18 to 34-year-olds have been labelled the “freest generation” – but does that hold true after Covid?
Andrew Gale, Head of Quantitative Practice, and Caroline Fletcher, TRA’s Head of Qualitative Practice, compare notes about this age group, and how organisations can offer them both hope and freedom.
Caroline: Freedom tends to be a characteristic attributed to all young people no matter the era they were born. But it’s not how I would describe today’s 18 to 34-year-olds.
I see a much more realistic and grounded set of characteristics. They know what can realistically be achieved in the current global landscape and knowing your bounds can hinder your chance to dream. This has a lot to do with who raised this age group (Gen X) and taught them the world is a place to survive rather than thrive.
Freedom tends to be a characteristic attributed to all young people no matter in what era they were born, but it’s not how I would describe today’s 18 to 34-year-olds
Andrew: Maybe that’s why we're seeing a bit of kickback against that feeling. We recently did a piece for a client around social norms and expectations, and it showed that this age group thinks it’s not expected to follow the rules. They think society has lower expectations of them.
We asked what they would do in an uncertain situation, and they were less likely to follow their gut, choosing to follow others instead. That may be an age element, but arguably, looking to others instead of following your own moral compass makes you less free to forge your own path. Do you think it's this uncertainty holding back this cohort of young adults?
Caroline: It does feel to some extent like a life stage and not having enough knowledge and experience that leads to a lack of confidence and uncertainty.
But uncertainty is driven by setting high expectations and being unsure whether that is realistic. I’m always surprised when they talk about their visions for the future – many are thinking about saving for a home! That has been a dream for a lot of generations, but for this group feels like it's out of reach. That doesn’t seem freeing because they haven’t yet worked out what the alternatives are.
Many 18–34-year-olds see the world as a tough place that isn’t necessarily geared toward fairness.
Andrew: I agree. Many 18–34-year-olds see the world as a tough place that isn’t necessarily geared toward fairness. As for getting onto the property ladder, we see a split between children of the wealthy and everyone else.
It’s like we’re going back generations to a more tiered class system.
Caroline: Young people feel this and it drives some of them to want to set up in business so they can rely on themselves. I interviewed a professor recently who specialises in AI (Artificial Intelligence) technology with a focus on young people. She remarked that 80% of jobs will be automated in the next 10-15 years and young people aren’t being prepared for these technological shifts. Have you seen that in your research?
Andrew: Yes, but you could argue this age group is freer because they see the changes happening and are more agile compared to older generations.
On the other hand, there’s no clear path to follow…
Caroline: Absolutely! The professor said students don’t realise it’s happening. When you ask young people which careers they’re considering, it’s still traditional – lawyer, doctor, accountant, engineer.
Andrew: Yes, but also this age group has fewer barriers to expressing and exploring identity. There’s a lot of ‘I can be whoever I want to be’, and ‘I can associate with whoever I want’ – that brings a huge sense of personal freedom.
We are seeing this culturally in the acceleration of gender fluidity and adopting different pronouns.
Caroline: And, of course, it can be easier to find people like yourself and create meaningful connections online. This generation isn’t just digital-first as a convenience, they live their lives online which creates a much bigger social universe for them. You’d think this is freeing.
It’s certainly where brands need to play. Social commerce is growing at pace with this group.
Andrew: You can make more of a difference in the world through collective change, so you're right they are living online and it’s a more collective form of living. Western culture has always believed that freedom was what they owned, through democracy and other social institutions. But Eastern-style collective cultures argue quite the opposite. There is freedom in being part of the collective.
There is freedom in being part of the collective.
Caroline: Good point. When speaking to this generation, I see how deeply it senses inequality. There is a desire to fix problems of unfairness in society and while earlier generations felt it, this generation is asking why no one has fixed it.
Covid brought this home very strongly to this group when they personally felt the pain of lack of freedom to live the life they wanted, of financial challenges and of the role business and brands played during that time. They were expected to step up and that has not gone away as we move out of the Covid era.
Andrew: So, what we're saying is that constraints over the past year have limited their physical freedoms, but their minds are still exploring new possibilities and new worlds in which to live.
Caroline: That’s fertile ground on which companies can engage – but it will need to be in their world, and it will need to be on their terms.