The Smarts of the Next Generation
Today's College Student Sports a New Face and More Power
By J. Walker Smith
Today's 15 million undergraduates are nothing like the generations before them. Not that young people have ever been just like their parents, but the differences today are more profoundthree differences in particular: a self-inventive sense of empowerment; a culture and demography of multiracialism and multiethnicity; and a new position of command and influence in the buying decisions of all consumers.
Mainstream marketers can't ignore college students just because they aren't yet on their radar screens as the kind of young and middle-aged householders who have long been the traditional underpinning of the consumer economy. The power of college students goes far beyond the estimated $100 billion in direct spending that they control.
College students have grown up in the age of enablement. The Internet has revolutionized access to resources. Multitasking is now taken for granted as the standard information consumption style. Technology has opened up everything ever written, published, produced or recordedand not just with the ability to view it or read it, but with the power to completely
Reinventors of the Reinvented
Reinvention is the signature style of today's college students. Pop music isn't completely new anymore, so much as it is older styles being redone in edgier, more contemporary ways. Nostalgia is driving hit movies and TV shows as never before. Automobile manufactures sell new cars to young people by reviving vintage styles and then pitching them as more authentic and genuine.
The essence of reinvention is self-inventionthe ability to remake things according to one's own preferences. This is how young people consume music, something the major labels
are finally beginning to appreciate. Some marketers have made fledgling attempts to connect with self-invention by inviting consumers to join them
in the creation of meaning for their brands. Gap let people vote on who would appear in its ads. Icehouse uses ads submitted by consumers. MTV airs music videos posted online by viewers. Progressive Insurance publishes its own rates and those of its competitors.
Most Likely to Be Multiracial
More than technology fuels the self-inventive sense of empowerment. Demography plays an equally important role. Multiculturalism is the new look of the marketplace. Ethnic minorities are the fastest growing part of the population. Just 52 of America's 100 largest cities now have a non-Hispanic Caucasian majority compared to 70 in 1990. For people 70 years of age and older, the ratio of white people to people of color is 5-to-1. For people under 40, it's 2-to-1. For 10-year-olds, it's 1.5-to-1. You can get a visceral sense of what it means to be young in America today by flipping through a college yearbook from 20 or 30 years ago and then a yearbook from today.
Hispanics are the largest and fastest-growing minority group,
particularly in many small towns in America's heartland where they are growing at triple-digit rates. Before mid-century, in absolute numbers, America will be the second largest Hispanic nation in the world. Not only are Hispanics changing the overall ethnic mix of the population, they are forcing a rethinking of racial and ethnic categories. While 60-plus percent are from Mexico, there is still a very diverse mix of Hispanics with different nationalities and cultural preferences. More than 40 percent of Hispanics in the 2000 Census checked the box for some other race, i.e., not white or black.
As Hispanics assume an even more dominant position in pop culture and society at large, their presence will add further legitimacy and authority to the racial and ethnic potpourri that is going to characterize the future of the American marketplace. This is something that college students already know.
The biggest racial and ethnic shift goes a step further. It's not any one group, but the blending of all racial and ethnic groups. In the last Census, people could check more than one box for race, and 6.8 million did so. Of those, 42 percent were under the age of 18. Indeed, one out of every 16 kids under the age of 18 is multiracial. It's such a phenomenon that, last July, Parade magazine featured the subject of multiracial kids in a cover story.
A Hodgepodge of Power
The growing importance of multiracialism and multiethnicity hits closest to home with college students. A new identity is created. Young people feel permission to ignore boundaries and combine things at will. There are no penalties for doing so, only wildly interesting new possibilities. And when combined with the power to reinvent everything old in a new self-directed way, the marketplace of tomorrow looks to be a pastiche in every sense of the word.
This is a perspective that college students are putting to work right now. Research by the Yankelovich MONITOR, which tracks consumer values and lifestyles, finds that they continue to play a big role in household decision-making even while away at school. They are the key source of information and advice about technology, fashion, music and pop culture trendsthings in which their baby boomer parents have always had a disproportionate interest.
These college students grew up in households where they typically had a central role in shopping, cooking and managing. Having grown up with responsibilities beyond their years, these college students are used to being in charge. So, they continue to demand more from marketers and to provide influential guidance to their elders.
If nothing else, today's college students grew up with much more veto power in their households than previous generations. They continue to wield significant power through nay-saying.
Marketers must come to realize that the decision-maker is no longer a person, but a group. Indeed, dialogue and interaction are the essence of life for young people in every domain. Life is all about interaction. This is the context within which they buy. Knowing how a message resonates in the interpersonal dynamic is more important than understanding how it resonates with an individual buyer.
No one buys alone anymore, and often the opinions of college students are a shopper's closest companion. After all, technological networks put the opinions of college students everywhere at once. Instant Messaging (IM). Chat rooms. Cell phones. Hot zones. Smart mobs (groups mobilized by technology, such as text messaging). Bluetoothing (wireless communication between electronic devices). It's a new world of a wireless mélange, a milieu powered by the smarts of the next generation.
J. Walker Smith is a leading analyst on consumer trends, president of marketing consultancy Yankelovich Partners Inc., and co-author of "Rocking the Ages: The Yankelovich Report on Generational Marketing." He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.