Generation Share (Jim Karrh On Marketing)

The kids and young adults have now headed back to school or college, prompting a lot of those “the younger set today sure is different” discussions.

During my university professor days, educators would get an annual reminder about how the incoming class would not understand our increasingly dated jokes and cultural references. (It’s indeed possible that, for example, today’s freshmen might not relate to “he slimed me” from “Ghostbusters.” Now that’s scary.)

For more than a decade Ron Neif and Tom McBride, two faculty members at Beloit College, each autumn have created the Beloit College Mindset List, an unscientific but interesting look at the worldview of incoming college freshmen. They made a number of observations about the Class of 2017 (most of whom were born in or around 1995). During the lifetimes of this new class, spray paint has never legally been sold in Chicago, plasma has never been just a bodily fluid, planes have never landed at Stapleton Airport in Denver and having a “chat” has seldom involved talking.

This topic is more than an annual conversation starter for teachers, administrators and parents. Any business that needs to keep its offerings and messages relevant to the next generation must continually adjust its expectations and, ultimately, its marketing approach.

Professors Neif and McBride say this year’s group is part of a new and growing “Sharing Generation,” and I tend to agree. They point out a number of ways this manifests itself:

Sharing information. Theirs is a world that has always been marked by cut-and-paste, forward, post and retweet. The lines between creation and curation (and even plagiarism) are increasingly blurred.

Sharing themselves. Whereas previous generations might recoil at instances of Too Much Information, this generation is texting and “chatting” (in a virtual way) almost all the time and often about personal matters. Of course, some are beginning to understand the potential dangers inherent in sexting or inappropriate Facebook posts.

Sharing transportation. They are tending to flock toward cities and urban centers, have less interest in owning their own vehicles and are just fine with public transportation. (This trend seems less applicable to me here in Arkansas.)

Sharing knowledge. This group has been exposed to more collaborative learning methods and prefers them. My experience with corporate training and coaching has been similar; most adults want less of a lecture (the “sage on the stage”) and more of an expert facilitator (the “guide on the side”).

A shared national identity. They’ve grown up in a multi-ethnic society where diversity and tolerance have been touted throughout their lifetimes. For most, there are many ways to be “American.” And no, they don’t know much about American history.

Shared spiritual values. This is a generation that often embraces spiritual concepts (meditation, service to others) but not necessarily religious ones. The authors of the Mindset List say today’s students are more ecumenical than sectarian. In fact, they assert, this generation “may very well become the most secular generation — and yet also the generation best organized for service — in American history.”

This new mindset, driven by constant connectedness through technology and the erosion of some traditional social structures and norms, has wide implications for all businesses. What is the role of consumer memory when you can look almost anything up? How are community and relationships being reshaped, and will they prove durable for this generation? Marketing messages, networking and recruiting are continuing to evolve.

Did I mention that the keyboards I used as an undergraduate were at times part of a typewriter? Today’s generation might not ever use a typewriter but they might share cool images from a Pinterest board. n

Jim Karrh of Little Rock is a marketing consultant, researcher, speaker and author. Visit JimKarrh.com or email him at Jim@JimKarrh.com.