24-year-old Ziad Ahmed is committed to championing the voices of young people. It has been his goal since he was a teenager to empower the next generation, and it remains at the core of his work today.

Ziad is a 2023 United States Obama Leader and the CEO and co-founder of JUV Consulting, a Generation Z marketing consultancy that works with clients to help them reach young people. 

The firm partners with companies to amplify the voices of Generation Z, finds solutions, and creates campaigns targeted at those born after 1997.

He says his mission is to level the playing field and include young people in the conversation. 

“We exist to empower diverse young people and we believe in co-creating products, campaigns, ideas, and movements that meaningfully push our generation forward,” Ahmed explained. “I wanted to change the world and disrupt the current conversations and to get more young people in the rooms where it happens. Somehow, seven and a half years later, JUV Consulting has been named the largest and most popular Gen Z agency.” 

The company has worked with more than 20 Fortune 500 companies and in 2019 Ziad was named to Forbes’ 30 under 30 list. As a teen, Ziad founded his first nonprofit, Redefy, which he founded in middle school, to defy stereotypes and embrace social and acceptance. 

“The world looks better when diverse young people have a seat at the table. I believe that folks should be talking and building with us, rather than just talking about us.”

– Ziad Ahmed

“The world looks better when diverse young people have a seat at the table. I believe that folks should be talking and building with us, rather than just talking about us,” he shared.

JUV Consulting has worked with major brands to champion diverse communities and enhance storytelling around topics like climate change, mental health, and systemic inequities. 

“We believe that the expert is the person closest to that reality so we staff diverse teams for our clients to tackle the problems they’re facing,” Ziad explained. “That can look like anything from doing research in regards to how Gen Z’s feeling about climate change, to co-creating a campaign around youth voter engagement, to co-creating and producing a new line of sustainable products for a brand and working with diverse creators to tell that story.”

Ziad Ahmed, a man with a medium skin tone, stands on a stage and speaks to an audience. He is wearing a red patterned sweater and his arms are outstretched. A projector screen is behind him.

Ziad says being a part of the Leaders USA program has enhanced his leadership skills and given him a network of like-minded individuals.

“The program has been a great moment for pause and reflection each week. Having time to learn and embrace community, rather than just be obsessed with productivity has been beneficial,” Ziad reflected. “I’ve been really humbled and honored to be a part of the program and work with such inspiring people.” 

He says the amplification of young voices is essential for the progression of democracy. 

“Our voices and viewpoints cannot be an afterthought. I think voting and democracy is one tool in our toolbox of change making. It’s important that young people can make their preferences, desires, and demands heard in order to shape the political institutions and infrastructure that we have,” Ziad shared. “I believe in the saying, if you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu. I think young people are often on the menu because people are making assumptions about what our tastes are instead of including us in the process. I hope that we can make our voices heard through protests and at the ballot box because we are the ones who are inheriting the decisions that are being made right now and how we will have to contend with the future that we’re barreling towards.”

Moving forward, Ziad is focused on scaling his business to reach more young people. 

“We will continue to impact more young people and put out more stories into the world that hopefully makes more people feel seen, included, celebrated, honored, and inspired,” Ziad shared. 

In what is sure to be shocking news, college students feel differently about major issues than their parents did. The topic of the hour is college itself. According to many young people, the herculean four-year undertaking is no longer worth the trouble. 

That’s from the point of view of Philip Cohen, a sociology professor at the University of Maryland—College Park. The overarching attitude of today’s college students, Cohen tells Fortune in an interview, is that getting a college degree is no longer a ticket to a secure future, even if they themselves chose to enroll.  

The parents of today’s college students often told them going to college would provide a path to job security, which would eventually blossom into a fruitful career. That comes with the generational benchmarks of home ownership, a vacation fund, and even the ability to provide for a family, and the next generation’s education, too. That’s what the American Dream purported to offer, at least, until Gen Z came along and upended it. 

“Historically, we were told, ‘For 20 years you learn, for 30 years you lead, and maybe for 20 years, if you’re lucky, if you live this false American dream, then you get to live,’” Ziad Ahmed, the founder and CEO of Gen Z-focused consulting firm JUV Consulting, said at Fortune’s Impact Initiative conference last week. “Gen Z is taking the microphone back and saying, ‘Hell no. I want to learn, I want to lead, and I want to live simultaneously. And you’ll be damned if you tell me otherwise.’”

The idea of college ensuring success has eroded, Cohen tells Fortune. “To be sure, pursuing education and a career is still a safer bet for your future,” he says, noting that job outcomes and salary baselines are significantly improved with each advanced degree. But those material benefits are “just not a guarantee anymore.” 

But while Cohen’s students expressed their disappointment and anxiety, college isn’t quite going out of style just yet. In a national Harris Poll survey of 2023 graduates, 90% said they’re glad they went to college and said they still believe a degree is their best shot at a strong future. Then again, more than half of adults—with the benefit of hindsight—told the Wall Street Journal in a survey last year that the economic benefits (or earning potential) of getting a bachelor’s degree doesn’t outweigh the cost. That’s a 40% jump from those who said the same in 2013. 

The shift in attitude may partly be because college graduates have been desperately trying to pay off their hundreds of thousands of dollars of student loans for years or even decades. Indeed, college—whether or not it’s “necessary” on principle—has become an exorbitant expense that about half of the country incurs—to the point where the cost isn’t worth it for some. But college students may also be seeing that employers are more and more focused on what workers can actually do in a given role. In many major industries, skills are becoming more valuable than pedigree—and anyone can learn.

The skills-first mentality is edging out the college diploma

The move towards skills-based hiring has gained substantial steam throughout the pandemic as workers and bosses reconsidered their values and needs. But the shift has been underway for nearly a decade.

Under the tutelage of former CEO Ginni Rometty, consulting giant IBM coined the term “new collar jobs” to describe opportunities calling for a specific handful of skills rather than a certain major or undergrad degree. With a focus on new collar jobs, the percentage of IBM roles that required a four-year degree dropped from 95% in 2011 to less than 50% in January 2021. 

In today’s job market, bosses need to be amenable to new approaches, LinkedIn CEO Ryan Roslansky told the Harvard Business Review last year. Hiring through a professional or alumni network was a fine approach when the market was bursting with talented applicants, he said. “But when the labor market is moving much quicker, we really need to figure out something to focus on,” he explained. “[And] that alternative, flexible, accessible path is really going to be based on skills.”

Indeed, companies that prioritize skills over “antiquated signals” like where (or whether) they earned a degree “will help ensure that the right people can be in the right roles, with the right skills, doing the best work,” Roslansky said, adding that it will lead to a more efficient and equitable workforce, “which then creates better opportunities for all.”

Even college itself is a means of honing soft skills that will serve students well in future jobs. “The people you want around are the people who know new things,” Cohen, the Maryland professor, says. “It’s hard to impart on today’s young people, but the idea is that what you get from college is not just skills, but the experience of thinking and learning for four years.”

This isn’t just good news for young people who are considering eschewing a degree (and all the subsequent loans) altogether. It’s also good news for employers. Companies that get on board and forgo degree requirements could stand to see “an explosion of talent,” with nineteen times the workers placed in suitable roles. Who could argue against that?

After defining the category, Tinder faces increasing competition and marketing challenges

two women dressed in pink in a convertible pink car driving through the desert
Known for being the hookup app, Tinder has set out to redefine its brand.

As a new academic year gets underway on college campuses nationwide, Tinder and rapper Saweetie are playing Cupid. The dating app has enlisted the Gen Z artist, who references Tinder in her track “Tap In,” to get students swiping during a prime flirting moment: freshman orientation.

Tinder sees the highest influx of 18-year-old members during this month, and the school most active on the app will win a free concert by Saweetie and a special guest. 

For Tinder, the college contest is a return to its roots. After launching in 2012, its first marketing leader Whitney Wolfe Herd (who later founded rival dating app Bumble) toured universities and introduced the concept of swiping—then a novel way to seek romantic connection. After selling the swipe to students, Tinder would go on to redefine dating culture. 

According to findings from its Singles in America survey, 64% of online daters reporting they feel burned out in their search for hookups and love.

Eleven years later, the stigma around online dating has largely dissolved, but other marketing challenges have emerged for the crowded category, including increasing reports of dating app fatigue. 

Against this backdrop, Tinder and its rivals are ramping up efforts to woo Gen Z, the first generation to come of age in the dating app era. But as Tinder hits campuses this time around, it is finding that what Gen Z wants from dating has changed—and so, too, must the stories it tells about connections.

two women dressed in pink pajamas in a green bathroom with one woman handing another a giant toothbrush
Tinder has found that what Gen Z values in dating has changed from previous generationsTinder, Mischief @ No Fixed Address

“Gen Z is showing up more authentically than any other generation,” Melissa Hobley, Tinder’s chief marketing officer, told Adweek. “They want to feel no judgment and be able to seek out the kind of connection they want, when they want it.”

Changing perceptions

A Pew Research Center survey conducted earlier this year showed the ubiquity of dating apps. Three in 10 U.S. adults say they have used a dating site or app, but this figure soars to 53% among people under 30.

Dating is a bit scary and vulnerable, and we brought to life those emotions. That hit a nerve.

Melissa Hobley, CMO, Tinder

Tinder is the most popular among the apps, with 46% of online daters using it. That number is even higher among those under 30, with 79% having used the platform. By comparison, 31% of online daters have been on Match, 28% on Bumble and 19% on Hinge. 

Though Tinder retains dominance in the category it helped shape, its downloads dropped by 5% in 2021 as it faced a misperception. Among many users, it had become known as a hookup app that only facilitated casual encounters. 

Meanwhile, some rivals positioned themselves as tools for finding meaningful connections. Bumble, founded in 2014, bills itself as a more equitable app because only women can make the first move. Hinge (bought by Tinder’s parent company Match Group in 2018) launched its “Designed to Be Deleted” campaign in 2019 and subsequently built a reputation as the best app for seeking a relationship. 

