Young digital natives crave the social aspect of the office—sometimes.

people inside phones standing in office cubicles

When Ben Chipman first read through the contract for his summer internship position at LinkedIn, he made sure to pay close attention to one section in particular: social media policies.

For Chipman, a senior at Duke University, it was important to ensure that taking the position wouldn’t restrict his budding TikTok presence, which includes posting about his life, and in turn, his career. 

Chipman’s TikTok account has garnered 1 million likes and nearly 7,000 followers since he started posting seven months ago. His most-viewed videos focus on his internship and living in New York for the role, which he said he began posting to connect with his audience.

“I was just making a silly video on not knowing what to wear on my first day in the office, and I was like, ‘This is relatable,’” Chipman said. “Like who’s gone to an office in the last two years? And so I was just motivated to share it to connect with more people.”

Chipman is among the members of Generation Z, or the nearly 70 million Americans born between the late 1990s and early 2010s, who are launching their careers at a time when the shift to remote and hybrid work has largely eliminated the existence of full-time, in-person workplaces. 

In turn, this generation has turned to social media to share both authentic realities and glamorized images of embarking on a professional path in the wake of the cultural shift that has hung in-person work in the balance.

Glamorization is a work incentive

On TikTok, it’s easy to make office life look glamorous. Career-related content has become especially popular in a time when most careers do not carry as many perks—like complimentary meals or compensated travel—as they once did. 

But for younger people whose education and early careers have been disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, in-person work has an inherent appeal. A scan through “work day in my life” videos on TikTok turns up videos with hundreds of thousands of views each.

“There’s something that is glamorous about having the flashy company title,” Chipman said. “And if you work in a historic building, being able to be like, ‘I work here, do this, and this is what I wear,’ … You want to look the part, and if you’re at home, you’re not really incentivized to do that.”

Chipman said sharing small aspects of what in-person work looks like leads young people to be attracted to the traditional workplace.

Amanda Kehoe, a career development specialist at Quinnipiac University, said that although some young people may seek the structure of in-person work, there are benefits of the alternative that may be overlooked.

“I think [Gen Z] might think, ‘Man, I wish I could have that (in person) experience,’” Kehoe said. “But I don’t think that they realize how lucky they are that now the world has changed into a flexible work world where you can set your own hours and you can work at home and you have that flexibility.”

Rachel Vogel, a third-year student at Northeastern University, also looks at sharing her life online as a source of everyday motivation.

“It’s almost like you’re romanticizing your life [as] a way of getting through it,” Vogel said. “So sometimes I would be struggling to get into the office and go and get things done. … I like to make it more of an incentive.”

Vogel held a position at Boston Consulting Group during the spring 2022 semester through Northeastern’s cooperative education experiential learning program. She maintained her personal TikTok account throughout the position, often posting videos sharing insight into her role and experience at the company. 

Sometimes, her videos divulged into the benefits she received through the company, ones she only had access to due to the role’s in-person nature. Although she is a proponent of sharing such content online, she emphasized the one-sided nature of it. 

“You don’t see the actual work that people are doing,” Vogel said. “You just see the perks and how cool the office looks and what we’re wearing and what we eat and stuff like that—you’re not actually seeing what a day-to-day is actually like.”

Such perks, like complimentary food and coffee, provide motivation to get through the realities of work, Vogel said. She added that consumers of career-centric content should consider the fact that social media posting is often contractually restricted based on the privacy of company information.

“Us as a generation have to look at things and say, ‘Well, yeah, they’re not showing those things. So how much of it is our point of view?’” Vogel said. “We have to just put into account [that] they can’t show everything.”

The generational gap in remote work

Since the most glamorized parts of corporate life—benefits like free food—are only possible with in-person work, opportunities for career-based content are limited when positions are hybrid or fully remote. As such, members of Gen Z are faced with the decision of whether seeking out remote or in-person roles is more valuable.

Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and the shift to remote work across most industries, Gen Z has entered a workforce with fewer in-person opportunities. A February 2022 study from Pew Research Center found that of adults with jobs that can be worked remotely, 59% are working from home most or all of the time.

Maia Ervin, chief people officer at JUV Consulting, a Gen Z marketing agency, said younger people tend to favor a hybrid model of work. However, she said, Gen Z’s outlook on in-person work is different than other generations. 

