Why Zillennials Will Rule the Digital Economy

The Census Bureau collects demographic data on the birthrates of those living in the United States and groups them into age-related cohorts based on the year in which they were born. This is done every ten years based on a household survey.

The current generational breakdown looks something like this:

Generational Cohort Year of Birth Age Range
Post-War 1945 and earlier 79-96
Baby Boomers 1946 – 1964 60-78
Gen X 1965 – 1980 44-59
Millennials 1981 – 1996 28-43
Gen Z 1997 – 2012 12-27


This “pulse rate” way of classifying the behavior of people born in these 15 year generational bands assumes that birth date defines behaviors within that cohort. That all people who come of age within those age bands behaves similarly. And that the differences between cohorts are more relevant than the differences among the behaviors of the individuals within them.

A funny thing happened on the way to the digital transformation that throws cold water on this once tried and true way of benchmarking generational behavior.

Age is Just a Number

Over the last twenty-five years, technology has introduced new ways for people and businesses to engage — and routine activities once only done in person became digitally enabled. For everyone.

Take social media.

An 18-year-old Gen Z watches TikTok 58 minutes a day on a mobile phone, a 42-year-old millennial spends 2 hours on Instagram every week on her iPad. A 62-year-old boomer spends 11 hours on Facebook on either a PC or a mobile device each week. All different social media strokes for different generational folks. Yet all generations, except for the very oldest, are using social media apps to some degree to connect to people and brands using their mobile devices and apps.

And let’s not forget that it was the Gen Zers and millennials who taught Grandpa how to text and Grandma to Venmo them money instead of a sending a check or cash tucked inside of a birthday card.

Using different birth years instead of the standard generational cohort as a starting point for our analysis helped us understand how similar — and different — the use of technology was across consumers regardless of generational cohort.

It’s an observation that the PYMNTS Intelligence team made in 2018 when we began to more fully examine the payments, banking and shopping behaviors of a national study of consumers living in the U.S.

We wanted to better understand the degree to which people used digital to connect to one of the many activities that represented a person’s daily or weekly routine that were also often done in person at the time.

Using different birth years instead of the standard generational cohort as a starting point for our analysis helped us understand how similar — and different — the use of technology was across consumers regardless of generational cohort.

We learned that access to technology, the devices consumers owned and how they used them was more statistically relevant to understanding shopping, banking and payments behaviors than assumptions based on the traditional age-defined cohort to which Census said they belonged.

Making broad sweeping generalizations asserting that all members of a particular cohort behaved the same way — inaccurate.

We examined how consumers use connected devices and the things they do with them.

Less connected individuals might use connected technology to conduct their banking transactions, communicate via text and email and stream movies.  More connected consumers also shop for products, buy food and manage their health using connected technologies. And all of this can be accomplished just using a smartphone.

As consumers become more comfortable, they begin to adopt more connected devices like smart TVs, smart watches, gaming consoles, voice connected speakers and even purchase connected home devices like thermostats and smart appliances.  These highly-connected individuals conduct a wide range of household activities digitally, including using them.

Currently 19% of the population falls into the most highly-connected category, and they tend to be younger (46% of Gen Z are in the highly-connected group) and to some extent have higher incomes (only 15% of lower-income individuals fall into this group).

The Bridge Generation

This insight was also key to understanding the differences in consumer behavior within age-defined cohorts, particularly when studying millennials and Gen X.

Also in 2018, the PYMNTS Intelligence team identified important behavioral differences within the millennial and Gen X cohorts. A 29-year-old and 43-year-old millennial turned out to be as different as apples and asparagus, even as both were classified as millennials by Census. So, too, were the behaviors of a 45-year-old and a 59-year-old Gen X.

Using birth year as the starting point, the PYMNTS Intelligence team identified a new age cohort that reframed traditional generational lines; one that “bridged” older millennials with younger Gen Xers.

We found this group to be affluent and well-educated, settling into more stable careers and earning more money, establishing households with partners and children, feathering their nests and consuming many new things as they did it. They relied on connected devices to guide their shopping decisions — from the products they bought to the stores they shopped. Their shopping, banking and payments behaviors were also quite different from their younger and older counterparts in the two cohorts.

A 29-year-old and 43-year-old millennial turned out to be as different as apples and asparagus.

We called this new generational cohort “bridge millennials,” and they were consumers born between 1978 and 1988 (who at the time were between the ages of 30 and 40 — today they are 36 to 46 ). They share a more technology-driven lifestyle, a similar set of lifecycle needs and digitally-driven expectations and shopping and payments behaviors unique to this group.

What shaped this behavior was their introduction to digital at important moments in their lives.

Bridge millennials were the first to grow up in a largely internet-connected digital world. The oldest bridge millennials were in high school when internet-connected PCs were introduced, the youngest in middle school when the iPhone first launched. The elder bridge millennials rode the PC to mobile wave, were the early champions of digital in the workplace, and early adopters of consumer mobile and digital apps and devices.

The youngest had access to smartphones and apps throughout high school and college. By the time of their college graduation, they were fluent in speaking the language of mobile and apps in business. They became mobile pioneers, raising the bar for what a great mobile experience was in and outside of their work environment. They fed the flames of innovation by giving innovators the incentive to create new and different experiences.

