Alert! Magazine Second Quarter 2013 - Researching the Edge: The Impact of a New Generation on Qualitative Research

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Researching the Edge: The Impact of a New Generation on Qualitative Research (Open this article in the Second Quarter 2013 PDF)

By Ian Pierpoint

New research methodologies come from many sources, such as academia, other industries and technological advances. However; the approaches that tend to gather real momentum, and ultimately actionable insight, are the ones that align with cultural change and generational values. In other words, the methodologies that engage both respondents and clients.

For the last few years, many of the dominant research approaches and philosophies that have emerged have been a response to one particularly influential cultural juggernaut: the Millennials.

Millennials were born between 1981 and 1994 largely to Boomer parents who worked hard to boost their self-esteem and provide them with an endless sense of possibility. Coming-of-age in an era of crisis, combined with the opportunities of a booming economy and the digital revolution, Millennials are empowered, engaged and want to change the world.

As a result, Millennials make great research respondents; they’re keen to be part of the process, great at collaborating, embrace technology and love nothing more than expressing their opinions and sharing highly personal information – a researcher’s dream.

Millennials have changed the way that much of qualitative research and innovation is conducted. For example, Millennial culture has been a very fertile ground for co-creation approaches and community-based methodologies. But we’re on the cusp of generational change, with a new group of consumers emerging who have grown up in a very different world to Millennials and have a very different set of values. The research and consumer landscape is about to change… meet Generation Edge.

Born from 1995 to present, Generation Edge is the next generation of consumer spenders, and well on the way to being the largest and most influential generational cohort ever. With numbers surpassing 75 million and raised by Gen-X parents in a world shaped by their older Millennial cousins, this generation has been forced to carve an identity out of a hyper-connected, media saturated, and at times frightening world. The result is a generation unlike any we’ve seen before with an estimated buying power of $312.3 billion.

What makes this generation unique and so different from Millennials and what might this mean for research? Before we get to that, we’ll have to step back and look at three of the biggest factors that have shaped Gen-Edge’s collective values. 

Generation X Inspired
Unlike Millennials who were raised by optimistic Boomers, Generation Edge have been raised by cynical and rebellious Generation X. Where Millennials experienced the benefits (and drawbacks) of helicopter parenting, Generation Edge are enjoying a different parenting experience. Millennials tended to have parents entwined in their lives, seeking to guide and protect their children through their teens, 20s and beyond. Generation X seems to have a different parenting approach, believing their role is to provide their children with the skills to survive in an unforgiving world. Rather than hovering above their kids, offering advice at every turn, the Gen-X parent is simply giving Generation Edge the tools and sending them out alone. This results in a generation that is highly individual and resourceful, valuing critical thinking and questioning the norm.

Doomsday Survivors
Unlike Millennials, Generation Edge have not grown up in a world of economic boom and endless possibility. Rather they’ve developed their identity in a world of economic collapse, political turmoil, institutional failure and peak technology.

The parental safety net provided to the Millennials has been dismantled, and the global recession means the guarantee that higher education equals a career (or any job for that matter) is null and void. As a result, this generation has been forced to take a much more realistic take on the world and their place in it.

For Generation Edge, the context is pretty bleak and the opportunities seemingly narrow.

Digital Doubters
Unlike Millennials who were introduced at an age where they were too young to be intimidated by technology, Gen-Edge was born into a digital world. As a result, Generation Edge reveal a highly intuitive relationship with technology, but also a questioning relationship. Gen-Edge appear to be thinking about not just the benefits of technology, but its limitations too.

Gen-Edge sees technology as a tool, and one that doesn’t deserve excess credit. They recognize that technology allows them to keep in contact with friends and family, and to remain in the information loop, but it shouldn’t replace real face-to-face interaction. Given the fact that schools are teaching kids about the perils of over sharing online and their Gen-X parents’ weariness of technology, this sentiment isn’t perhaps that surprising. So, as a medium, they have a better understanding of what it can and can’t do. Unlike Millennials, Generation Edge is keen to keep some things private and won’t share everything about themselves.

Alternative Renaissance
If you ask a Millennial about “alternative culture” they will probably struggle to define what alternative even means, let alone express a desire to rebel against cultural norms. Generation Edge is very different – they’ve grown up in a world where mainstream institutions, including brands, have been exposed as flawed. From the banking bailout to recent claims of horsemeat in the food chain, Generation Edge are experiencing a world where nothing is as it seems, and trust is being eroded. Therefore, they mock, challenge and question in ways that Millennials would never dream of. This emerging sense of distrust in brands, and the desire to subvert the process, may well be the single biggest factor influencing the research market.

What might this mean for research approaches?

Co-creators Beware
Unlike Millennials, Generation Edge do not appear to be so eager to get involved and help brands come up with ideas. In fact, Generation Edge seem more likely to want to hijack the process, undermine and mock it, as Mountain Dew found out recently with a crowd sourcing exercise to name their new variant; the top name generated was Diabeetus, followed by Moist Nugget as a close second.

Where Millennials were perfect for co-creation processes, Generation Edge are less likely to be quite so willing to get on board – unless they feel genuine ownership of the process.

Humanization of Online Research
Millennials embraced online research approaches fully and revealed almost anything and everything when asked. Generation Edge are much more demanding of online qualitative tools, and less in thrall with all things digital.

As a result we expect successful qualitative online tools to be even more intuitive and have improved face-to-face interactivity. The more human the online tool feels; the more likely Generation Edge are to engage with it.

Trust and Transparency
Generation Edge are less likely to share their secrets, and far less trusting of brands and corporations than Millennials. This is likely to mean that engaging Generation Edge in the research process will require greater transparency and honesty from brands and research agencies. This is going to particularly impact the ongoing community based methodology for which engagement and trust are keys to success.

To Conclude
The entire story of Generation Edge, and the impact it will have on society as a whole, is one still being written. This year marks the first time that Gen-Edge starts to graduate from high school, which means they’ll be soon entering the real world. As both their cultural influence and spending power increase, so too will the value of research methodologies that genuinely engages this generation. It is there you will find actionable consumer insight. Just don’t expect it to be easy—compared to Millennials, that is.

Ian Pierpoint is the president of The Sound Research and has 22 years of experience in marketing, research and planning.