“Gen Zers look at coming into the office and in-office interactions completely different than previous generations,” Ervin told the Daily Dot. “They’re not looking at it as, ‘Oh, I need to come in here to work.’ It’s like, ‘Oh, I need to know who’s going to be in the office that day because I want to connect with them.’”

Chipman said one of the factors that led him to accept his position was the in-person nature that would allow him to network with other employees.

“Having those casual water bubbler conversations that everyone says are valuable was honestly something that was really important to me,” Chipman said. 

An emphasis on equitable working conditions

Despite the social privileges of in-person work, Gen Z recognizes the convenience of staying home. 

A 2022 survey from training platform TalentLMS found that 74% of Gen Z prefer some level of remote work, and 30% would quit their job if it did not offer any remote work opportunities.

Kali Lewis, a junior at Penn State University, works remotely as an intern at an architectural firm. 

Lewis posted a viral TikTok in June discussing the fact that she was able to secure a remote position over audio that says, “I win.”

Lewis’ video, viewed more than 165,000 times by Aug. 15, resonated with other Gen Z users because of the benefits of remote work.

“I was personally really happy to have it remote because it kind of takes away some of the anxiety of having to go into the office every day,” Lewis told the Daily Dot. “And also cuts down on gas and transportation costs.”

Though she is working remotely, as a social media user, Lewis said she finds it compelling to see a continuation of career content from members of Gen Z.

“It’s definitely interesting to see how people of our generation, in Gen Z, are being very transparent about how they’re working,” Lewis said.

This desire for accountability also extends to Gen Z’s attitudes about working conditions, specifically when it comes to the values of their company. 

Data largely shows Gen Z demands more growth and support opportunities from employers than other generations.

Gen Z values company investment in mental health and wellness, and working for employers who align with their personal interests or values more than other age groups. Belonging to a company that cares about diversity, equity and inclusion is also significantly more important to Gen Z than previous generations.

Gen Z at the helm

Regardless of the future of the workplace, the content put out on social media by Gen Z will continue to shape the generation’s context of what work looks like. As many of its members embark on early career opportunities, Gen Z will continue to rely on each other to shape their expectations in the best way they know how: online.

“[Videos] that are showing off all the glamor and glitz of their jobs, that’s driving a strong brand and increasing their selectivity and increasing their strength of their applicant pool,” Chipman said. “Which I think is really interesting and is a direct result of social.”

With Gen Z at the helm, workplace benefits and conditions will continue to positively evolve, especially when they’re able to turn to others going through similar things at their fingertips.

“I’ve heard from other friends that have seen my videos, and they’re like, ‘Hey, it’s so cool that you share this because I’m actually going through similar stuff,’” Vogel said. “So even though I didn’t realize it, I was helping other people. Because we do tend to feel like what we’re going through is one in a million when it’s not.”

Illustration of two people standing back-to-back in colorful clothing and taking selfies.
Ivy Liu

Two days after Head of Instagram Adam Mosseri tweeted a video last month addressing user concerns about the app prioritizing video over photos, another tech exec seized the moment. Wearing glasses and a yellow sweatshirt that made him look strikingly like a Mosseri clone, Dispo co-founder and CEO Daniel Liss tweeted his own video two days later making a pointed pitch to everyone looking for a social network that puts photography at the center.

“In fact, we don’t even offer video,” Liss said in the video while also hinting at how other apps prioritize advertisers over users. “We’re about using photos to make memories, share those with your friends and look and feel good with photography. Secondly, our priorities as a company are fun and mental health.”

Since relaunching last summer, Dispo — which uses the phrase “good vibes only” and takes inspiration from disposable cameras — has continued to focus on photo-sharing even while most other apps increasingly invest in video. But whether its big bet can fill the photo void, take on the Goliaths, compete with a growing group of competitors and also make money in the process is a picture still waiting to develop.Enter your email to get Digiday’s Daily newsletterclose dialogConvince people you know what a DSP isSign up for Digiday’s Daily newsletterSIGN UPI’d also like to receive information about Digiday programs and events

The competitive landscape and volatile shifts in user trends have left every social app “straddling the dangerous chasm between being nobodies and being cloned,” said Corey Austin, director of innovation strategy at the creative agency Cheil Dallas.

