The MZ Generation (MZ세대), a term only used in South Korea, refers collectively to the Millennials (born in the early 1980s to early 1990s) and Generation Z (born in the mid-1990s to early 2000s). People belonging to this generation make up 32.5% of the population as of 2021. In South Korea, Gen Z and Millennials are viewed as one demographic cohort, instead of two. Although they have their differences, many common characteristics have bound them together.
MZ Generation are digital natives (디지털 원주민)
Having grown up in the digital era, the MZ Generation are familiar with new technologies and use them on a regular basis. Although the Millennials grew up in the analog era, they were exposed to the digital world during their coming of age. Major online platforms that Korea’s MZ Generation use include YouTube (유튜브); Instagram (인스타그램); Naver (네이버), the “Korean Google”, and KakaoTalk (카카오톡), the “Korean WhatsApp”.
Their choice of social media depends on their purpose. Facebook (페이스북) is used for real-time communication and community activities. TikTok (틱톡) is for entertainment purposes. Instagram (인스타그램) is used to share one’s memorable experiences and daily life.
Korea’s MZ Generation are more self-aware than previous generations
The MZ Generation increasingly know who they are, and they consume what they consider is best for them rather than what others believe is best. In other words, their purchasing is becoming more individualized.
As they are interested in self-actualization, Korea’s MZ Generation also take the time to learn about themselves. At one point, the personality test MBTI (Myers-Briggs Type Indicator) was so popular that MBTI-based products were released.
Through this self-searching, South Korean MZ Generation really seems to have a grasp on their own preferences. In a survey conducted by UNIVTOMORROW and SK Telecom, over half of the MZ Gen respondents said they clearly knew what their tastes were. For this reason, brand power isn’t necessarily as important as a brand that suits them well. In the same survey, a those who said they don’t have a preferred brand outnumbered those those who preferred Nike (5.9%) and Adidas (4.4%).
Image Source: Instagram, South Korean olympic short track speed skater Kwak Yoon-Gy promoting MBTI beer to MZ Generation consumers
Investing more time into self-development
The MZ Generation are busy, especially with living a self-development lifestyle. Rather than working hard to build their educational and professional background to get into a top company, they are pursuing a holistic healthy life. This “healthy life” doesn’t only refer to building one’s physical health and having hobbies but also managing one’s health and financial management.
Source: IT dongA, modified and re-designed by daxue consulting, activities considered self-development among the MZ Generation in South Korea
In pursuit of a “meaning-out” (미닝아웃) lifestyle
The MZ Generation consumers want to live a “meaning-out” lifestyle, where they express their values through consumption. They select brands and products that align with their values and express themselves on social media. As a result, their consumption standards change rapidly.
Environmentalism is one of the main values that has been expressed through the “meaning-out” lifestyle. In a survey conducted by the Korea Chamber of Commerce and Industry (대한상공회의소), 64.5% of the 380 MZ gen respondents said they purchase products from companies that practice ESG (Environmental, Social, and Governance) even if it more expensive.
Sometimes the MZ Generation may even refuse to buy from brands insensitive to the ESG and publicly speak out against them. In 2022, there was a boycott against the food giant SPC Group (SPC그룹) after their poor management of the death of one of their workers. What started as a protest by labor unionists led to the public deciding to not buy from the brands under SPC. Famous brands include Paris Baguette (파리 바게트), Baskin Robbins (배스킨 라빈스), and Dunkin’ (던킨).
“Flex” consumption and the rise of luxury goods in South Korea
“Flex”, meaning to “show off what one has”, was first used as slang in the US since the 1990s but has recently caught on in South Korea. The MZ gen consumers are willing to buy expensive luxury goods, furniture, and home appliances. Digital and electronic home appliances is one of the leading categories that men are willing to buy even if they are expensive, while luxury fashion and beauty are for women. They would buy them because unlike the daily necessities, they are products that they desire. Furthermore, in a survey by Saramin (사람인), a job matching platform, 52.6% of respondents said they think positively about the “flex consumption culture” because “self-satisfaction is important”.
“Jjantech (짠테크)” consumers drive couponing
Opposite to “flex” consumption, there is also the “jjantech” (짠테크, money-saving investment) consumption that is growing. As South Korea’s inflation increases, people are shifting to low-cost consumption habits allow them to save as much money as possible. For example, to cut down on food expenses, people skip breakfast and dine on whatever they have in the refrigerator. In the Korean coffee market, consumers are shifting to low-priced coffee brands like Mega Coffee and Hollys Coffee. They even buy coupons or “gifticons” (coupons for gifting purposes) to get products at a lower price like they do for convenience store purchases in the Korean snack market.
Source: Maekyung, modified and re-designed by daxue consulting, top 3 gifticon platforms in South Korea
The limitations of the term MZ Generation
The MZ Generation doesn’t perfectly depict the consumers in South Korea. Although it has been used by businesses to understand their consumers, there is still a lot of criticism about categorizing people merely based on their year of birth. Critics consider it “not appropriate” to classify people based on their generation for several reasons including the limited studies to prove its validity, the possibility of creating generational conflict, and the overlooking of individual differences. Therefore, some say that it would be more appropriate to define consumers based on various characteristics. When doing consumer research in South Korea, we consider many ways to find tribes and groupings of consumers other than their generation.
Key takeaways of the MZ Generation in South Korea:
- They are known for being digital natives. They are familiar with the new technologies compared to previous generations. They are more likely to use them on a daily basis for daily tasks and activities.
- They are more largely self-aware. They are willing to invest into developing themselves and expressing themselves through consumption.
- There are two consumption trends. “Flex” consumption describes people’s willingness and consumption of expensive products in Korea’s luxury goods market and South Korea’s beauty market and digital devices to show off. “Jjantech”, the new emerging trend, occurs when individuals are turning to low-cost consumption habits like buying discount coupons and low-cost coffee.
- Although the term MZ Generation is useful in understanding consumers in South Korea, it should not be the only standard. There term still faces a lot of criticism, including not being supported by scientific studies.