than ever, joined by their inherent understanding of technology. Little has been reported on Generation Alpha’s spending power — we’re talking toddlers, after all — but according to Jeff Fromm, partner at research company Barkley, Generation Z accounts for approximately $140 billion in direct spending.
Already, the way that kids interact with technology today is significantly different from Millennials, many of whom are old enough to remember a time when going online was an activity in and of itself — one that may even have included dialing up. Gen Z and Alphas, though, have been plugged in since birth. They’re the first people whose lives are fully integrated with tech. They are fluent in the Internet.
“Gen Z are digital natives,” says Jacob Chang, the 19-year-old director of insights at JUV Consulting, a Gen Z consulting firm that has worked with Unilever. “Since we were born, we’ve constantly been connected and we don’t know a world other than that.”
Millennials and some members of Gen Z witnessed the dawn of social media, but the way in which these two groups interact with Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, etc., is inherently different, Chang says. “Millennials use social media the way it was originally intended,” he says. “They share pictures and keep in touch with their friends, things like that. The way Gen Z uses social media is incredibly identity-driven. It becomes a part of who they are to post their best moments and to see what their friends are up to and to craft the story they want to tell about themselves.”
Whereas Millennials use social media to connect, Generation Z uses it to entertain and be entertained. According to a May 2018 study from Pew Research Center, YouTube, Instagram and Snapchat are the favored social media platforms among teenagers, with 85 percent of teens using YouTube, 72 percent using Instagram and 69 percent on Snapchat.
More recently, TikTok has emerged as a popular app among kids and teens. Formerly known as Musical.ly, the video-sharing platform has become a digital playground for “unconventional fun,” according to Stefan Henriquez, TikTok’s head of global marketing.
“We want to bring the fun back and reinvent social media,” he says. “TikTok is an outlet for creative people to be themselves and be real. We’re providing more tools for people to use and express themselves.”
TikTok doesn’t disclose its number of monthly active users, but mobile app store marketing intelligence company Sensor Tower estimated that TikTok added 75 million new users worldwide via the App Store and Google Play in December 2018 alone, representing 275 percent year-over-year growth from 20 million in December 2017. TikTok does not provide data on its demographic, but, like other platforms, it does require that its users be at least 13 years old. Still, that rule doesn’t seem to deter many pre-teens from using them.
Across all social media platforms, beauty continues to be a popular vertical. There are more than 15 million beauty tip videos on YouTube, according to the company, and on Instagram, #beauty is tagged in more than 290 million posts. TikTok’s beauty sphere also is growing, and users are expressing their enthusiasm for the category in inventive, often bizarre ways.
In January, TikTok makeup enthusiasts began showcasing their skills by applying products to potatoes. The challenge, which became known as the Potato Portrait challenge, went viral; 13.4 million TikTok posts are now tagged #PotatoPortrait.
Such content is a vital means by which Gen Z and Gen Alpha learn about and participate in the beauty world. “Gen Z is content-, social media-, YouTube-, TikTok-obsessed and with that obsession comes a high degree of play, fantasy, aspiration, community and a real love of beauty,” says John Demsey, executive group president of The Estée Lauder Cos. Inc. “They may be the generation most involved in the category that we’ve ever seen. That is a function of the plethora of content influencers, videos, communities and platforms that they feel part of.”
The volume of content is also leading to shorter attention spans. Look no further than TikTok as proof. The app’s 15-second video format is contributing to a general shift in media behavior — one that favors short, impactful content. “Starting with Millennials, we’re seeing attention spans are getting shorter and shorter,” Henriquez says. “It’s now 12 seconds, and for Gen Z, it’s eight seconds. It’s about grabbing someone’s interest — low investment in time but maximum entertainment.”
In a study titled “We Are Beauty-Full,” Nickelodeon parent company Viacom found that Gen Z is most interested in widespread and accessible content, reporting Gen Z women are 36 percent more likely than Gen Xers to view their beauty routine as enjoyable, and 71 percent more likely to consider it fun. Tutorials also play a key role: 33 percent of Gen Z females believe that without YouTube tutorials, their look wouldn’t be nearly as good.
“In our qualitative work, we were surprised to hear Gen Z males and females use the word ‘professional’ to describe how they want to look or be seen amongst their peers,” said Beth Coleman, senior vice president of Viacom Marketing & Partner Insights, in a statement. “To them, being ‘professional’ doesn’t mean wearing a suit and tie, but rather being put together in a way that draws respect and forces others to take them seriously. This makes getting ready a balancing act where they’re trying to appear both individual and professional.”