After seeing Dispo’s video last month, Digiday spoke with Liss to learn more about the company’s contrarian strategy and the progress of the past year. In an interview, he said Dispo’s approach isn’t just about betting on the photo format: It’s also a bet on how people want to spend time online. The way Liss puts it, upstarts like Dispo, BeReal, Poparrazi and others that have small user bases in some ways help each other by collectively competing against incumbents that have hundreds of millions or even billions of users.

“One of the key theoretical questions, architectural questions, right now is if social media is entertainment-focused or is it about building connections with people,” Liss told Digiday. “Is it the proverbial bowling club? Is it about taking our communities in the real world and bringing them online? A photograph, an album of photographs, captures a moment in time. People have emotional connections to photographs.”

While other apps clone each other’s features to keep people using their own apps, Dispo — which first debuted in February 2021 — slowly develops photos digitally from the day before and only published new ones once a day at 9 a.m. each morning. Within the app, various camera filters give users ways to change aesthetics without significant editing — a way to experiment with trends like nostalgia and authenticity — while various photo “Rolls” can be private or public photo collections.

“People want to have fun with photography again and that’s hard to do,” Liss said. “You’ve seen in the last 18 months of social products. One investor said to me: ‘The photo-sharing wars are back, but now it’s a war of ideas.’”

Beyond the algorithm, fresh angles and fresh starts

Unlike Facebook and Instagram, Dispo also doesn’t prioritize content with an algorithm. Liss said that helps de-incentivize the race to gain millions of followers on platforms like TikTok or create certain types of photos to rank higher. Instead, it’s focused on fostering smaller groups based on various real-life communities such as fraternities and sororities at dozens of colleges. (According to Liss, around 90% of users are under the age of 24.) Last year, the company had an ambassador program in which college students could apply to help promote the app on campus or help manage different communities. Dispo also creates some Rolls based on cultural moments, themes, events and cities; others are created by communities themselves.

“I don’t even think it even has to do with just video versus photo,” said Dispo Vice President of Community TJ Taylor, who was previously community director at Raya, the private social network. “But it’s also about feeling the realness of the person…Everyone is just wanting this realness in whatever form it comes in.”

Compared to most social apps, Dispo is still very small. So far, it’s had 8 million downloads and has 1 million monthly active users, according to Liss. The biggest month for growth was in May 2022 when it had more than 540,000 downloads ahead of the summer break—more than triple the 144,000 downloads it had in May 2021—but last month it had just 120,000 downloads. Despite Dispo’s small size, the giants are describing it as competition — at least legally. In April, Meta—the parent company of Facebook, Instagram, Messenger and WhatsApp—subpoenaed Dispo and dozens of others while trying to prove it isn’t a monopoly.

When the original invite-only beta version of the app debuted in February 2021, it quickly gained traction and attention — thanks in part to the popularity of co-founder David Dobrik, a Vine and YouTube star who got the idea in 2019 after posting his disposable camera photos to Instagram which then inspired similar accounts by celebrities and others. However, amid the momentum, he soon stepped down from his role at the company after being involved with a controversy unrelated to Dispo. (In March 2021, a former member of Dobrik’s Vlog Squad was accused of sexually assaulting a woman in 2018.)

It’s now been more than a year since Dispo relaunched in June 2021 with new $20 million Series A funding round and an array of advisors including famous photographers Annie Leibovitz and Raven Varona, NBA stars Kevin Durant and Andre Iguodala, actress Sofia Vergara and model Cara Delevingne.

“The North Star that got us all excited was the mission and how it was resonating with the community,” Liss said. “And even if the news is what it was, we still had hundreds of thousands of teens and college kids having fun and feeling good about themselves using Dispo and having fun every day. That more than anything helped keep the lights on.”

Nostalgia’s appeal in art and advertising

So far, the app doesn’t have ads and has only collaborated with a few brands, but that’s partly because like other social networks Dispo often focus on user growth before monetization. For example, it worked with YSL Beauty on a campaign to create a Matte Cam, which influencers and others used to take photos on Dispo and re-post them on various social platforms. (The camera filter remains in the app but without the YSL branding.) Dispo also helped promote a couple of movies through a deal with Paramount and created custmo Rolls for music festivals such as Lollapalooza and Outside Lands.

Without ad dollars, the company largely relies on money from various venture capital firms, which is typical for early startups. Although Dispo isn’t doing a major push for marketing dollars yet, some advertisers see the appeal even if they’re not actively using it for campaigns. Marketers mentioned the platform’s focus on photos, smaller communities, and retro skeuomorphic design that help set it apart. Others like how it’s a place where users have a desire for authentic, casual content.

