Sunday, February 26, 2012

Sunday Essay - old media, new media and Gen Y

In Saturday morning musings - relevance & the ending of a column I referred to the fact that my Armidale Express column had been replaced by a new column, "Gen Y it matters" subtitled in the promo "Issues that matter to our youth." I noted that it was an interesting and very clear example of a shift based on particular perceptions of reader interests and newspaper demography.

In the brief discussion in comments following the post, kvd noted that it had been quite a few years since he last saw anyone under the age of 30 actually reading a newspaper - except to quick scan the job ads and accommodation section. For his part, Evan thought that It would be interesting to see if a paper could attract Gen Y. If so, he thought that this would be quite an achievement.

For my part, I thought it was actually silly to target Gen Y as though they were a homogeneous group. Both my daughters classify themselves as Gen Y; the idea of a Gen Y column dedicated to giving a voice to our youth made them chortle a bit.

Back in September 2006 (Baby Boomers, Generation X, Generation Y - What does it all mean?), I started my post with these words:

I must admit I have let all the debate about Gen X, GenY and the baby boomers sweep over me. I found the debate difficult to understand at more than a superficial level and also found it to be of little relevance to much of my work or my thinking.

I gave as one example changing attitudes to work. In seeking to understand those changes and their implications for people management, I came up with explanations that had little to do with intergenerational differences, much to do with the changing structure of work itself and responses to that. At best, terms like Gen X and Gen Y were short hand labels attached to bundles of attributes.

I then noted that I had been forced to re-assess this view. My overall thinking hadn't changed, but I needed to take into account that people were now using these terms in ways that did have behavioural impacts. I gave two examples.

In the first, eldest had suddenly started calling herself Gen Y, so she attached a personal meaning to the label.

The second example was the way that HR Departments in bigger organisations were frequently using the terms Gen X and Gen Y to explain the type of staffing challenges they faced. I might feel that they were talking about symptoms, that in fact the use of the terms disguised the real causes of the problems they were dealing with, but again their belief gave the terms meaning because it had practical effects on behaviour. I had to be able to use or at least understand their jargon if I was to help them in a professional sense.

Fashions change. The focus on Gen X and Gen Y in HR discussions appears to have peaked around the time we are talking about, and then declined, but the Baby Boomer, Gen X, Gen Y thing has rolled on. You can see it in the popularity of the Australian TV show "Talkin' 'Bout Your Generation."

The question of just what Gen Y actually is is a confused one. Recognising that Wikipedia pages change, the current Wikipedia page demonstrates that confusion quite nicely. There is no agreement as to start or end dates for Gen Y, nor of the attributes that this particular generation or generations is meant to possess. It could hardly be otherwise, for generation change is actually a creep rather than a sweep. Change is incremental. It is only looking back that you can start to get a feel for key change points.

Both my daughters were born in the second half of the 1980s, the decade that seems to form the core of much thinking about Gen Y. The single most important thing about my daughters' cohort is that they belong to the first truly  "wired" generation. Depending on your Gen Y start dates, the older members of Gen Y predate the internet. They may have adopted it, but they weren't born to it.

As so often happens, the bundle of attributes attached to Gen Y were set not by my daughters' immediate cohort, but by those who proceeded them.

According to the Wikipedia article, the phrase Generation Y first appeared in an August 1993 Ad Age editorial to describe teenagers of the day. The editorial used the term Y to distinguish from Generation X. It covered those twelve or younger (born after 1981), as well as the teenagers of the upcoming ten years. Now here we already have a bit of problem.

At the time I wrote my original post, on the Ad Age definitions the oldest Gen Y members were twenty four, thirty today. The HR managers of 2006 were clearly not talking just about those aged twenty four years or younger, nor were many those claiming to be Gen Y then twenty four. There is another indeterminate age range of perhaps six plus years who claimed (or were awarded) the Gen Y title to distinguish the group from Generation X. 

In 2006, my eldest daughter turned nineteen. In opting for a Gen Y label, in buying the first edition of that generation y (all lower case) magazine, she was responding to a marketing dynamic, for much of what we are talking about has been set by media and advertising. It was, after all, Ad Age that appears to have first promoted the term. She was responding to and accepting labels already defined.

Linking this discussion back to my starting point, you will see how messy all this generational stuff is.

In defining the new Express column in the way he did, our new editor linked one bundle of attributes "Gen Y" to another "our youth". My daughters laughed because while they classify themselves as Gen Y, they certainly don't classify themselves as "youth". Nor, for that matter, do most university students in general.

So who are the youth Matt is targeting? I'm actually not sure, but I suspect it's those in late school years through to the early twenties. But it's a pretty indeterminate target, especially if you focus on issues. To my mind, it's not issues but experiences (music, entertainment, social interaction, the opposite sex etc) that really appeals to this age range.

I said that my daughters belong to the first truly wired generation. Herein lies the rub, linking to the point made by kvd and Evan. They don't generally read newspapers.

My daughters' generation is a truly time poor generation. By the time you add university, work, social life, sport, their particular interests, they don't have time to scratch themselves. They use the new media to communicate, to keep in touch, just to follow up on things that have attracted their attention. They generally don't have time to sit down and read a newspaper, especially where they can get what they want in terms of information more easily from other sources.

This doesn't mean that the Armidale Express couldn't attract a larger readership in the younger demographic.  I think it could because, and as I have argued before, the country press still lives in a different world from the metro newspapers. It is still far more localised, rival information sources not so dominant.

But pity the metro press. It doesn't have the same options as its country cousins. I am a strong supporter of the newspapers. I know a fair bit about about new and old media, but I do scratch my head about the best way of attracting a younger readership. 


Evan said...

I guess the trick will be to find local concerns they can tap in to for younger people. I do think the rural press is very different to that in the capital cities.

Jim Belshaw said...

I agree, Evan, on the local concerns.

Anonymous said...

I must say I've always felt a little sorry (perplexed?) for the Ys.

I am a baby boomer, and could easily accept the launch into the exciting unknown embodied by generation X. And the one after the Ys has various names, but seems to be settling on Gen I - as in internet. But it seems to me the Ys are so named simply because they succeeded X, with little else about them to define their existence?

Perhaps I'm wrong, and I don't mean to disparage your daughters Jim - and especially would appreciate your not passing on my physical address; but what, really does the Y stand for?


Jim Belshaw said...

At one level, just the generation after X. At a second level they are meant to have all sorts of attributes that seem to vary with time. Some make sense, others don't. Must ask eldest.

Winton Bates said...

Perhaps the editor thinks that Armidale is different. Young people might have time to read the Express because the pace of life is slower - more like the slow train than the express!

Jim Belshaw said...

That might be right Winton, although I suspect that life is just as full.

Anonymous said...

I've yet to meet any young person for whom life wasn't a sort of full on kaleidoscopic immersion in which every single thing is IMPORTANT, and for which they have a solution never thought of by anyone else, if only the elders would get out of the way, or lend them the car keys.

Not only do I admire them for that, I can even dimly remember my own very similar thoughts ;)

ps newspapers? Not so much.