This group was interesting not only because of their introduction and familiarity with connected technologies. They became old enough and far enough along in their career that they were emerging as a significant economic force in the economy.

I published my first piece describing the importance of the bridge millennial to payments and physical retail in May of 2018[1]. The piece referenced a study that tracked 4,000 consumers each quarter over an 18-month period, done with the support of Worldpay.

Bridge millennials were the first to grow up in a largely internet-connected digital world.

I wrote then that they would be the bellwether for how connected commerce would evolve over the next five to ten years —at that time, through 2023 and beyond.

It turned out to be more than a well-educated guess.

The PYMNTS Intelligence team continues to track spending patterns and reports on bridge millennials each time we release new data on consumer and merchant trends.

It turns out that over time this group has led to an expansion of digital shopping across retail and non-retail categories. At the same time, we have seen an evolution toward the use of purchasing online and picking up in stores.  In fact, in 2019, a year before the pandemic hit, 35% of bridge millennial consumers preferred to purchase digitally — and that expanded to over 53% during the height of the pandemic (2021).  That rate has declined as we exited the pandemic, but is still at 43% (far greater than it was before).

At the same time, we have seen the overall portion of the population that prefers to order online and pick up at the store increase from 27% before the pandemic to 41% last year.  All of which demonstrates the adoption of connected technology over and above temporary impacts due to the pandemic — and the influence of bridge millennials in shaping that trend.

The Zillennials

We found the same thing when examining the Gen Z cohort in 2022.

Using the same methodology we used for the bridge millennials, the PYMNTS Intelligence team identified a new cohort that straddles the classic GenZ and millennial age-defined cohorts. We call them zillennials, the 39.3 million consumers who were born between 1991 and 1999 (and now between the ages of 25 and 34). The younger members of this group were in the fourth grade when the App store came to the iPhone. The elder zillennials were heading off to college, smartphone in hand.

Zillennials are deeply dependent on mobile devices and apps to navigate the digital economy.

This is the cohort for whom digital is native to their generation but who are transitioning from school to the workforce. They are deeply dependent on mobile devices and apps to navigate the digital economy. And more than their older peers, they are a generation for whom mobile and apps have changed how they work, bank, pay and shop.

And their expectations of businesses they work for and shop with.

The “Generation Zillennial” report that PYMNTS Intelligence will release tomorrow (May 22, 2024) is the first in a new monthly generational study series that will benchmark zillennial digital behavior, along with that of other generational cohorts across all aspects of the connected economy. The survey design captures a number of social and behavioral trends that offer new insights into the influence of mobile phones on decision making and spending patterns and choices across generations.

With a big focus on zillennials.

One study and set of data points does not make a trend — yet — but we already see the profound impact of mobile apps and phones on this generation.

We find that zillennials are more financially responsible than many may give them credit for: more than three quarters of zillennials can be classified as either budget-minded (45%) or wealth builders (33%). Only a small number are either “givers” (4.8%) or splurge spenders (16%).

We believe that these personas provide a more meaningful way to track and understand zillennial behavior over time — and may even help to explain why so many in this age group move back home after school. Saving money and paying off debt seems to be a high priority, and therefore, a necessary part of their financial plan.

We believe that tracking zillennial behavior will give us a window into understanding how they use digital tools to navigate the connected economy.

We hypothesize that it was the early access to mobile apps like Greenlight, Step, Copper, goHenry, Robinhood, Venmo and others that made it much easier for this cohort to build good savings and investment habits, with parental guardrails. Setting goals and tracking progress toward those goals could happen in real time and in real life for zillennials, sparking conversations with friends and family members about stocks and markets and the tradeoffs between risk and reward when making investment decisions. If we are correct, access to these apps has helped shaped the personas we observe of this cohort in very different ways.

Of course, we will examine this more fully in future releases.

Why Zillennials Matter

Like with bridge millennials, we believe that the zillennial cohort will be instructive in understanding the substantial impact of digital on the lives of these consumers. By the end of this decade, zillennials will represent 13.6% of the population and 14.5% of consumer spending. They, along with their older millennial peers, will represent a majority of the workforce. Economically, together, they will be a force.

We believe that tracking zillennial behavior will give us a window into understanding how they use digital tools to navigate the connected economy and the influence of apps on kids and teens in shaping payments, credit, banking and investment preferences and behaviors. As important, we believe also it will give us a lens into the impact of their digital behaviors on others across generations with whom they interact.

The premise of the connected economy that I first began writing about in March of 2020 was mostly about the ability of mobile devices and apps to connect activities across once-discrete industry verticals. What we have discovered since is their demonstrable impact on people, no matter their age.

Technology, mobile and apps have become the bridge that connects people across traditional generational definitions, making age little more than a biological mile-marker on life’s journey. A way to share new experiences, drive adoption of new technology and establish new preferences.

And, as we’ve discovered, an entirely new way to define population cohorts.


[1] Bridge Millennials and the Threat to Physical Retail, Karen Webster, May 14, 2018.  https://www.pymnts.com/consumer-insights/2018/bridge-millennials-physical-retail-future-online-clothes-shopping/