Understanding ‘the demographic’ has become central to the work of brands, not to mention academia, government and medicine. But, suggests Valerie Jacobs, the thinking behind the very idea is dated. A whole new definition of demographics is required.
The etymology of “demographics” is rooted in the Greek word “demos,” which translates as “people.” For decades, if not centuries, businesses have relied upon pre- categorized groups of people as a guide to understanding humans and their behavior. Businesses pour their resources into painstaking and calculated research that broadly characterises and aggregates people into similar—yet often meaningless—consumer groups. And they aren’t alone. Political scientists, psychologists, sociologists and anthropologists have all staked a claim in demographics, consumer segmentation models and generational indicators. But as tech-enabled interconnectedness spreads across the world, humans across cultures and regions are moving on divergent paths and changing the way they form bonds with each other.
Demographics are traditionally defined by age ranges, population numbers, ethnicities, income and gender. These principles, once solid, factual measures, are now vague and ambiguous. Even seemingly universal principles like the concept of “generations” suffer from imprecise measures and broad implications and have lost their ability to effectively explain the bonds between groups of people.
As advances in medicine and technology progress, life expectancy will increase so much that even the concept of age will become irrelevant. If demographics of the past were rooted in static, one-dimensional features such as zip codes and race, the demographics of the future are being defined by the high-speed, real-time accumulation of transactional, behavioral and biological data. This constant collection and analysis of granular data from a plethora of sources has the power to determine and define categories of individuals.
This is no Earth-shattering revelation. Conferences, boardrooms and quarterlies already pay lip service to the notions of nurturing niche ideas, true, one-off customization and one-to-one relationships between brands and consumers. Yet activation on these concepts has yet to be realized. Brands’ homogenized offerings remain at odds with the consumer’s drive toward individualized meaning making. But do we understand why long-lasting principles have become irrelevant? While people are pushing away from large groups of identity and searching for their own individuality, the methods for accurately classifying groups of people will continue to change. How will demographics reflect the new “demos” of the future? Do we need to start from scratch?
Perhaps one of the biggest challenges in tackling this daunting task is weaning ourselves from the traditional, comforting concept of generational groups. In the past, large groups of people were affected by the same major events, which served as socio-psychological influencers shaping shared world views and creating bonds. Events of that magnitude still occur, but far more frequently. Instead of once every decade or so, singular occurrences forming the basis of worldviews happen every year. The rapid pace of major events – the tsunami in Japan, the Arab Spring, the most recent stock market crash, the London riots – has resulted in an external context that is alarmingly chaotic. Nothing remains in the collective consciousness long enough to shape values on a broad scale.
Even attempts to alter the notion of demographics to reflect the enormous impact of the Digital Age have missed the mark. In 2001, American learning and education expert Marc Prenksy coined the terms “digital natives” and “digital immigrant” in his essay, “On the Horizon.” “Digital natives” are people born in the twenty-first century who have an almost innate fluency with digital technology. But the nature of digital technology is essentially anathema to definition. Even the creators of online tools – the savvy ones, at least – are well aware that their success hinges on the ability to co-opt people in the evolutionary process of their products. With every passing second, with every new interaction with a new tool, digital natives and immigrants alike are rewriting, tweaking and eliminating their own definitions.
The resulting revolving door of socio-psychological influencers has changed the way people bond with one another. The sum of the successive chaos, rather than individual events, is the basis of relationships that form between large groups of people. Yet those relationships are looser, in a constant state of flux, and, consequently, more difficult to define. Instead of attaching to peers within a designated age range, people seek a sense of stability from others with shared values. They surround themselves with like-minded people in order to make sense of the chaos around them, and lessen its havoc on the consciousness. Consequently, the idea of age-specific generations is ultimately rendered meaningless.
Instead of sweeping generational categories that tidily and conveniently organize thirty years of births into one group in order to classify behavior, psychology circles are buzzing about “micro” life stages that account for a shorter cycle of collective consciousness. These micro life stages are not exact, nor precise, yet they reflect incremental stages of development within an individual’s lifetime. Psychologists increasingly define “micro” life stages as patterns of cognitive development that can explain behavior in correlation with a person’s age.
