How Does Generation Z Read?
There’s been plenty of ink spilled over what Millennials—those born between 1981 and and 1996—do and don’t do. Millennials have killed a host of things, including top sheets, beer, motorcycles, napkins, hotels, and even America (we’re doing awesome, guys!).
On the flip side, though, Millennials have also been reading more than previous generations, are changing the definition of classics to be more inclusive, and are the most likely generation to use libraries.
Millennials are eating their avocado toast while advocating for better representation in their reading and using the incredible resources their tax money pays for.
While much has been studied about how Millennials engage in the literary world, little has been explored when it comes to Generation Z and their connections to reading and libraries.
Generation Z is the cohort immediately following Millennials and spans the mid 1990s to the early 2000s—some may argue there hasn’t yet been an official end date. This generation, unlike the Millennial generation, grew up with technology a significant part of their lives from the beginning, and comprise 25% of of the U.S. population. Most impressively, there are more Generation Z members than there were Baby Boomers or Millennials.
Although many outlets like to call anyone under the age of 40 a Millennial, this simply isn’t true. Most Millennials are in their late 20s or 30s, juggling unbelievable student debt with a job market that never manifested when they finished their educations. They’re also having children, taking care of aging parents, and buying (or not buying) homes.
Gen Z is the next crop of young adults, spanning early teens to the mid-20s. And they’re markedly different from Millennials. They’re more optimistic than Millennials, they’re better able to multitask, they’re far more individual, and they’re really feeling the weight of being digital, globally-connected citizens (both the good aspects of that and the bad).
But what of their reading?
Jacob Chang and Nadya Okamoto, both members of JUV Consulting—”a diverse and interwoven network of teenagers dedicated to giving ourselves a voice in the business world”—talked with me about what they’re seeing in their own generation when it comes to books, reading, library use, and more.
JUV Consulting prides itself on not being teen experts. Rather, they themselves are teenagers. Chang currently serves as Director of Insights and focuses on data, on emerging trends, and on working to bring the Gen Z voice to the table for businesses and those seeking to reach this generation and their dollars.
“The main driver for the generation is the fact that the only world we can remember is a post–9/11 society. The U.S. has constantly been at war, and there is substantial chaos everywhere around us from terrorism to school shootings and even just rampant bullying. However, this era is also characterized by the prevalence of diversity and acceptance of individuals. We have legalized gay marriage, grown up with a black president, and found overall greater equity in the world. This seemingly paradoxical environment is one that has significantly influenced Gen Z culture and characteristic,” he said.
“Gen Z are digital natives, we grew up with social media and tech, and have never known a world without it. It truly defines who we are, what we do, and what we like,” he said, while noting that Generation Z could best be described as bold, diverse, and unified. He also said that while many believe Gen Z enjoys wasting time on their phones and other digital devices, the reality is that they’re “brilliant multitaskers, making the most of our short time, creating movements, building relationships, and learning.”
How does that translate to the literary world?
Okamoto, Chief Brand Officer for JUV, published her first book—a manifesto on menstruation for young adult readers called Period Power—with her generation deeply in mind.
“You’ll see in my book, I write in a very approachable and natural way, just as if I would talk to my little sister, and I hope that shines through with the writing,” said Okamoto. Not only is it conversational and engaging, the book takes on the topic of menstrual justice and digs in not only about how Okamoto became passionate about it and how she’s worked to make periods less stigmatized, but she also incorporates suggestions and empowers readers to take those actions in their own lives. Okamoto is also the founder of PERIOD. and coordinates an annual PERIOD conference, which took place in New York City in January.
Where Millennials often cite the Harry Potter series as the book that best defines the generation, Gen Z names something different.
“I love Harry Potter too, and have fond memories of it alongside my other similarly aged Gen Z members. However, I believe the YA novels that really trended for our generation were the Percy Jackson series by Rick Riordan and its spin-offs, The Hunger Games trilogy is a huge one, Twilight […] and even more recently: books like The Fault in Our Stars and other John Green novels,” said Chang.
Harry Potter may have captured the imaginations and hearts of Millennials for being a world full of magic. Percy Jackson, as well as the additional Riordan series, not only also engage readers in a fantasy world, but those fantasy worlds are much more inclusive. The Hunger Games might not offer the diversity, but the empowering messages and encouragement to stand up to oppressive regimes can’t help but be noted.
Despite what many might assume, Gen Z also prefers to read in print.
