by David Smythe. South Africa’s marketers, strategists and advertisers should reconsider their propensity to classify local youth as millennials and rather embrace a definition and understanding which is more accurate and more in step with what these young adults are doing, thinking and feeling.

This is the key takeout from a comprehensive study of South African youth, completed towards the end of last year; the objective was to analyse the attitudes, behaviours and values of the youngest millennials and oldest Gen Z South Africans.

Generational theory

The rationale for doing so was spurred by a shared belief that generational theory, which suggests that social generations are homogenous, is incorrect and doesn’t take account of the exponential pace of social and technological change over the past 30 years. In addition, almost all of generational theory is American-influenced. The implications of this are three-fold. One, we need to acknowledge that social generations are diverse. Two, as millennials age, we need to better understand the attitude and behaviour of the follower generation, Gen Z. Three, we need to look at generational theory through a South African lens.

One of the critical differences highlighted by a pure statistical comparison between South Africa’s youth and those in America is that ‘we’ are a generation on the move.

On average in the US, it takes four generations for a poor family to attain the same income as an average family. In South Africa, in just one generation, the working class has decreased in size from 56% of the population to 39% while the middle class has increased from 27% to 40%, the upper middle-class grown from 8% to 12% and the upper class from 3% to 4%. Unknown classification went from 6% to 5%.

Catalysts of a cultural revolution

The analysis of other data pertaining to identity — values, opinions, concerns, influences, activism and worldview — shows that South Africans between 18 and 25 are the catalysts of a cultural revolution. It also confirms that the factors helping define SA’s youth include unprecedented personal freedom and exponential advances in technology.

SA’s young people are empowered, connected, empathetic self-starters who see themselves as individuals. They have created a new cultural currency that values uniqueness, authenticity, creativity, share-ability and recognition. What’s different for this generation is not as simple as ‘the internet’ or ‘technology’. Technology is important but what’s changed is this generation’s relationship with culture. They don’t just consume culture as older millennials have done; they create culture.

There are numerous local sub-cultures that SA youth may identify with. Individuality, however, is of greater importance.

“I don’t like labels”

Less than half, 46%, of SA youth always or sometimes identify with a youth-culture tribe. But, asked to define themselves, they say: “I don’t like labels of any kind but, if I were to choose one, I would call myself an Influencer. I am fiercely patriotic and identify firstly as a South African and then in terms of a race or language group. I am proud of my heritage and like to share cultural practices with others. Being part of a subculture is not important to me or most of my peers.”

Unlike their American peers, of whom just 10% trust big brands, the large majority of SA youth — 56% — do trust brands and 58% trust an endorsement by the brand. There is, however, a substantial portion that don’t, largely because they know they are being sold a product and they know they’re being marketed to.

They do formulate their own opinions about brands, whether they trust them or not. One of the sectors they mistrust the least is the media, with 62% of SA’s youth always or mostly doing further research on news stories or seeking additional sources of information.


87% of South Africans are optimistic about their personal future vs 88% of American youth. Optimism for their children’s future sits at 63% and 66% respectively, the environment 30% and 52%, their local economy 15% and 50% and the world economy 29% and 46%.

Almost as interesting as what SA’s youth believe is who shapes their values. For all the rapid pace of change, young people overwhelmingly say that their values are influenced by traditional sources — parents, family and friends.

Despite our fame-saturated culture, only 4% of young people say that celebrities directly influence their decisions. This is significantly lower than the international norm of 30%.

Biggest influencers

So, the biggest influencers on their lives are family/friends (59%), musicians (9%), writers (9%), media (9%), vloggers (3%) and bloggers (2%). Inspiring them are family/friends (66%), people succeeding in their chosen career path (57%), writers (26%), musicians (18%), bloggers (18%) and local celebrities (15%).

And, in addition to being culture creators, the study shows that young South Africans are very optimistic about their own personal futures, more so than older millennials. But they’re less optimistic than older millennials about a broad range of things they can’t control: the local and world economies and the environment.

Unlike their US peers, they’re not that taken in by celebrity status. They don’t not identify with narcissism or spoiled lifestyles. But they do look up to people on the rise. This is also the least naïve generation yet: unparalleled access to information means that they’re fact-checkers.

Believe in hustling

Growing up in the shadow of apartheid but not having experienced it, they are acutely aware that the world can be unjust. However, they believe in hustling to break through societal inequalities, making them the most entrepreneurial cohort in SA.

They aren’t natural born activists; the majority don’t attach this label to themselves. How they make their voices heard is different to previous generations but their voices are loud!

See also


David SmytheDavid Smythe, the strategic planning director at FCB Cape Town and an exco member, led the above study of South African youth using FCB Africa’s insights tool, FCB Alchemy, in partnership with Answered Insight, which produced the above analysis. He believes that to be brave is to embrace change — embracing something that you’ve perhaps not seen or done before but which will utterly pulverise the status quo. He is a passionate advocate of neuromarketing and devotes his professional and spare time to understanding what makes human beings tick.

“Motive” is a by-invitation-only column on Contributors are picked by the editors but generally don’t form part of our regular columnist lineup, unless the topic is off-column.

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