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Six Seismic Shifts in Global Teen Culture

By Feb 02, 2006

Certain experiences transform the outlook of an entire generation. For today’s 13- to 18-year-olds, the events of 9/11 had that effect. Seemingly overnight the world changed from one filled with the optimism and endless possibility of the Internet boom to a dark and anxious place threatened by global war and international terror. These dramatic changes could only logically result in equally important shifts in global teen culture.

The GenWorld global teen study, conducted by my company, Energy/BBDO, set out to explore the recent changes in global teen attitudes, lifestyles, and values. Our key discovery: six seismic shifts that we believe will be known as the hallmarks of a new generation.

1) Being wired: from an elite to a mainstream phenomenon

  • While wired teens in the 1990s were found primarily in the most developed countries, today they are a global mass market. On average across 13 countries, 56% of teens qualify as “superconnectors,” using at least two of five electronic devices or services every single day.
  • This phenomenon has given rise to a widespread new form of peer interaction, the social network. While family communications remain primarily face to face, teens and their friends are more densely networked to one another via IM, cell phone, text message, and e-mail. The growth of these social networks means that there is an entire “world” of communications going on that adults aren’t part of and often don’t even know about.
  • Implication: If your brand wants a relationship with this generation, connect them to each other. For them, there are no “new media.” Connecting virtually is how they live. The way marketers connect with them may be as important as what they say.

2) Worldview: from optimism to a great uneasiness

  • Ubiquity of information access makes today’s global teens painfully aware of the turbulence occurring around them everyday. Just 14% say, “I think the world is becoming a better place,” a far cry from the teens of the 1990s, who saw tremendous possibilities for themselves with the emergence of the new economy.
  • Personal safety worries top teens’ lists of concerns, notably terrorism (62%) and war (62%).
  • They are a cautious group: Only 20% value “adventure and risk” as a guiding principle in their lives, and just 28% say, “I am usually among the first to try something new.”
  • Implication: They have enough to worry about. Rather than preying on their fears, fuel optimism. New isn’t automatically better.

3) Success: from entitlement to self-activism

  • Despite their trepidations about the state of the world, today’s global teens have decided to remain and fight. In sharp contrast to the “whatever” detachment and entitlement of the 1990s, this generation’s primary attitude is “I would fight for a cause I believe in,” agreed to by 6 in 10 globally.
  • The cause that interests them most: their hopes for their own futures. They are a generation of “self-activists” prepared to focus and work hard to get what they need to out of “the system.”
  • Chief among their future concerns: money. Being financially secure, being rich, or being better off than their parents financially were the number-one expectations in eight out of 13 countries.
  • “Protecting the family” and “having stable relationships” were the number-one and number-four global personal values.
  • Implication: They need courage. Empower them; be a solution; appeal to their inner hero or superpower.

4) The new vanguard of cool: from “USA teens” to “creatives”

  • In the 1990s, “USA teens” represented the vanguard of global youth. They were more wired, better informed, and more likely to shape the direction of popular culture.
  • The cutting edge of cool today is defined more by values than geography. Today’s leading-edge teens are “creatives,” a group that accounts for about 30% of teens worldwide. They are curious about the world, altruistic, and highly open to new and innovative ideas, and they enjoy expressing themselves through personal Web pages, art, music, writing, and design.
  • They are most prevalent in Europe and, interestingly, are not the predominant group in the United States, where conservative “traditional” teens make up nearly half of the population.
  • Implication: To connect with leading-edge teens, appeal to their desire to express themselves. When it comes to product design or communication, let them make it their own.

5) Global brand leaders: from American brands to world brands

  • While America brands such as Coca-Cola and McDonald’s retain the highest awareness levels, they are no longer the best liked. That honor goes to Sony (Japan), Nokia (Finland), and Adidas (Germany), which are numbers one, two, and three in overall teen affinity. McDonald’s is number 32 and Coke number eight in overall liking. In fact, American brands account for only half of the global top 10 teen brands.
  • Implication: Awareness doesn’t equal affinity for today’s global teens. Plastering a brand logo everywhere isn’t sufficient to make a connection with them.

6) Brands: from brand status symbols to brand apathy

  • Marketers face big trouble: 62% of global teens are apathetic about marketing and advertising.
  • What does this mean? Only 13% of these teens are interested in wearing brand logos, more than half are skeptical about the accuracy of the marketing and advertising they are exposed to, and 69% feel that there is too much marketing and advertising in the world.
  • Implication: Give them something to care about: Have a cause, a mission, a difference making purpose in the world. Hype causes apathy, but meaning energizes.
  • Teens today may be fearful about the future, but there is still much to be optimistic about. Ubiquity of information access may lead to equality of opportunity. This generation’s passion and determination may lead to more willingness to tackle difficult societal problems. And the rise of social networks may lead to increased interpersonal and global understanding.

    Perhaps the most biting message this generation is sending is to marketers, whose messages and approaches leave them indifferent. American marketers in particular may need a wakeup call. Only by offering global teens understanding and respect can companies expect to leverage the full power of the newly emerging global teen culture.

    Chip Walker is the author of the GenWorld teen study and executive vice president at Chicago-based agency Energy/BBDO.