“Because TikTok is quite literally the giant in the room right now, it’s kind of swallowing the old guard of how things used to work on some of these Web 2.0 platforms,” said Luke Hurd, director of experience design at VMLY&R.

Ben Jones, head of Coolr Studios at the London-based influencer marketing agency Coolr, said the real test will be whether Dispo can get more creators from Instagram to Dispo since brands often follow. There’s also still the question of whether people will keep using an app that’s not aimed to get them addicted, noted Gartner director analyst Claudia Ratterman. She said some data gathered by the research firm’s partners indicates that Dispo’s retention rate isn’t as high as other social media apps.

“Once you get the attention of the user, you need to make it amazing and apps need to be ready and capabilities strong,” Ratterman said.

Not all digitally native photo aficionados think Dispo fills the void. Olivia Frary, a recent graduate of the University of Southern California, recalled downloading the app last year while in college but then not using it much. As someone who carries a physical camera everywhere, she preferred physical prints instead of Dispo’s filters. Now a senior director of marketing at the Gen Z-led marketing agency JUV Consulting, Frary said brands want content that feels vintage or raw. And although it can be expensive to develop dozens of rolls of actual film, she thinks the digital equivalents still don’t compare.

“We think we want Polaroids, we think we want film, we think we want all of these things that are pretty inaccessible just from a pricing perspective,” Frary said. “But a lot of times, the more accessible options like apps or filters that maybe sort of make the photos look the same don’t really cut it. Because at the root of the craving for nostalgia is a craving to cut through the filters and edits and the Instagram culture that has created this aura of fakeness.”

Forum spotlights a generation poised to become the largest U.S. consumer group.

Winnie Park
Winnie Park. COURTESY IMAGE.

Berns Communications Group’s Retail Influencer Network is convening an invitation-only CEO forum on September 12 aimed at revealing the mindset of Gen Z.

The event includes CEOs and other senior leaders from top brands such as Aerie, Alice + Olivia, American Eagle, Bubble, Coach, Forever 21 and many others. They’ll be joined by thought leaders, business influencers and members of The Z Suite, a recently launched network of students and influencers from leading fashion and merchandising schools.

But why focus on Gen Z?

Well, aside from being digitally native, politically progressive, pragmatic, values-driven and highly diverse, Gen Zers are shrewd consumers with enormous spending power. Analysts estimate their current disposable income at $360 billion.

Stacy Berns, president and founder of Berns Communications Group, noted that Gen Z is set to become the largest U.S. consumer group in the next 10 years, “which makes it crucial for retail and brand executives to have a deep understanding of how the generation thinks and shops.”

“However, there’s currently a disconnect between Gen Z’s values and shopping behaviors and retailers’ attempts to connect with them,” Berns said. “Our forum will bring together influential Gen Z founders, CEOs and thought leaders and C-suite executives from some of the generation’s favorite brands to illuminate how Gen Zers differ from other generations and how they think about inclusivity, sustainability, the metaverse and other topics that are key to the future of retail.”

Maya Penn, a Gen Z activist, three-time TED speaker, and founder and CEO of Maya’s Ideas, said her generational cohort is quite different from others. “Gen Z has grown up in an era of unprecedented access to information and technology,” Penn said. “We’ve watched the rise, fall and remixing of a number of industries from a young age, and have also been experimenting with nontraditional ways to find community and pursue career paths. I think there is also a unique flavor of authenticity that is deeply rooted in Gen Z culture overall.”

Ziad Ahmed, the Gen Z CEO of JUV Consulting, said social media and how it is used is distinctive. “Obviously, no generation is a monolith, but when we zoom out, I think broadly what makes Gen Z distinct is that, to us, social media is a first language,” Ahmed said. “We can ‘think’ in it — which has prompted us to fundamentally see the world differently. As a result of the fact that we have instantaneous access to so many voices, we have been dubbed the ‘plurals,’ indicating that we are a generation that thinks in terms of ‘we.’”

Ziad Ahmed
Ziad Ahmed. COURTESY IMAGE.

Renee Klein, vice president of global digital experience and consumer marketing at Coach, said that Gen Z, more than any other generation, “values brands that share or align with their own personal values. Brands should evaluate how their purpose and values sit within the set of core values important to Gen Z, and the best way to share those values in a genuine and authentic way.”

