What do we mean by ‘Experience Generation’?
Gen Y has been given many labels but one of the most enduring, and perhaps least easy to unpick, is ‘Experience Generation’. After all, we are also told that Gen Y lives life through the smartphones its members are co-dependent on and that seems anathema to the concept of experience. Who hasn’t been to a gig recently and had their view of the stage blocked by a field of phone screens recording every moment?
But this viewpoint is a consequence of viewing technology in two dimensions and as an extension of how we currently think. But for Gen Y, technology, not limited to but embodied by the smartphone, has changed the way they think. The smartphone to them isn’t a means to record life but an enabler, a gateway to discover, experience and share.
There are many reasons behind this new way of thinking – socioeconomic, historic and cultural – but one of the most significant drivers is a widespread dismissal of the concept of ownership. This change in mindset is both a product of new technology and a key driver in its continuing evolution even among companies that are younger than Gen Y itself. Few people now remember that Netflix started out as a DVD-by-mail business but today of course Netflix is the poster child for the Experience Generation. Why pay to physically own music, movies or even a car when you can have the same experience by streaming or sharing? This lack of desire to acquire possessions has led to accusations of Gen Y being ‘lazy’ but the truth is their drive to acquire has been redirected towards doing rather than owning. In our 2016 survey, The Gen Y Way, 86.8 per cent believed people don’t need as much stuff as they have.
And when you no longer feel anchored by the need to accumulate material possessions – very much a defining characteristic of Baby Boomers and Gen X – you start to value experiences even more. This is known as the Easterlin Paradox which states that money buys happiness but only up to a point. People’s self-reported satisfaction with a purchase goes down over time but the reverse is true for experiences they spent money on. A new possession becomes part of the everyday after a while but an experience becomes part of one’s identity.
Experiences also have a further benefit in connecting us far more with other people than shared consumption. We bond better with people who took the same backpacking trip as us – whether they were with us or not – than someone who bought the same TV. This is why connection and sharing is such a big part of the technology that underpins Gen Y’s experiences. Staying with an AirBnB host creates a far greater connection with a country’s culture than a resort holiday. Instagram allows Gen Y to explore others’ experiences and Snapchat lets them share their own, instantaneously. This attitude is most apparent in Gen Y’s willingness to live and work overseas with over half saying they would pursue their chosen career overseas.
But that’s not to say that Gen Y are living rootless lives in empty, rented apartments – after all family or starting a family was the number one priority for the Gen Y members we surveyed. The value of the possessions they do buy lies not in ownership itself but in what they can do with them, what experiences they can have with and through them. And this goes beyond the ever-present smartphone. Vinyl sales have seen an uptick because they add a layer of experience to listening to music. This attitude – and a much more active concern for the environment – has also driven the Reduce, Re-use, Recycle movement among Gen Y. One of the strongest findings in our report was that nearly 90 per cent of Gen Y favour buy/swap/sell groups on social media. After all, rescuing and reviving a piece of furniture – or even an old station wagon – is an experience in itself and imbues the possession with the personality of its new owner.
So don’t dismiss Gen Y as the Pokemon catching smartphone generation, they are probably experiencing a lot more than we are – and learning valuable life skills along the way.