OPINION3 August 2010

The new stay at home generation – and implications for marketers

There’s been a well documented shift in the number of young adults staying at home with their parents rather than moving out. What direct impact is this going to have on patterns of consumption or implications for underlying attitudes and behaviours?

There’s been a well documented shift in the number of young adults staying at home with their parents rather than moving out. And it’s pretty clear what the reasons for this are so I’m not going to waste your time repeating them here. What is interesting, from a marketing point of view, is whether or not this is going to have any direct impact on patterns of consumption or implications for underlying attitudes and behaviours that will need to be taken account of. 

So far the default assumption seems to be that not moving out means not moving on, that young adults who stay at home are living in a state of arrested development or an extended adolescence. This is seen as part of a broader trend of people taking longer to grow up. 

On the surface of it, this is not a dumb assumption. During the mid 20th Century a set of events became associated with the transition to adulthood: finishing education, getting your first job, living independently, getting married, having kids. What’s more, they tended to happen in the same order. More recently though, the order in which these things have happened has become less uniform and, in many cases, they’ve become more strung out. So it would be fair to think that because these young adults are not really taking on responsibility in the way previous generations did, they’re not really growing up.

That may be true in some sense, but that’s very different from remaining adolescent. Problem behaviours such as crime, binge drinking, drug use, risky behaviour (and violent death) tend to be most evident during adolescence.  So, if adolescence was being extended, you might expect to see some of these behaviours shift upwards in age over time. By and large they don’t. (See ‘Delayed Adulthood? Trends in the Age Distribution of Problem Behaviours, a paper by Sarah R. Hayford and Frank F. Furstenberg, Jr.)  And if you think about it, it’s not really that surprising.  A number of things are going on in adolescence: very specific biological and neurological changes, which explain some of the increased risk taking and sensation seeking. But these drivers of adolescent attitudes and behaviours just burn themselves out naturally over time. 

Young adults are still, and always will be, very different from adolescents. They have very different psychological and social outlooks and brands need to talk to them in a completely different way.

A different aspect of this same issue is the increasing evidence that stay-at-home kids are not contributing to the household finances in the way they might have been expected to a few decades ago. In fact the flow of cash is in the other direction, and that continues even after they’ve left home. A lot of parents see their kids unable to get on in the way they could when they started out by themselves and feel the need to give them some financial assistance. There’s a kind of informal redistribution of wealth going on across the generations. So maybe those ‘early greys’ are not going to be quite as cashed up as a lot of marketers are counting on.

And there’s a whole bunch of other implications:

  • If parents are supporting their kids for longer what kind of impact is that going to have on the kinds of purchases those young adults feel they can make?
  • If the previous rites of passage to adulthood are delayed then what other symbols of growing up and moving on are going to become important (and how can brands cater to this need)?
  • Will living with mum and dad mean you accidentally start to absorb their world view when previous generations would have been questioning them?
  • If moving out and living with others tends to expose you to different ways of thinking and different ways of living, will staying at home with mum and dad lead to a new conservatism?
  • Will this extended living together lead to an even greater narrowing of the generation gap when it comes to the purchasing of fashion and more?

 Just something to think about…

1 Comment

14 years ago

This is a very interesting and relevant take... Interested readers should also check out Luminosity's report on the so-called "Boomerangers". They have started the work of analyzing what these new trends might mean for marketers with respect to how young people are spending and more... interesting stuff. http://luminositymarketing.com/pages/res/resources_wp_boomerang.php

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