Stacey McCormick, senior vice president of marketing at Aerie, agreed and noted that Gen Z is a generation “that is deeply passionate about a number of social issues, from promoting mental well-being and empowering women to caring for our planet. Gen Z values purpose-driven brands while also pursuing affordable, on-trend products that are made using sustainable materials and practices.”

Fay Shuai, a Z Suite member and student at the University of Pennsylvania, echoed McCormick and said, “In simple words, Gen Zers value people and the planet.”

Shuai noted that Gen Z “cares immensely about other people regardless of differences, and particularly in the retail industry, we like to see diversity not only in executive retail leadership but also in the media, as it’s important for people from all sorts of backgrounds to be represented. We also worry a lot about the health of our planet.”

Shuai described sustainability as one of the most important environmental topics talked about by Gen Z. “We are all incredibly passionate about saving our planet, and in the retail world, the passion is apparent in our consumption patterns, such as purchasing secondhand pieces or buying from brands that give back to the planet. Gen Zers also care a lot about mental health and wellness,” Shuai said.

McCormick said that Gen Z, as a highly engaged generation, takes “meaningful action to impact lasting change while placing their trust in companies that do the same. Gen Z’s connection with the brands they support is deeper than loving a product collection — they care how things are made and align themselves with companies that share their core values.”

Winnie Park, CEO of Forever 21, said Gen Z highly values authenticity. “Brands that win with this demographic take a longer-term approach to building loyalty through being transparent and relatable at every touchpoint, which ultimately leads to sales,” Park said.

When asked about engaging Gen Z, Park said brands need to “meet them where they are — to have an organic, relatable presence in spaces they
already inhabit.”

“The metaverse is a great example of a place where Forever 21 is authentically engaging with Gen Z by giving them tools to be creative and a space to express themselves,” Park said. “This shift in our strategy signals our move from fast fashion to omnichannel brand relevance with a focus on Gen Z, who are not just digital natives but social natives as content creators and pioneers in social commerce and the metaverse.”

Forever 21’s strategic shift is clearly in the right direction. Simran Hussain, a Z Suite member who attends Emory University, said one of the best ways to engage Gen Z is to be creative and eye catching. “Gen Z has an average attention span of about 8 seconds, so brands need to either make content that communicates effectively within that timeframe or present something that convinces the Gen Zer to keep watching and stay invested.”

Regarding current workplace dynamics, Gen Z is leading the charge in “quiet quitting,” which is a trend where employees abandon the practice of going above and beyond for their employers. The goal is to improve work-life balance. But for a lot of Gen Z, quiet quitting is a statement that one’s job doesn’t define the person.

Simran Hussain
Simran Hussain. COURTESY IMAGE.

There’s another key factor companies need to consider with workforce management and Gen Z: flexibility.

Theresa Watts, senior vice president of human resources, diversity, equity, and inclusion at True Religion, said she’s baffled at how often she hears leaders complaining about the need to provide “a more flexible schedule for employees while also asking how they can be more attractive to Gen Zers.”

“Recently, I had a conversation with a leader who was upset because when she spoke to a hybrid worker while they were working from home, the employee was not actually at home,” Watts said. “I asked her, ‘If the work is getting done, why do you care where she was doing it? The employee answered the phone, so they are clearly available and present. The work is getting done, so they are clearly responsible. What exactly is the basis of your concern?’”

Watts said Gen Z wants more flexibility and more control of their work. “It is bigger than work-life balance, it is more an issue of the ability to design their schedule,” Watts said. “If this fits into the needs of the business and is doable, then why not let it happen? Why not provide that level of trust and autonomy?”

Watts said Gen Z wants purpose, inclusion, diversity and meaning. “They want to shop for brands that are transparent and have purpose and they want to work for brands that are transparent and provide them with purpose,” Watts noted. “They want to know that their dollars in the stores and their contributions in the workplace
are meaningful.”

Alec Beers, a Z Suite member attending Cornell University, said brands and merchants need to know that Gen Z values financial stability, mobility and lifestyle flexibility.

“They follow the markets and invest, but they are also always looking for the best opportunities to get ahead financially, in ways such as tapping into a side hustle or strategically saving up,” Beers said.

Speaker lineup:
www.retailinfluencerforum.com