“[I]t is a more authentic experience and we really value our experience. However, we aren’t afraid to read digitally as well if we have to, it is convenient and the breadth of options available such as Kindle, iBooks, NOOK, etc., all make it incredibly accessible. As tech improves the digital experience we may see a more significant shift towards digital but as of now print is the number one choice. An interesting statistic—only 4% of children’s book sales comes from digital. However, out of all age groups, the 18–29 age group (part of this group is millennials) reported the highest ebook readership at 34%,” said Chang.
In addition to how it’s a more authentic experience, the reality is likely similar to what Millennials have expressed in that there’s a slight preference for print reading because of how much technology and information is in their daily lives.
Generation Z isn’t seeking out new or alternative formats of reading. But it’s not because they’re not interested. It’s because they’re inundated with it.
Chang said, “There isn’t really anything special that we seek out due to the fact that we read so much non-traditional content such as memes, Instagram feeds, Twitter, content aggregators like Reddit, and even text messages. These reduce our time to read traditional content, but one of the trending types of material we see is with manga, or Japanese comics, which is especially popular within the Asian demographic.”
While many older generations might scoff at the idea of Reddit, Instagram, Twitter, or text messages as reading, the ability to understand memes and other pop culture milestones comes through these very social media and web-based aggregators. Gen Z might not be picking up a novel, but they are reading content on the internet, and they’re finding themselves represented in formats like manga.
Social media has another benefit for Gen Z when it comes to reading: it gives them a chance to learn about new books. It’s not from marketers or from brands, though. It’s word of mouth by those they trust.
“The number one way that Gen Z learns about books is through word of mouth. I personally cannot count the times a friend has recommended a book to me and I’ve gone and read it. Other than that, if a book does trend such as how The Fault in Our Stars and Crazy Rich Asians did, those also affect their popularity. I would say the number one outlet for these popularity boosts are from movie adaptations, which always get a lot of marketing money. It is difficult to market a book itself on say, Instagram, due to the fact that there are usually no graphics or captivating scenes that accompany it to entice the consumer,” said Chang. He also notes that adaptation preference of Gen Z is far more traditional than many may think. “Movies are an absolute number one, and Netflix adaptations obviously are a part of that. Stage performances are less of a factor because Gen Z isn’t really going out to see plays unless they become street popular like Hamilton. I don’t think I’ve ever even heard of Facebook streaming of a novel.”
Perhaps those alternate formats for adaptations aren’t for teens, but for adults who are much more tuned into older forms of social media.
It would be impossible, of course, to talk about Gen Z’s reading habits without also digging into the elephant in the room: Amazon.
Chang notes that Gen Z is most likely to purchase their books from Amazon. They’re also likely to pick up titles from local bookstores, and they’re not averse to purchasing their books used. He notes that Gen Z generally buys their books, as libraries become less and less of a choice.
That doesn’t mean Gen Z isn’t using or thinking about the ways the library serves them or their communities.
“As literal spaces for acquiring books are becoming less and less valuable in society due to the rise of Amazon, we’ve seen a lot of different ways that these traditional spaces have evolved to fit the needs of a digital generation. A lot of libraries have implemented computer lessons for specific things like Photoshop, Powerpoint, and other essential skills. Essentially, libraries and bookstores need to realize that Amazon has taken over every function that they previously held, from obtaining the book itself to recommendations, and at their scale and prices, there is just no way for them to compete. Instead, the value that these places have that Amazon doesn’t is that they have physical presences and provide a space for collaboration and learning. The only way to attract our generation to them is if they provide some unique service like special events, speakers, or even something like video game tournaments,” Chang said.
In other words, the more libraries become third places, the more Generation Z will find them relevant and powerful parts of their lives.
Although Okamoto is herself an author, her publication is still in its infancy. Being that Generation Z is still exceptionally young—many of those within this demographic are still in high school—it’s hard to determine what their legacy in writing and publishing will be. Chang notes that because nothing written by his cohort has yet seen explosive success, nothing by members of his generation are on his radar yet (either for reading or as a book representing who the generation is).
“However this would make sense, as most successful authors only become noticed after having written a few books,” he added.
So what would Generation Z like to see?
“We just want to see more good books out there, regardless of who publishes or writes it. The days are gone where big publishers decide who reads what, now as long as you have the skill, you can make it and we will want to read it. Gen Z is so diverse in our interests that there is not one category that is especially going to thrive, but I would say things that we find relatable such as books about other teens’ lives have recently seen great success,” Chang said, echoing a sentiment heard over and over in online reviews, in classroom discussions, and in other forums where young people discuss books.
Relatability matters, and that means something different for every person in the diverse, bold, and culturally-shifting Gen Z.