What Gen Z – and everyone – needs from the built environment

millennial sitting on bed on mobile phone

The property industry has caught onto the benefits of social sustainability and community-focused development, but for the incoming generation, Gen Z, it’s no longer a nice-to-have – they’re going to need it.


While most people still think Millennials are the youth of today, the oldest Millennial is now around 40. And the incoming generation, Gen Z, is fast coming of age – the oldest is now 25, and the youngest 11.

According to Gen Z expert Claire Madden, a social researcher who’s written a book on Gen Z, the big difference between Millennials and Gen Z is technological immersion from a young age.

This next generation has only known a world of WiFi and connected devices. They’re used to personalised services and are comfortable with rapid technical advancement and disruption.

Madden says they are able to adapt to new tech platforms easily and are agile in their thinking. “They like learning, they like feeling like they are on the cutting edge.”

This generation is also used to relationships facilitated and mediated through a screen. The problem is, Madden explains, is that this hasn’t replaced the need for face-to-face connections.

“We’re connected, but lonely.”

Why screens aren’t enough

Research has shown that although our devices promise intimacy, they “shortchange” us because screen mediated relationships aren’t consistent or empathetic.

That is, people might follow each other and like one another’s photos, but when they see a post about someone doing it tough, it’s easy to scroll right past.

Humans also crave physical contact and being able to learn from one another in person.

Nothing has made the shortfalls of technological relationships more apparent than the current pandemic conditions, Madden points out.

“We like being around people, we like being in cafes and bars.”

While all generations are experiencing the addictive but somewhat dissatisfying spell that is social media and always-on tech, it’s extreme for Gen Z. Madden says young people spend 2.7 hours a day on social media.

“They have grown up with the boundary-less tech that invades every waking moment.

“This includes the anxiety of missing out – the “fear of missing out” – which means staying up to date with the latest YouTube videos. It’s exhausting.”

She says that young people are losing the ability to have a conversation face to face, and that conversation skills “are not being as picked up as naturally as they used to be because everything is screen mediated.”

So reliant on Google, young people can struggle when asked a question on the spot they don’t know the answer too.

“Now, face to face communication is something we need to explicitly teach.”

Building better spaces for the young

Madden says Gen Z are longing for social contact that’s not through a screen, and that there’s an opportunity for the built environment, and society in general, to provide more opportunities for face-to-face interaction.

In the workplace, she says young people will seek out jobs where socialising is encouraged so that they can make friends, as well as approachable bosses.

“They want their social needs to be met in the workforce because they are not satisfied with their relationships as it is.”

And when it comes to the built environment, it’s about intentionally designing spaces for authentic connections.

“You see that when you go into local markets and people are engaging in different ways when compared to a supermarket.”

Madden says technology will still play a key role in how Gen Z operated in the world. She expects more multipurpose and flexible spaces, and more blurring between work and personal life.

Automation might replace some jobs, but she says there’s an opportunity to create new roles that foster connection. An example could be a local farmer or home-gardener employed in a local store to teach people about the produce.

Our built environments are failing the young, and all of us

In Australia, we live in some of the biggest houses in the world, filled with everything we need so we never have to leave. Team that with car dependant suburbia, where it’s too far to walk anywhere and the streets are lifeless, and the product is isolated family units disconnected from their local community.

There’s escape for anyone with a driver’s licence but for much of Gen Z, their devices are their only way of communicating with others most of the time.

The good news is the property industry, at least post this coronavirus crisis, is already moving in the right direction to create spaces that will help cure some of the loneliness and isolation felt by all of us.

There’s already a push to create multipurpose spaces, and places where multiple generations can come together. One example is nursing homes that have pre-schools nearby and children coming to visit each week (not ideal during the pandemic conditions, of course).

Many developers, planners, and architects are now trying to restore village-style neighbourhoods, with plenty of public space and where everything you need is an accessible walking distance away.

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