Why Y Matters (mapping the coming consumption patterns of Generation Y)

As Generation Y (ages 23-36) are maturing into their peak-consumption period, and since they are equal in number to their parent’s generation (the baby boomers) – with twice the population, and over twice the spending power of Generation X – the key to surviving the recession and consolidating a new consumer base is to shift focus away from marketing to Generation X and to put all energy towards targeting the vast emerging market of Generation Y. However, such a task is not easy as GenY have their own values, quirks and language. The following research is intended as a tool for corporations, mall owners developers and marketers, to assist in the re-orientation towards the mind and heart of the Y consumer.

The following are excerpts.


If you can’t speak Yspeak then Y won’t buy from you. Nonethless Gen Y pose real problems for product-depth-analysis, as Yspeak entails stopping short, almost instinctually, at the threshold of any potentially unsettling thought – ‘Skip the track’, ‘change the channel’ are typical refrains  ( and this can be at times infuriating for market researchers). Yspeak includes a refusal to accept analogies, and comparison of different contexts, histories or values – ‘Everyone’s different, go with the flow’ is the GenY moto. This makes it difficult to target Y as a mass market, as they don’t believe that the mass market actually exists. For them it is ‘something that old people did’. It is ‘ODD’ (Out of Date Dude).

Y speak involves ‘Dissing’ or ‘Blanking’ any thought that is not useful to satisfying the needs at hand. ‘How?’ not ‘Why?’ is (quite ironically) the question GenY asks the most.  How can I satisfy this need, rather than why should I? Attempting to discuss traditional ‘why’ issues – such as ‘is driving a car wrong?’ or ‘should or shouldn’t I buy sweatshop products?’ with GenY, invariably ends with the following side-shift – ‘That’s your personal issue mate, I have mine too, OK, so back off.’ Everything for Y is purely personal opinion. Gen Ydon’t want to be boxed-in – for Y-ers all values are relative and any attempt at discussing matters that extend beyond the purely personal  – e.g war, abortion, unemployment, marriage, hygiene, international debt, etc – will lead to the same impasse. In fact the avoidance of conflict with GenY results sometimes in an almost total lack of communication – indeed why-speak? They can even become aggressive when defending their right to not communicate. For example (from a market research study into Tuforkey – The world’s leading soya-based turkey substitute)

X – Why are you a vegetarian?

Y- I just am.

X – Is it because you want to save the planet?

Y – Nah, everyone’s got their own thing, man.

X – Is it because you dislike cruelty to animals?

Y – What are you, a fascist? Back off man!

This avoidance of potential conflict or questioning at all cost may have it’s positive aspect, and may be a result of the incredible multi-culturalism of GenY (22% have mixed race parents). Also in a positive sense Y-ers have taken their boomer parents opinions to their conclusion – everyone has the freedom to have a different opinion from everyone else, or to have the same one without having to justify it, or to have no opinion on anything at all, without this being a problem.

More subtle market research strategies have to continue to be developed and more Yspeak studied and used in ad campaigns. There are cases, in the last four years, of advertisers attempting to use Y-buzzwords with disasterous consequences – with GenY feeding ODD media researchers deliberately wrong words as ‘pranks’. See the ‘Secrets Lingerie’ ad campaign 2009 – ‘Poxy Lady!’ – researchers had been falsely led to believe that ‘Poxy’ was a GenY hybrid of ‘pop’ and ‘foxy’.

Yspeak is all about ‘Spec’. If you don’t know what spec means you will never market to GenY.

