A new survey of young Americans aged 13 to 20 years old (also known, in marketing-speak, as "Generation Z") has found that they are far more open-minded and permissive than their older millennial counterparts when it comes to issues of gender and sexuality.
According to a report by trend forecasting agency J. Walter Thompson Innovation Group, only 48 percent of Gen Zs identify as exclusively heterosexual, compared to 65 percent of millennials aged 21 to 34.
On a scale of zero to six, where zero signified "completely straight" and six meant "completely homosexual," more than a third of the young demographic chose a number between one and five, indicating that they were bisexual to some degree. Only 24 percent of their older counterparts identified this way.
Fifty-six percent of 13-to-20-year-olds said that they knew someone who went by gender neutral pronouns such as "they," "them," or "ze," compared to 43 percent of people aged 28 to 34 years old. Over a third of Gen Z respondents also strongly agreed that gender did not define a person as much as it used to. This figure dropped to 23 percent among millennials who were 28 and up.
Those belonging to Generation Z also rejected the gender binary while shopping—only 44 percent said they always bought clothes designed for their own gender, versus 54 percent of millennials. But they also felt strongly that public spaces should provide access to gender neutral bathrooms, with 70 percent of Gen Zs coming out in support of the move compared to 57 percent of 21–34-year-olds.
"We did a survey of Gen Z for a report released in May 2015 and found that 81 percent said that gender doesn't define a person as much as it used to," said Shepherd Laughlin, the director of trendspotting at J. Walter Thompson.
"That was an intriguing statistic that got a lot of attention in the media, but we weren't sure quite what it meant: Were they just saying, for example, that men or women could pursue any career they wanted to? Or did this reflect the more radical idea that gender itself isn't as important to personal identity as it used to be, or that gender shouldn't be seen as a binary? This new research shows that the latter idea is gaining significant traction among Gen Zers."
Even Hollywood teens have begun to reject typical gender and sexual norms. Disney Channel star Rowan Blanchard came out as queer in January; Hunger Games actress Amandla Stenberg told the world she was bisexual on Teen Vogue's Snapchat account, and Jaden Smith has worn skirts for Vogue Korea editorials and landed a contract as the new face of Louis Vuitton womenswear.
While the survey polled less than a thousand respondents across the US, Laughlin says that he has "90 percent" confidence that the results are accurate and can be generalized for the whole country. "We're even more confident about this for this particular survey because we see clear patterns across the different questions that show that Gen Z has a more complex and less binary approach to gender than millennials," he told Broadly.
"I think young people can more easily see a larger spectrum of identities, and they're more willing to accept people without questioning them," said Madeleine, a 16-year-old Nebraska student who identifies as pansexual and agender (i.e., having no gender). "I've learned [more] about gender and sexuality from my peers than from people older than me. I didn't really know what being agender was for a long time, but when I heard about it I realized that was my mystery identity I couldn't figure out.
"I also notice that people my age are more open to gender and sexuality being fluid and subject to change. For a while, I identified as asexual, but as time went on and I changed, I realized that maybe I wasn't that way anymore."
Tyler Ford, an agender writer and speaker who counts teens as the primary demographic in their thousands-strong social media followers, says that the shift in attitude can be attributed to the power of technology.
"I think the internet plays the greatest role in the self-discovery process today," they said. "Young people have more access to information and to other people than ever before. Marginalized folks are building communities and platforms online and are talking about their everyday experiences on public forums. I can't tell you how many times someone has written something and I think, Oh my God, that's a real thing? That's not just me? There's a name for this?"
Now that there are terms to describe varying identities, more and more people are realizing they fit into another box or no box at all.
"It's easier to push against traditional narratives when you're not the only one doing so, when you have community and support, and when you have access to the information that can help you to contextualize your life."
Many of the teenagers Broadly spoke with agreed, saying that they learned about sexuality and gender online. Most cited Tumblr and social media as their primary sources of information. ("I remember first learning about non-binary genders while on Tumblr," one said.)
But if there's one thing that teens have consistently hated through the years, it's grown-ups telling them they're only doing something to be cool. "There seems to be an attitude many people have that claims teens and young adults are identifying as non-binary, trans, or not straight because it's trendy," Brooklyn Riepma, a non-binary 19-year-old, said.
"I can see where that assumption comes from, considering that in recent years, more and more people are claiming these identities when just 20 or 30 years ago, none of these terms existed. But while the terms didn't exist, the people did. Now that there are terms to describe varying identities, more and more people are realizing they fit into another box or no box at all."
Shepherd Laughlin agrees. He believes that it is unlikely that young people will leave their fluid attitudes on gender and sexuality behind as they get older. Instead, he thinks that they will influence their older counterparts for the better.
"Millennials are quite open when it comes to gender identity, generally, but they haven't been exposed to the range of vocabulary and nuance around this that Gen Z has become accustomed to, especially when it comes to discussions on online platforms like Tumblr," Laughlin said. "I think that as Gen Zers eventually enter the workplace and interact more with millennials as adults, millennials will gain a better understanding of these issues, and the gap will narrow."
The full findings of the survey will be released at SXSW on Friday.
Correction: Brooks' name has been corrected to include their full name.