Clay earrings were all the rage starting last year. Pairs that dangle, studs, hoops and zigzags had found their way onto many fashion-forward ears. But the prices were a bit steep for most budget-bound college kids.

Reilly Shaw, 22, and Emily McMullen, 22, thought they’d try their hand at making a couple of pairs for themselves. A year later, the Instagram account — A Hard Clay’s Night — they set up for personal enjoyment has almost 400 followers and they’ve sold over 100 pairs of their matte, minimalist creations.

“I just sent off pairs to customers in South Carolina and Florida,” McMullen said. There’s no brick-and-mortar aspirations or depressing sessions of wondering whether they’re in the red, green or black. There is no overhead or large loans — just earrings. And that’s how they’d like it to stay.

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Shaw and McMullen are poster children for how Generation Z is changing the nature of small business in America. It’s not uncommon anymore to see surprisingly young entrepreneurs taking a trend by storm, developing a relevant product and turning out a profit on the fly. But experts say the biggest change coming for the consumer economy and those that feed them is what motivates creators.

“[Gen Z] say they want to make an impact on something bigger than themselves,” said Mitch Hamm, director of innovation and entrepreneurship at the University of North Alabama. Most people feel the same way eventually, he said, but the lot coming up is coming to that altruistic conclusion sooner.

A Hard Clay’s Night, an Instagram-based business run by Gen Zers, was an unexpected hit.

A motivation shift

Hamm, a self-described “Boomer,” said motive has drastically changed over the past few decades. Money is no longer the end-all-be-all, he said. Tradition set by the Baby Boomers said to get the pretty paycheck and enjoying life is the afterthought, Hamm said. Gen Z wants to pick the place and the people, and they’ll figure out how to make the resources match later.

Eighty-eight percent of Generation Z is optimistic about their future, according to a study released by Adobe. There is contagious energy and an overpowering sense of confidence that’s flowing straight from creative young minds into the workforce, whether traditionally or through the gig-economy, or freelance network, Hamm said.

And in working alongside many aspiring entrepreneurs, Hamm has found that many Gen Zers feel certain their talents are to be used in the service of others. Micah Johnson’s newest venture would do just that for many Americans facing life paycheck to paycheck. Johnson, a 20-year-old entrepreneur from Texas, is working on a phone app the would allow people to trade skills. Sivito — the app carrying a slogan of “Get things done without money” — would come in handy if someone needed a ride to the grocery or an errand run.

“The goal is to release people from the constraints of money,” he said.

Micah Johnson, a 20-year-old entrepreneur and UNA student from Texas, is working on a phone app the would allow people to trade skills.

Johnson has been setting goals and inventing since third grade when he “opened” a comic book shop with his friends. He worked on designs for a pen pencil in fifth grade, made candy in junior high with strawberry milk powder and eventually founded a streetwear line that was featured in multiple stores in downtown Houston. It’s always been his “thing.”

It’s about creating something that “changes the way people live,” he said. And he’s not alone.

Harrison Williams, a 21-year-old student at the University of North Alabama, is working on a pair of socks for marathon runners, and 20% of each purchase will go to buying solar panels for families without power. Two birds with one stone, he said.

It’s not a few and far between trend we’re seeing, Hamm said. Creativity, confidence and optimism are strong among newer generations.

Instagram is killing Sears

And consumers’ lives are being radically changed in the wake of such uplift. Just as A Hard Clay’s Night has grown from a user-friendly social media platform, the separation of America’s Millennial and Gen Z population from traditional shopping routes has and will drastically impact the nature of consumption and production. Just like chain restaurants, department stores like Belk and Sears are suspected to die at the hands of young America.

Cottage businesses, Hamm said, are all the rave, and there is always more room for niche, handcrafted endeavors like A Hard Clay’s Night or Kensie’s Creations, an online jewelry and accessories brand that was started by McKenzie Wilbanks, a recent high school graduate from Alabama.

As small businesses continue to pop up from every corner of TikTok and Instagram a question arises. How’s this going to impact the workforce, consumer culture and production.

“I’m not so sure,” Hamm said. “I don’t know that ultimately it will look that different.”

The biggest change to come, Hamm said, is how Gen Z works. The nine-to-five, 20-year loyalty to a corporation isn’t as appealing as it once was, and Gen Z isn’t about to accept the age-old “that’s just the way it is,” mentality. The opportunity for success is just waiting on social media, Shaw said, and that alone will change the course of people’s goals and aspirations.

“I’m excited about the future,” Hamm said. “[Gen Z] have the ability to understand their impact in a new way.”