Indeed, embracing their individuality is key. Gen Z — and presumably Alphas — are the most racially and ethnically diverse generation yet. A 2018 Pew Research Center study found that 52 percent of 6- to 21-year-olds are non-Hispanic whites. Diversity and inclusion are inherent in their psyche not only in relation to race, but to gender and sexuality, too. “We are the first generation that isn’t majority white,” Chang says. “We grew up with an African-American president and a serious woman contender for president. We’ve experienced the growth of LGBT tolerance and equality, even active discussions about harassment and bullying and all sorts of talks of inclusion and bettering our society in that way.”
According to a Pew study from January 2019, 35 percent of Gen Zers said they know someone who takes gender-neutral pronouns. By comparison, 25 percent of Millennials, 16 percent of Gen Xers and only 12 percent of Baby Boomers said the same.
The shift toward individuality and away from conformity also means that younger people are more likely to respond to influencers than traditional celebrities, and prefer campaigns that feature normal, everyday people. “We are less attached to using celebrities as role models now,” Chang says. “We want to see something real, because Gen Z is always looking for that air of ingenuity and truth to oneself. It’s not just these impossible standards.”
Viacom discovered related findings in its study. “As personal branding has exacerbated the classic youth tension between standing out and fitting in, 56 percent of Gen Z teens rated ‘real’ as the number-one role-model characteristic,” Coleman said. “They’re embracing imperfection in the role models they’re choosing and emulating. Their idols are those who dare to be their bold selves and are doing what they want, which provides a sense of personal freedom everyone wishes they had.”
Likewise, the fact that influencers are “real people” who have found fame on social media appeals to them. “We see these people who have built a name for themselves not through the traditional celebrity stardom, but through the social media outlets that we use day to day. It feels more accessible,” Chang says. “People want to see people they see themselves in. It’s this smaller group of YouTube stars and Instagram models who are becoming ever more successful rather than the traditional kind of influencer.”
Samantha Cutler, founder of Gen Z makeup brand Petite ’N Pretty noticed this deviation from mega-influence while conducting research for her brand. She found that younger makeup artists — or what she calls “mini MUAs” — comprise a tight-knit community of microinfluencers who have the potential to grow at a faster rate than megainfluencers.
“The tweens are more on Instagram and they’re the ones who are the mini MUAs,” she says. “They’re exploring beauty — they all have the James Charles Morphe palette, they all do different looks, they talk to each other, they follow each other. Within a week, there will be a new mini MUA who will pop up and two weeks later, she’ll have 10,000 followers, because they are very supportive of each other.”
Lifestyle vloggers, as well, are nailing the kind of content Gen Z wants to consume, with a wider span than those in fashion or beauty; they post stories ranging from their morning routines to something as mundane as driving while singing along to their newest Spotify playlist. “It’s not in-your-face advertising or a macroinfluencer posting a product with ‘ad’ next to it,” Cutler says.
Product preferences are starting to emerge, too. Sustainable packaging and clean formulations are increasingly important. Ingredients are as important as cute packaging, says Demsey, who notes Gen Z is a particularly discerning bunch.
“If your product isn’t remarkable or isn’t seen as being remarkable, this generation will punish you based on it,” he says. “They can’t just be marketed to. This is a generation that wants to understand more about what they buy and they’ll research it and enter into it from multiple touchpoints. More than ever, it’s a two-way conversation and she’s in the center of the conversation, whereas before, we were always marketing to the conversation. Her opinion, her values and trends move the marketplace.”
In previous generations, those coming of age have largely been consumers of mass brands based on price accessibility. But social media has democratized the luxury market, causing younger generations to be more aware than ever of high-end products. “It’s not unusual for a very young person to know Tom Ford, Chanel, Prada,” Demsey says. “When I was growing up, we never would have known that. [Gen Z is] very brand-conscious, but the way they consume beauty is very high-low.”
While Gens Z and Alpha do portend seismic change, some things, Cutler says, will always stay the same. Recently, for example, she tested out a new marketing play, one that didn’t involve social media.
“In every [Petite ’N Pretty] box, [the kids] get a blank postcard,” she says. “Over the holidays we got a ton back that were all these kids engaging with the brand and giving their feedback or telling us who their crush is in third grade. That’s a way we’re able to connect with them.”