To define Spec: Spec is the opposite of ‘grounded’ (GenY dislike being ‘grounded’ and this may be a ref to being forced to stay at home by your parents when you could be out in the mall with your friends). Spec and Grounded have no apparent historical linguistic connection, nonetheless studies have shown Spec to be the number one most-used word in global GenY vocab and Grounded to be the second. (One theory as to Spec’s origin posits it as a kind of hybrid of cockney meets Asian ‘Yoof’  meets Black-Hispanic patois – derived from ‘respec’). Spec has a double and/or contradictory meaning. On the one hand it means – I like what you’re into – clothes, music, products, etc, I like what you’re saying – while at the same time it means – you’re different from me, keep your distance and respect my space – ‘spec mon’. Again we see that the personality profile of GenY is that of isolated consumers, who will give each other space to have their own ‘unique individual experiences’. Even though this attitude is accepted, on mass by this generation, this should never be pointed out to members of GenY, as (1) Such a communication would signify that the communicant is from an older generation – passé, ODD, and uses outdated forms like ‘logic’, etc. (2) Most of all GenY despise being told that they are GenY. They simply deny that they are ‘a generation’ at all. In their mind they are simply a collection of 73 million people who are all unique individuals and have spec for each other’s differences. This tolerance of other cultures even extends to the Y-self, in which, sometimes contradictory cultural adornments can be worn/consumed, but without the iconoclastic intentions of say the punk generation.

‘A bit of hippie and 80’s yuppie, with some Buddhism, Neitzsche, and punk rock.’ was how one GenY fashion Guru described her new style ‘bop-we’. Styles don’t ‘clash’ with or ‘contradict’ each other but show each other ‘spec’.

Other interpretations of spec are not to be discounted, and in trying to understand GenY and Yspeak it night be a useful exercise to try to hold many contradictory ideas in the head at the same time and to find them all true.

(1) Spec is a diminutive of Speculation – as all GenY opinions are ‘ungrounded’ and therefore always speculative, in this instance spec means ‘yes, I agree with you on spec or until further notice.’

(2) Spectator – The ideal comfortable position for GenY being that of the spectator in all things. Spec meaning ‘yeah, I’m happy to stand back and watch you do/say your own thing.’ ‘let he world pass by etc’

Such interpretations may be way off the mark. The crucial point here for retailers is to not attempt to market too aggressively to GenY as this would be grounding them and would show a lack of spec.


The recycling symbol is the paradigmatic emblem of GenY (The symbol of the serpent eating it’s tail in ancient Celtic mythology, or of the infinite circle in Buddhism – archaic symbols and lost cultures are big for these consumers, GenY and New Age go hand in hand).

Imagine if you will a utopian recycling city. The people who work in the malls, shop in the malls and the waste they produce is recycled to make the products that are sold in the malls – an entirely self-enclosed circular world in which even waste is turned into worth. This is the GenY ideal. And it is backed up by facts – surveys now show that recycling increases consumption by 7%. Nothing need be wasted and again. Consider the case of one GenY innovation – The Eco Gym.

GenY spent £41-43 million on gym member ship, and twelve times that amount on ‘health products’ ( 2009-10 an industry with a growth 3% above inflation per annum) Taking this on board with statistic on carbon emission and with the vast hikes in carbon tax and in the costs of air conditioning and solar protection panelling, with consumers looking for ways to reduce their already heavy carbon footprint, and the eco-gym starts to make a lot of financial sense. (You may have come across one before at NEW-U fitness, Goldenridge Mall, Manchester, but perhaps have not understood how it functions.)

Consider, if you will, all of the weights and pulleys, the treadmill, pedal bikes and rowing machines. The pressure in nearly all of these cases, is that of friction – greater resistance to rowing, walking or running on the treadmill can be created by ‘upping the difficulty level’. One of the by-products of this friction is heat, which put simply is energy. In a conventional gym all of this energy is wasted, but with the eco- gym, through systems of mini-generators, sensors and heat conductors, human energy is transferred into carbon-free electricity. Technological advances are moving swiftly in this field and in the not to distant future it is possible to conceive of not just gyms but the building that’s house them, including shopping malls and retail parks being powered entirely by human energy (The Lanshoquan mall in Indonesia has recently installed foot-touch sensors which transmit energy from pedestrian activity and power the cash registers). A recent nationwide survey of 2,000 indicated that 74% of GenY would be ‘seriously interested in joining an eco- gym’ if they were offered the possibility of earning carbon offset credit from their work-outs. We like to think that these facts need no further interpretation.

