Nobody cares about Generation X. Squeezed between baby boomers and millennials, those born between 1965 and 1980 are an “unsung generation,” Time magazine once sneered, “hardly recognized as a social force or even noticed much at all.”

That’s changing, though, as those skeptical slackers have created something that today’s companies now see as key to their success: Generation Z.

Corporate marketers looking to understand that important group—the oldest of whom are in their early 20s and are just forming their brand loyalties—are taking classes on social media and memes in an effort to crack the kids’ code. But really, to start understanding Gen Z and its direct spending power of as much as $143 billion, companies should try studying their Gen X parents first. While there are reams of research linking millennial behavior to their boomer influences, experts are just starting to analyze what connections exist between the previously ignored Generation X and their Generation Z offspring.

“Gen Z really is different,” said Jason Dorsey, a Gen Z consultant with the Center for Generational Kinetics, a research outfit. “They aren't a more extreme version of millennials but are different—and that’s mostly because of parenting.”

“They aren't a more extreme version of millennials but are different—and that’s mostly because of parenting.”

Dorsey—whose clients include Adidas AG, McDonald’s Corp. and Toyota Motor Corp.—calls parenting a “hidden driver” that influences how later generations view work, spending and education. Without even realizing it, Generation Z’s viewpoints on these topics have been shaped by their Generation X parents, who came of age amid a series of crises: Watergate, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Challenger explosion, Rodney King. Often, the strife was closer to home: Divorce rates spiked in the 1970s, giving rise to neighborhoods full of tough-skinned “latchkey kids” who craved security but rarely found it either at home or, as they grew up, in a more globalized, less-forgiving workplace.  

“Gen X is raising Gen Z to look like them: autonomous, cynical, with looser reins,” said Corey Seemiller, a professor at Ohio’s Wright State University who has conducted research and written several books on Generation Z. “They figure things out themselves.”

To explore that cross-generation connection, Bloomberg spoke with experts, scoured data and also asked CivicScience, a consumer research company that works with big brands like T-Mobile and Microsoft, to crunch some numbers. One key finding: Generation Z shares the pessimism their parents had at the same age, based on an annual survey given to high-school seniors since 1975 by the University of Michigan.

Of course, it’s tough to definitively prove that Gen Z’s skepticism was instilled in them by their Gen X parents. After all, it’s natural that a generation that’s in the throes of transition—leaving high school and college, starting careers—would be worried about the future. But there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that Generation X has had a profound influence on their Z kids, especially where close-in-age millennials buck the trend.

Take higher education: Generation X witnessed in their formative years the decline of lucrative blue-collar jobs, making a college degree more essential for a successful career, and they instilled that in Gen Z. The new cohort is far more likely than boomer-raised millennials to say a college degree is very important for reaching their goals, and they’re on track to be the best educated generation ever, according to Pew Research.

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