“Tinder is a global player but had never said what we’re about. The narrative had gotten away from the brand,” Hobley said. “The perception [of Tinder as a hookup app] was true—but the reality wasn’t.”

Under Hobley, who joined Tinder in 2022 from fellow Match Group-owned platform OkCupid, the app launched its first-ever global brand campaign earlier this year. “It Starts With a Swipe,” created by agency Mischief @ No Fixed Address, told “a story we’ve never told before,” said Hobley: 40% of users surveyed by Tinder were looking for a long-term relationship.

Rather than shying away from the prospect of hookups, the campaign reclaims what that could be to a new generation, said Hobley: “A hookup means something very different to Gen Z. It’s not this negative thing.” 

“It Starts With a Swipe” subverts typical narratives about app-based dating and puts all kinds of encounters on the table. One ad’s voiceover says, “Some Tinder dates turn into one-night stands. But some turn into two nightstands,” as a couple moves from a first-date kiss to furniture shopping. 

“Tinder supports any kind of connection you want,” said Hobley. “You want tonight, I got you. You want forever, I got you.” 

Tinder’s campaign is also unapologetically inclusive. Diverse Gen Z daters, including LGBTQ+ people—the fastest growing group on Tinder—appear in the films and outdoor ads running across markets including the U.S., Europe and Australia. 

“We continue to never be done creating an experience that affirms who you are and who you might want to date, fuck, marry or see Berlin with,” Hobley said. 

So far, the campaign appears to be paying off. In its latest earnings call, Match Group credited “It Starts With a Swipe” with increasing Tinder’s user sign-ups, particularly among women and young people. Tinder’s second-quarter revenue outpaced its owner’s, increasing 6% year on year to $475 million, compared to Match Group’s overall revenue growth of 4% to $830 million. 

Hobley put the success down to the creative: “Dating is a bit scary and vulnerable, and we brought to life those emotions. That hit a nerve.” 

Tackling burnout

Despite these promising signs, Tinder and its peers recognize that dating apps need an image overhaul. 

Pew Research found online daters had mixed reviews of their experiences. About half (49%) said dating sites and apps are not safe, while 48% reported encountering negative behaviors on those platforms, including receiving unsolicited sexual messages or images, unwanted continued contact or physical threats. 

There is also a growing conversation about dating app fatigue, epitomized by headlines like “A Decade of Fruitless Searching: The Toll of Dating App Burnout,” in The New York Times last year. 

two young goths kissing next to a colorful carousel
Tinder addresses dating app fatigue with a young generation known for sharing their experiences onlineTinder, Mischef @ No Fixed Address

To counter that feeling, apps like Tinder, Hinge and Bumble have begun allowing users to “pause” their accounts without losing matches or messages. 

“There has been a positive societal shift in how we prioritize and talk about mental health. We’re seeing this mirrored when it comes to dating,” said Naomi Walkland, vp of EMEA and APAC marketing at Bumble. “In some cases, people have slowed down their approach to dating and set more boundaries. … People are also being more intentional with how they date, focusing on quality over quantity as they reflect on how they spend their time.”

The lonely generation

Though Tinder’s poll concluded that Gen Z are less jaded about online dating, young users come with their own set of expectations. Its 2023 Future of Dating report identified that Gen Z daters prioritize qualities such as authenticity, personal growth, diversity and open-mindedness. They are also more candid about political and social values up front. 

In this spirit of authenticity, Bumble has introduced profile badges that have proved popular among Gen Z users, helping them signpost everything from hobbies to political leanings. 

“This generation feels more empowered to date on their own terms,” Walkland explained. 

Another difference: Gen Z is often referred to as “the loneliest generation,” with a 2022 study by Eden Project Communities revealing that 19% of 16- to 24-year-olds often feel lonely—three times more than people aged 65 to 74. 

To help Gen Z combat loneliness and find intimacy, Hinge recently released a Distraction-Free Dating Guide with date ideas and advice. It also supports the Foundation for Social Connection and Active Minds, a nonprofit that provides mental health education for young adults. 

Dating apps should play a role in supporting such issues, especially “in an era where people are feeling increasingly disconnected,” Hobley observed. 

Moving to IRL

However, even among digitally native Gen Z, there remains skepticism about whether dating apps are the best tool to facilitate authentic connections.

“Even if you’re making a digital connection, there’s always this yearning for meeting in person,” said Shaina Zafar, co-founder and CMO of Gen Z marketing firm JUV Consulting, during Brandweek last week. 

With social platforms like TikTok, Gen Z are more open about sharing their dating experiences and frustrations, Zafar added. Yet even if more are seeking non-traditional relationships, a major commonality is a desire for “meaningful connection,” she said. 

Loneliness or wanting a relationship aren’t experiences unique to Gen Z—but at their age, many of them are grappling with these challenges for the first time, Zafar noted. She suggested that since so many dating app interactions stay at the surface, those brands could introduce more features or events that encourage people to move offline and meet in person.

“If Tinder was the reason I went on a first date with someone, and then I ended up going on five more dates with them and somehow living my life with them—I would never forget that,” Zafar said.