Recently, “Adult Infantilism” has arisen as a defined life stage, also known as “emerging adulthood,” a term coined by psychologist Jeffrey Arnett Ph.D, twenty-somethings, particularly in developed nations, are sharing a collective desire to extend their youth and stave off responsibility. Unrelated to a significant, single event, this fervent desire to cling to youth is born of myriad influential factors: a jobless economy, later median ages for marriage, and an intense focus on self-exploration. Expect and ever-finer slicing of this and other pies.
The revolt against generational categories, demographics and consumer segmentation models is already underway. Data-driven business strategies that enable granular consumer insights about preferences and behavior, are creating anti-demographic models that work to connect marketing messages with the people they are meant for. The proliferation of data sources and data collection enabled by the digital universe will continue to become more sophisticated and pervasive. But, at some point, it won’t be exact enough. Instead, psychologists, sociologists, anthropologists, and most certainly marketers, will define “demographics” with increasing dependence on the intersection of biology, technology and medicine. The demographics of the future will be based on advances in science and medicine that will collect more human data than ever before. As a result, new and unpredictable definitions of what makes a person, and what it means to be a human, will emerge. “Neuromarketing,” for example, is a niche currently being leveraged across categories of business and marketing that is quickly generating interesting results, revenue and controversy, especially among those who dismiss it as uselessly reductionist and missing the wood for the trees.
The very principle of this strategy relies on the ability to capture and collect both biological and chemical diagnostic data from humans and the emerging apps and platforms that aggregate and analyze that information. For example, Mynd, the world’s first portable, wireless electroencephalogram (EEG), burst onto the marketing scene as a device for unlocking consumers’ deepest desires. A small cap that fits comfortably over the head, Mynd scans the brain’s signals and comprehensively captures synaptic responses to stimuli in real time. Neuromarketers tout their offer as the only way to obtain an accurate read of the subconscious desires that ultimately drive decision-making and preference among people The potential impact of classifying people with tools such as portable EEGs or MRIs is enormous. With this kind of technology, “bio-social” networks that connect groups of people could be formed based upon their brain scans and neurological predispositions. Tools that capture and analyze human thought patterns could enable more exact classifications of people, organized by the similarity of mental processing or even similarity of thoughts.
For all this knowledge and increased recognition of a drive for individuality, the business community has been slow to respond with appropriate R&D strategies and product offerings. A gulf remains between the behavior of people and prevailing business strategies. Businesses are entrenched in global economies and dependent upon models of intrinsic growth that push existing companies to produce and sell on a massive scale. Meanwhile, consumers are increasingly turned off by the ideas of widespread offerings, and are also, ironically, increasingly sensitive about the collection of data by companies hoping to find out more about their niche preferences. The business of creating wealth is running counter to divergent values and colliding culture codes.
Despite a slow embrace of data-driven and techno-medical models of classifying people, businesses and consumers will continue to become more polarized. The Digital Age has rendered The Who’s 1965 rallying call all but irrelevant. Unlike decades ago, no one is ‘talkin’ bout my generation.’ And while the way we define classifications will continue to evolve beyond recognition, people will still search for ways to define their experience. They will search to connect with people that have similar values, often looking inward for direction and, to relate it to something larger than themselves.
This article originally appeared under the title, “Generation Y” in Viewpoint No. 30: Money, Spring/Summer 2012, pp. 76–77. This is just one of Jacobs’ and Goodpaster’s contributions to Viewpoint Magazine, others include: “Bitches, Barbarians and Narcissists,” “Through a Screen Darkly” and “Preparing for Human 2.0.“
LPK Vice President and Group Director of Trends Valerie Jacobs isn’t just a forecaster of design, she’s a seasoned storm chaser. Her trend work is grounded in a strategic approach that incorporates research, analysis and translation of data into actionable strategies for consumer brands with the nerve to keep up. Follow Val on Twitter at @futureglimmer or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.