Designing for the Next Seismic Demographic Shift: Generation Z

Gen Z is about to disrupt our status quo; builders and developers must adapt to demand for sustainable, affordable design


If generations are shaped by their environments, then that makes Generation Z— those roughly seven to 22-years old, per Pew Research—our nation’s first truly digital natives. Unlike any other generation so far, they’ve had instantaneous and often limitless access to communication, information, and entertainment via talk, text, social media, streaming, and video.

But does constant contact make Gen Z any different than millennials? So far, experts studying the question have all seemed to conclude the same thing: yes. Research shows being plugged-in has given them very different tendencies, traits, and habits than their predecessors. Also relevant is the fact that they have Gen X parents who are very different than Baby Boomers (chalk that up to environment, too) and raised Gen Z to look like themselves: self-sufficient, financially literate at a much younger age, skeptical, and with looser reins, Bloomberg notes.

Most of us know all this, yet few of us are using this information on a professional level. Gen Z is about to change the world as they shop, go to college, enter the workforce, and move out on their own. They just became the largest generation to ever live, at somewhere between 65 million (per data researcher VisionCritical) to 90.55 million (per Statista). As we know from the waves millennials and their Boomer parents made, there’s power in numbers.

For builders and developers, that means any residential projects in their pipelines must be designed and realized with Gen Z in mind. As commercial interior designers who develop and execute strategic design programs for all generations, we’ve already started amassing significant demographic and psychographic data on Gen Z for our current work.


Gen Z is unmaterialistic and frugal

Because they grew up with virtual toys, they never amassed physical ones. This solidified into a lack of materialism as they’ve aged, notes Forbes. And because they grew up in the shadow of economic crises and economic recessions, Gen Z is cautious about excessive consumption and attracted to thrift stores, sustainable brands and saving for a rainy day, Bloomberg notes. That has led them to embrace the sharing economy and led them to reject car ownership. Proportionally, fewer Gen Z’s have drivers licenses than any generation going back to the beginning of the automotive era, notes Forbes.

For Gen Z, décor must express individuality. Artisanship is in, with its unique, handmade furnishings; mass production is out.

The upshot: Builders, developers, architects, and commercial designers must rethink every aspect of housing, from building materials and floorplans to fixtures, finishes, and décor. Residences with plentiful storage space and big garages will be less important to them. Our research shows Gen Z is environmentally conscious and values individuality, innovation, sustainability, authenticity, and affordability. Apartments and homes must be flexible, eco-friendly, right-sized, and ultimately affordable. Yet at the same time, décor must express individuality. Artisanship is in, with its handmade, one-of-a-kind objects and use of recycled or natural materials; mass production is out. And Gen Z favors bolder, gender-neutral decorative options. Forget “millennial pink.” They favor Gen Z yellow. It’s bright, warm, energetic, happy and inclusive, like them as the most diverse and well-educated generation to ever live, notes Pew.


Gen Z is disrupting retail

Unlike millennials—and even though few of them have credit cards yet—Gen Z loves to shop in brick-and- mortar stores, and more specifically, shopping malls. A recent IBM and the National Retail Federation survey shows 98 percent prefer brick-and-mortar stores. But they blur the lines between offline and online, using smartphones to offer up instant coupons for a discount; after all, affordability is their mantra. Their spending power is currently valued at $44 billion annually and by next year they will account for 40 percent of all U.S. consumers.

The upshot: Like housing, retail must be rethought—but in this case far more radically and with a blend of the physical and the virtual. Like millennials, Gen Z is choosing experiences over stuff, and stores must become destinations to experience, not just places to spend money, NPD points out. That means designing spaces that are flexible enough to accommodate new interactive trends as they emerge.


Gen Z needs face time

A growing body of research shows Gen Z is the loneliest generation, reports Yahoo. Last year, Gen Z had the highest loneliness score in national survey of 20,000 adults ages 18 and older by global heal service company Cigna. Experts chalk it up to all that constant connectivity that diminishes face time interactions, as wells as trends that seem here to stay, such as fraying communities, geographic mobility, working remotely, and delaying family formation. Gen Z has lost the ability to reach out, says Dawn Fallik, a professor working on a book about loneliness.

Gen Z needs more face time with peers; spaces must be designed to spur interaction and furnished with pieces that are versatile, sustainable, and meet their aesthetic requirements.

The upshot: Spaces that breed interaction are a start and must be designed into every type of structure, be it public or private. And their layout and furnishings must be versatile, sustainable, and attractive to Gen Z. In residential complexes dedicated to Gen Z, management must not only make residents feel welcome and valued but program spaces to foster interactions and build community and work extra-hard so their value is evident to this generation. High-usage substantiates attractive communal spaces and amortizes their costs—again playing to this generation’s priority to keep things affordable.

Gen Z and a wave of rapid change this cohort will spur is already upon us. Builders and developers must recognize that building in community, flexibility, and sustainability may add extra costs to a project, but if they don’t move in this direction they will shut out Gen Z—and diminish the profitability of their projects.

Mary Cook is the founder and principal of Mary Cook Associates. She may be reached at

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