In promoting recyling-for-profit, your company need not concern itself with the actual facts concerning eco-efficiency, as GenY are rarely interested in facts. Consider the case of Mcdairmid v Ecolite proving that that even the most avid packaging recycler was using up more carbon on the car trip to the mall recycling centre then they had saved by recycling. Nonetheless ‘being eco conscious’ while still continuing to consume ever greater quantities of hi-tech goods which require heavy industrial manufacture (albeit in other ‘3rd world’ countries) does not imply hypocrisy for Gen Y. They believe, passionately that contradiction is not only live-able, but the essence of life. This is a generation who recycle music and films and who, in their culture products, consume messages about hope, love, world peace etc (as their parents did) while in the work place engaging in hyper-competitive behaviour; a generation who dreams of security but who demands at every point freedoms which would necessarily demolish any security.

The problem for the retailer is in getting into the mindset where contradiction is the selling point. How can this product fulfill selfish desires and allow you to be seen as more socially responsible at the same time (sneakers that pay for basketball courts in the third world, etc), how can you buy sexy lingerie and object to the objectification of women at the same time? Can driving an SUV to the eco gym be justified?

The eco-gym is the paradigmatic example of Gen Y’s unique circular ‘recycled’ reasoning: Your work-out on the treadmill powers the lighting and TVs, while at the same time earning you eco-points and an incentive to shop for a well-earned extra reward-treat. It us well known that gyms increases consumption but the Eco Gym has gone one further to pose an innovative ‘third way’ solution to the old the conflict between retailers and ecologists – A way past the old ethos of ‘waste not, want not’ towards ‘waste and want’. Now consumers can have their cake and eat it too, then recycle it and eat it all over again.

Plenty more fish in the sea-of-love.com

What does GenY really want? Is the question retailers ask with ever more urgency. Like everyone else GenY want to be loved and respected but unlike past generations they have no hang-ups about going for what they want, right now. As K. Durk (LIVING magazine) proclaimed in 2009, ‘Looking for a partner is now as easy as online shopping’. GenY have none of the problems GenX had about ‘the meat market’ or being a ‘sexual object’ – this is just another set of ODD values/issues that GenY have swept away. GenY live in a world in which celebrity and commodity have merged, in which sex symbols have put their names to brands of perfumes, MP3s, sports gear, cooking utensils, bed linen, cars and even spray-tan colours; in which politicians marry pop stars and philosophers have children with supermodels. With GenY we have moved far beyond the ethos of ‘sex sells’, as for them, if a commodity or experience is not sexy then it has simply vanished beyond the horizon of perception. Sex culture is so ubiquitous now that it has even started to become invisible – ironically in the last five years the one word that has fallen out fashion has been ‘sexy’ – (this in a time when full frontal nudity has made it into the advertising campaigns of Abercrombie & Fitch and even M&S). Sexy has been replaced with ‘sweet’, ‘evil’ and ‘total’ –  note here also the re-use of the ‘babe’ and ‘hot’ – from the era of their boomer hippie parents.

While GenY are ‘Promiscuous shoppers’ our studies show that although they spends up to 4 hours online per day (after 8 hours of online work) on dating, networking, porno, IMchatting, voyeurvision and sex2nite sites, they are in fact less promiscuous than GenX. (The number of sexual partners ages 20-40 has quadrupled since the 1960s, but peaked with GenX at on average fifty-nine partners per age 20-40, but with 22% of the population having had casual sexual relations with in excess of three hundred people.) GenY see long term commitments as a hindrance to the freeflow of human energy and Capital. All employment for them is on ‘flexible’ short term contracts, and workers will have to be able to move location in the pursuit of employment; for Y-ers human relationships become ‘temporary’, ‘until further notice’; commitments to ‘home’ to community, to one person or to ‘family’ becoming ever more difficult to sustain as all energies pull the individual towards greater mobility and fluidity and all personal problems are dealt with by ‘quick fixes.’

