The term “generation gap” was popularized in the
60’s and generations have been categorized, studied and targeted by marketers
ever since. The use of Baby Boomer, Gen-X, Gen-Y is well documented and
in common use. Digital Natives is another term has been used to
describe characteristics of youth, specifically around how they consume
content, manage social lives, and spend their free time. OCLC Research
has been studying Digital Natives and related generational cohorts, in
particular to learn more about their use of libraries and how they conduct
research. See Lynn
Connaway’s work here, for example.
Recognizing that use of technology varies by generations, I
often test my assumptions for new service ideas on my children, ages 9, 16 and
20. I ask them about what is new, what is tired, and what they wish
existed. Yes, I am a different kind of helicopter parent! After many
years of doing this, I have noticed some quite dramatic differences between my
children, their friends and their use of technology. In casual work
conversation I have started using the term “micro generation” to
describe these differences. My colleague in the Innovation Lab, Tip
House, suggested I write this as a blog post on these micro-generations.
Micro-generations describes the differences between
technology users in roughly four-year bands. Their band tends to be
defined by their school mates and when they gain access to technologies.
For example, if SMS became accessible and affordable when they were in middle
school (11-14 years old), it tends to define their use of that technology for a
period well beyond those years. Depending on their adoption rates of
technological change, they may be a leader or follower within their band but
this is heavily influenced by those in the same school building, not just their
grade level. I will not embarrass my children by using their real names
for the following examples… and I added a fictitious older cousin to describe
my view of micro-generations.
Jessica, a Mobile Immigrant –
- Born 1986-1990
- She didn’t get her own phone until at least High
School but her parents have owned a mobile phone as long as she can remember.
- She started using a computer just as the web
emerged, but she has been quick to adopt mobile access such that mobile access
is her primary means of connectivity now.
- Jessica still thinks of the phone as a separate,
optional device to her laptop and still struggles a bit with device choices.
- Jessica has graduated college but cannot find
work in her degree area.
Christopher, an SMS Native –
- Born 1990-1994
- He received his first cell phone on a family
plan with SMS access in 7th grade.
- He fought with his parents over text message
limits and laughed at his parent’s clumsy use of mobile devices.
- He was capable of texting at rates of 10-12,000
messages per month on a 12-key flip phone, with his eyes closed.
- Mobile devices are Chris’ primary access to
entertainment reading but increasingly, he is using them for textbooks.
- Chris is still in college and has made a few low
key attempts at starting a business.
Ashley, a Feature Phone Native
- Born 1994-1998
- Her first phone was a feature phone with QWERTY
keyboard and unlimited text messaging
- She fought with parents over “accidental”
ringtone downloads and web KB data usage
- She texts with friends but prefers to talk in
person and she has been pulled toward the less-mobile web by Facebook and
- Ashley is in high school, accumulating a lengthy
resume of college application fodder. She doesn’t think the best careers
will be at large corporations.
Jacob, a Smart Phone Native
- Born 1998-2002
- Jacob’s first phone is an iPhone hand-me-down
from his parents. He doesn’t have a wireless contract but is connected
solely via home or free WiFi.
- Jacob loves Angry Birds and other games
on his iPhone and easily installs games on his mom’s e-readers while at his
sister’s school events.
- Jacob easily picks up and uses any mobile device
without an opinion on Apple-Google-Microsoft. He uses what works and
disregards anything that doesn’t. If he is prompted to upgrade an OS on a
device, he just puts it down and moves to something that works. He rarely
uses a computer to access the web for anything.
- Jacob is trying to be big-man-on-campus in
elementary school and wants to be a professional soccer player.
Why am I naming these generations in terms of mobile?
I believe we are at the precipice of the next revolution in
technology. I don’t see the current iterations of apps and web services
leading to a revolution… but rather negatively creating an environment with a
void to be filled. The business and software architects of the services
we use today are likely building on a foundation of knowledge that is
pre-mobile. In the best case, they are pasting mobile access onto sites which
were born on the web. More likely, they are building mobile access to
businesses that pre-date the web.
Consider modern information technology revolutions and their
widespread adoption: Email, Internet, Web, and Social. The
triggering events are spaced out about every 4-7 years. Could it be that
the driver for each of these changes was the incoming micro-generation being
unhappy with the tools of their predecessor? What micro-generation is
joining the workforce today? The Christophers are about to enter
the workforce as the first micro-generation of mobile natives! They
have been using mobile devices for almost 20 years. Let’s face it; the
job market is not exactly kind to graduates today. I can imagine they have
some really good ideas and they aren’t going to wait around for permission to
operate in existing environments.
The next revolution is coming. It is not search,
social, and e-content clumsily forced through a mobile pipe. It will not
have its foundation in the web. It is not Google, Amazon, Facebook,
Twitter, Pinterest, or Instagram and certainly not an ad supported app glued
inside those environments. It will be something that the mobile natives
will invent to solve what they see as a big problem. Let’s make sure we
pay attention to them.
If you are under 25, no pressure… oh never mind, they are
not reading blogs!
PS: Some further reading on this topic from Forbes: