Enter the Plural generation

August 27, 2014 01:30

By Kevin Finch, RTDNA Contributor
Know your audience, grow your ratings (and page views). That’s hardly new advice. But it takes on greater urgency as you ponder the generational shifts underway in 2014. One example, coming soon, is a generation that wants to take over the microphone and not just customize content but “curate” it.
In a forecast from Jack MacKenzie, president of Magid Generational Studies™ -- which considers observing and forecasting generational behavior such a big deal that consultant Frank N. Magid Associates, Inc. trademarked it – this new generation gets a name: the Pluralists.

The “Pluralist Generation,” aged 17 and younger, emerges along with these startling facts:
  • “Plurals,” as Magid calls them for short, are the last generation with a Caucasian majority. They will come of age as America becomes a minority majority nation.
  • These kids exist in the most ethnically diverse social circles and are more likely than all previous generations to have friends who are African American, Asian, Hispanic, mixed race, Muslim and evangelical Christian.
  • Consequently, they’re the most positive about America becoming more ethnically diverse.
  • On the other hand, so far, the Pluralist Generation is the least likely to believe in the American Dream.
  • The percentage of this new generation who think going to college is “cool” is down from the Millennials, the last of whom is about to start college.
Today’s teens and pre-teens are not only different in composition and outlook, but they view media in an entirely different way.

“Plurals are going to demand an interactive news product—one that gives them the tools to discover their own truths,” says MacKenzie. “One of the reasons behind the name is the increasing fragmentation in all facets of society.”

“We are essentially looking at a non-majority society not just in race but in media and business and education in all aspects. In a truly pluralistic society we believe the Plurals will demand how they learn about the world through their own filters, their own lifestyle, beliefs and their own consumerism.”

Mackenzie says it’s a logical progression from the Millennial Generation, which has always been able to consume content customized just for them. “They didn’t have to watch their parents’ shows. They could watch Disney and Nickelodeon. Cable delivered it,” MacKenzie said. It was a case of “what I want, when I want it, where I want it,” which MacKenzie says is an overused phrase now.

“Now, Plurals are growing up, not just with the belief of customized content but things should be made available to manipulate, participate and create.” Mackenzie added, “That’s the difference between customization and curation. Plurals expect to influence it and have a hand in it.”

MacKenzie says much has been made about what constitutes a “native” consumer. He says for someone to be truly native to a technology, that gadget or service should exist when you were born. “For Millennials, the Internet was not there when they were born. Cable TV was there. Mobile phones were not there.” The Internet and mobile were then “adopted” technologies for the Millennial Generation.

“All that stuff is native to Plurals. A true digital life that we now accept and think everybody leads? The only group that really accepts that is the Plurals,” MacKenzie argues. “They don’t know a world without that.”

But don’t panic. MacKenzie says it’s not that important to understand 12-year olds right now. But understanding Gen Xers is critical. They happen to be the parents of Plurals.
Never mind the helicopters, here come the Fighter Jet Parents

These are images that have been burned in our collective consciousness for, well, a whole generation: soccer moms; kids getting trophies for showing up; parents hovering over their kids all the way through college and advocating for the good of the whole team or scouting group or class.

The fighter jet is about to shoot down the helicopter.

Magid’s massive generational study found Gen Xers are also interested in what their kids are doing. But there is a much greater emphasis on success, with parents talking to their kids in grade school about getting ahead.

MacKenzie says helicopter parents may have hovered around the whole team but fighter jet parents advocate only on behalf of their own child and want clear the path to that child’s success.

Put another way, “Boomer parents want kids to live out their dreams. Xer parents want kids to live out their skill set,” MacKenzie says. The contrast is in values. Boomer parents wanted their kids to be honest, respectful, trustworthy and ethical. Sure, Xer parents want those things, too. But to a lesser degree. Instead of what Magid calls those “outer-focused” values, Gen X parents emphasize inner-focused concepts, such as being hard-working, confident, independent and organized.

Why should media organizations care about parenting styles of Gen Xers? Magid’s study notes that “Generation X is at the height of its consumer and social leadership in America.” That includes being prime consumers in most product categories and emerging as the new management class in American companies. “It would behoove a news operation to understand those people. Gen X right now is in the limelight, the most important part of the demo, the back half of the 25-54 demo,” MacKenzie points out. “They should be super-served right now.”      

It’s also important because Gen Xers are at least consuming news in a way we’re used to. That can’t be said of Millennials.
Large, in charge and Media MIA
The last of the Millennial generation is turning 18 and probably just graduated from high school. That means all 87 million of them are officially adults now. Magid calls them the largest and “most influential adult population in America’s history.” Historians might quibble with that superlative. But businesses are excited about the Millennial Generation’s potential as a target market.

OK, then why aren’t they moving the needle in media consumption? For the youngest part of the Millennial demo, there really isn’t much of a mystery. Many news directors, reviewing a rating book, would agree that 18-24 year-olds have rarely been avid news consumers. But 25-34 year-olds should be.

MacKenzie says a willingness to consume news comes with the three Ms: marriage, mortgage and maternity. That’s when you “begin to interact with your community in a much different way. You pay taxes, sign up for garbage (removal), worry about potholes in the street, worry about the speed of cars driving down your street.”

Instead of the three Ms happening at age 22-23, it’s 28-29 now, MacKenzie says. “They’re losing five years at the top of it before people go through rites of passages in society because they become more interested in a different kind of news. That’s a big factor in the ratings. There’s just more people for whom news is not relevant as far as the target demo.”

“Millennials are getting married but not at the rate of previous generations.” There are more non-traditional households, too. “And you throw onto that, they’ve also grown up with the ability to access information or information to access them. ‘I can’t get out of the way of news and information. I know what’s going on.’”

“The idea of a certain time of the day that a local news operation can tell something they don’t know is a lot harder than it used to be,” MacKenzie says.
The Mobile Generations
Millennials may be just “adopters” while Plurals are natives to mobile technology. But clearly, talking to them on their preferred platform is a good start. That’s probably why NBC Universal News Group announced in January that it was becoming a minority stakeholder in NowThisNews to produce “original short-form news videos across platforms” for a younger audience. The news release stressed many social media sites besides Facebook, including Instagram, Twitter, Vine, YouTube and Snapchat.

It was inevitable when Facebook’s fastest growing demo became 35+ and now, even older: The Magid study reveals that younger Plurals view Facebook as something for their parents, other adults and maybe older siblings. But they don’t think it’s for them.

The Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism issued a report last year on the overall trend toward mobile. It noted how online news consumption rose sharply and much of that is mobile. The Pew report said almost half of American adults own a smart phone now. As those trends continue, agility seems to be watchword. Not hitching your wagon to a particular social medium is important but so is knowing your audience.
2014—a big year for four generations
Which brings us back to Magid’s study of almost 4,000 Americans across four generations. The study points out that 2014 is a big year for studying generational shifts. This year:
  • The last Boomer turns 50. Magid hints that it may be time to redefine “consumerism during the Golden Years, a life stage long associated with brand rigidity and temperate buying behaviors.” Listen closely and you’ll hear an “amen” from your Boomer colleagues on that one.
  • A typical Gen Xer is now a 40-something. That’s hardly the image of a “slacker.”
  • It’s worth repeating: By the end of 2014, all Millennials will be adults, part of a generation of 87 million.
  • The Plurals are a smaller generation, not fully formed. But their attitudes about race, gender, sexual orientation and other societal issues will make politicians sit up and take notice. Starting next year, they can vote.
Kevin Finch, now a visiting professor of journalism at Washington and Lee University, is a former ABC and CBS affiliate news director.