One of us is from Kentucky and the other from China. We both attend Washington and Lee University in Virginia. Last summer, we assisted Professor Seth Cantey, also a co-author of this piece, with research on the roles of bitcoin and Tether in Lebanon. To help with that work, first we had to learn a lot. What is bitcoin, and what are the problems it’s trying to solve? How is it being used in Lebanon? Could bitcoin adoption mitigate the economic crisis? For two months, we wrestled with these questions.
But another question came up too. What does our generation, Gen Z, think of bitcoin?
Gen Z, the demographic cohort succeeding Millennials, includes those born from the mid-1990s to the early 2010s. Basically, we’re digital natives in our teens and twenties. We’re already entering adulthood, taking up an increasing share of the workforce, and contributing to the global economy. We’re not Blackrock, but whether and how we adopt bitcoin will matter for the currency and the network in the long term. So, we decided to ask our peers what they thought about the technology. And we have some thoughts of our own.
Our survey was simple, not scientific, but we found it anecdotally useful. We asked two open-ended questions to dozens of peers in the United States and China: 1) What is your understanding of bitcoin? 2) How often do you come across it? We were especially interested in whether answers to these questions varied by geography, since the US and China have radically different policies vis-à-vis bitcoin and cryptocurrency generally.
Responses from our peers were similar in some ways, different in others. Gen Zers in both countries view bitcoin mainly as an investment option. In the US, they tend to see it as a speculative investment, but one that’s attracting increasing attention and gradually becoming a more prominent part of investor strategies. They also think savvy investors wouldn’t allocate a large percentage of their portfolios to bitcoin. It’s understood as “high-risk, high-reward.” Chinese Gen Zers similarly regard bitcoin as a speculative investment, but they tend to be even more cautious. In China, bitcoin brings to mind gambling, cheating, and crime, all activities with potentially serious consequences. The Chinese government has made clear to its citizens that bitcoin is not backed by the state, creating the perception of a lack of guaranteed value.
When asked whether and how they’ve noticed bitcoin in everyday life, American Gen Zers characterize bitcoin’s presence as peripheral. They’ve seen bitcoin ATMs at gas stations, Coinstar machines while buying groceries, and payment options at certain online stores. Even QR codes at a few restaurants. In other words, they know bitcoin is out there, but it still feels like a novelty. In contrast, Chinese rarely see bitcoin in their daily lives. China’s decision to ban bitcoin mining in 2021 contributed to the population’s sense that it’s mostly off limits. And while there has never been an explicit ban on holding bitcoin or other cryptocurrencies in China, trading is illegal, and Beijing has warned banks and other financial institutions against providing crypto services.
While our peers don’t qualify as a representative sample of Gen Z, their views make sense to us, because they resemble what our own thinking was before working on this topic over the summer.
But that thinking has changed. After months of learning about bitcoin, we now recognize it as much more than an investment option. In Lebanon, where the banking and financial systems have collapsed, bitcoin serves as a savings tool and a hedge against inflation. In Russia, it’s become a lifeline for dissidents whose bank accounts have been frozen. In Nigeria, it’s a remittance vehicle with the potential to put companies like Western Union out of business. Refugees fleeing Ukraine have used it to transport wealth on hardware wallets or in their heads. El Salvador has made it the centerpiece of a campaign to attract high tech entrepreneurs and tourism. The list goes on.
More broadly, bitcoin looks like a way to level the playing field in the realm of international currency. We doubt it will ever replace fiat entirely, because governments will always want the ability to control money. It does seem plausible that bitcoin could serve as a check on fiat currencies, though, especially vis-à-vis the kinds of inflation we’ve seen in recent years. If bitcoin were to do that alone, it would be a meaningful contribution to the world. But it’s doing much more.
What we’ve learned from our peers is that bitcoin is misunderstood not just by boomers but across generations. We’re still early. Having grown up with the internet, we think Gen Z is likely to catch on to bitcoin more quickly than others, but we’re not there yet. So far, it’s not being widely taught in universities, and our peers continue to think of it mostly as speculation. We think that will change in the years to come. Once people go down the bitcoin rabbit hole, we’ve discovered, they tend to like what they see.
This is a guest post by Seth Cantey, Jack Evans, and Anonymous. Opinions expressed are entirely their own and do not necessarily reflect those of BTC Inc or Bitcoin Magazine.