If I said that the most important trend marketers ought to understand today is a rise in individualism in America, would you view that as a good thing or a bad thing?
Many might associate individualism with strength, independence, and self-determination. But that’s not the kind of individualism I’m talking about. I’m talking about a troubling individualism that is wrought with psychological turmoil and that disproportionately affects the youngest members of our society.
As marketers, we’re constantly trying to find out more about our audiences. Who are they? What motivates them? How do they make decisions? How do we market to them? We try to postulate how social, economic, and technological developments impact their lives. This has always been a challenge because each generation isn’t just affected by one single event or trend, and thus motivations and behaviors differ according to specific circumstances.
This is particularly true of millennials. Suddenly armed in their adolescence with the digital world of the Internet, where the possibilities for who and what you can be are endless, millennials—more so than previous generations—often seem fragmented and uncategorizable.
But for all the time we spend trying to figure out millenial marketing, generational researchers are already studying the next cohort, a younger crowd now in their teens. Yet instead of finding an even more fragmented generation, they’re finding quite the opposite. For the first time, a single factor is having a stronger influence on the next generation than any single factor has had in history. That factor is the ubiquity of smartphones and social media. The distinction between millennials and this new generation when it comes to these technologies is that the new generation hasn’t ever known a world where these digital devices and apps weren’t fundamentally woven into everyday life. If you thought millennials were glued to their phones, they might as well be an extension of the arm for the new generation.
The critical difference is that smartphones and social media aren’t just having a behavioral impact on our digital native teens like we’ve seen with millennials; they’re having a psychological impact, and it’s a negative one. This negative psychological impact is one of the worrying trends underpinning the rise of individualism in America.
Image attribution: Raw Pixel
The individualism I’m talking about has nothing to do with the independence-seeking of previous generations of young people and everything to do with how much time teens today spend alone, living their lives through their phones.
There are several key factors that set the stage for an unhealthy form of individualism, though they may not seem nefarious at first glance. Dr. Jean Twenge, a professor of psychology at San Diego State University, has spent many years studying young people and trying to understand how they differ from previous generations. She has found that millennials tend to have a more positive view of themselves and are more focused on themselves than previous generations. On the furthest end of the spectrum, this orientation can show up as narcissistic tendencies. She explains that many young people have never known anything different. They haven’t known a world that put duty before self.
Her book, Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled—and More Miserable Than Ever Before hints at the negative side of the rise of individualism in America. Being tolerant, open-minded, and ambitious is closely accompanied by being disengaged, distrustful, and anxious. As Twenge points out, technology is accelerating cultural change, and that cultural change isn’t all positive.
Twenge refers to the youngest and most vulnerable generation as iGen, those born between 1995 and 2012. Compared to previous generations, iGen is driving less, dating less, drinking less, and having less sex. As a result they are safer than any other generation was at that age, but they are also more miserable.
“Around 2012, I noticed abrupt shifts in teen behaviors and emotional states. The gentle slopes of the line graphs became steep mountains and sheer cliffs, and many of the distinctive characteristics of the Millennial generation began to disappear. In all my analyses of generational data—some reaching back to the 1930s—I had never seen anything like it,” said Twenge. “The impact of these devices has not been fully appreciated, and goes far beyond the usual concerns about curtailed attention spans. The arrival of the smartphone has radically changed every aspect of teenagers’ lives, from the nature of their social interactions to their mental health. These changes have affected young people in every corner of the nation and in every type of household. The trends appear among teens poor and rich; of every ethnic background; in cities, suburbs, and small towns. Where there are cell towers, there are teens living their lives on their smartphone.”
She describes this generation as being on the brink of the worst mental health crisis in decades and chalks up much of the deterioration to smartphones. This is supported by some stunning facts: The number of teens who see their friends almost every day dropped by over 40 percent between 2000 and 2015, and those who spend more time than average on screen activities are more likely to be unhappy, while those who spend more time than average on non-screen activities are more likely to be happy. Some studies have even found not just a correlation but a causal link between social media use and unhappiness. In general, feelings of loneliness and depression in teens are on the rise.
One of the most insidious problems with screen and social media time now has a name: FOMO (fear of missing out). While we might assume that kids are doing a lot of socializing through their screens, in seeing the relentless posting of others’ social activities, they’re actually increasingly feeling left out, particularly girls. The need for affirmation through comments and likes is another development Twenge refers to as a “psychic tax.”
Then there’s the lost hours of sleep, closely correlated with the rise of smartphones and linked to so many negative health outcomes like high blood pressure, weight gain, illness, anxiety, and depression.
“What’s at stake isn’t just how kids experience adolescence,” Twenge says. “The constant presence of smartphones is likely to affect them well into adulthood. Among people who suffer an episode of depression, at least half become depressed again later in life. Adolescence is a key time for developing social skills; as teens spend less time with their friends face-to-face, they have fewer opportunities to practice them. In the next decade, we may see more adults who know just the right emoji for a situation, but not the right facial expression.”
It means we need to think very carefully about how our work impacts our audiences and how it can help shape the kind of world we’d like to live in and the kind of future we’d like to have for our kids.
It means we have a greater role to play in the mental wellbeing of our audiences and our future employees.
It means we need to rethink our focus on digital-first campaigns and metrics and reverse the trend of our technology always dictating our marketing decisions.
It means we need to start talking more about ethical and sustainable marketing strategies aimed at the long-term health of our audiences and built into high-level planning and goal setting within our organizations.
It means we need to enable more opportunities to connect with our teens face to face and have real conversations about their lives and their psychological needs.
It means we need to consider corporate social responsibility initiatives conjointly with our marketing efforts.
It means we have to look beyond the trends in millennial marketing and start realizing the differences between millennials and the next generation.
It’s not all doom and gloom when it comes to the cultural changes being ushered in by digital technology, but we need to be vigilant and well aware of the bad alongside the good, particularly when such technology becomes an inseparable part of our daily lives.
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Featured image attribution: Trent Yarnell