The key concept for GenY is ‘flirting’, not ‘consummation’ – look but don’t touch – ‘window shopping’. A typical GenY-er may have as many as forty virtual lovers on online subscriber dating sites (Flirtbox, Plentyoffish etc) whom he/she regularily has IM sex chat and camsex with without ever meeting or even disclosing ‘real’ identities. Cases have been reported of virtual lovers, in particular women, for whom online contact with hundreds of men, who send her virtual flowers, virtual champagne, virtual kisses and even virtual smacks, has come to replace all ‘real contact’, fulfilling as it does the need to be adored and wanted, without the attendant anxieties of potentially time consuming disappointment. He/She can chose who he/she replies to and if a contact no longer satisfies, or grows tiresome or is superseded by more gratifying possibilities they can always be deleted (as Plentyoffish advertise ‘there’s always plentymore fish in the sea’). Flirting has become an end in itself and this trend is set only to grow as the GenY spend more and more time online (our projection is 5 hours domestic a day by 2020). Further stats show that internet dating is now the third fastest growth industry in the world (look out for those banners on Youtube).

The ethos of flirting, can only be good news for Y-retailers; as such Y-consumers will move at a whim from one product to the next, sometimes discarding an item before it has even outlived it’s usefulness. There are, however dangers that arise with such promiscuous consumers, least of all is their lack of commitment to one brand, their ‘lifetime brand loyalty.’ Here is the downside of GenY – corporations will have to constantly reinvent themselves and their products to seduce GenY buyers into returning to them.

One concrete way in which GenY flirtatiousness maps onto the retail environment is ‘winks’: A technology, again, developed in Asia. Since Bluetooth and wireless broadband became ubiquitous it became possible for phone-com users to send messages to strangers in their immediate vicinity. While this led in 2009 to many cases of sexual harassment (men sending out images of the genitalia, or spam messages -looking for sex etc) and a redrawing of user legislation, it criminalised winking apart from in pre-established wink-zones. As a result malls, airports, gyms and concert halls have become legitimate winkspaces. This has seen a proliferation of wink devoted sites such as Flirt and Watcha which provide arial maps on screen of specific wink-locations – typically malls, which then display all of the people who want to play as flashing icons. Clicking on an icon reveals all of that persons info, including pics and demog profile, so that a user can pick a wink partner in terms of age, height, earnings, demographic etc, rather than going through the old fashioned process of actually ‘giving the eye to a stranger’ or ‘meeting’. If you like someone you can send an IM message, say – MM@sBucks5 (meet me at Starbucks in five), if you don’t like an advance you can delete or become ‘invisible’. The first wink marriage was recorded in Sept 2010. Winking is the perfect combination of internet dating and window shoping, with no commitment and no ugly surprises. Gone are the days when someone on an internet date turned out, upon meeting at a bar, to be ten years older and three stone heavier than their profile stated. With winking, you can check them out for real and move on. Winking is just one way in which GenY has re-eroticised the retail experience and led us to realise that retail is not just about gratification but about the endlessly deferred promise of satiation – ‘desire desires desire’.

In certain malls in Thailand, an innovation known as ‘winkpods’ has become a trend – it’s rather like the sleeppods in crowded Japanese cities where people can buy hourly time in a six by four bed/drawer within a stack. The difference is the uses that the winkpods are supposedly put to, these being, it is claimed, large enough for two or more people. It is possible to imagine how winkpods could become a reality here, given the lowering of taboos around sexuality and its gradual merging with the retail experience – a brief diversion while shopping – but legislation still has to catch up.

In other ways GenY sexual behaviour maps onto new consumer behaviour: The one night stand and the quest for the next thrill, the conquest etc, which characterised GenX dating (and which also was a source of anxiety and grief, as people ‘notched-up’ hundreds of partners) – has been replaced by SDCs and SYLs – ‘semi-detached couples’ & ‘see ya later’s. GenY twosome-ness is only ever part-time as each partner has an ‘intimate network’ of between three and five other ‘buddies’. In simple terms this means that a typical GenYer, in a typical year has, say four lovers, that he/she sleeps with on a regular basis in a kind of rota. Each person is aware that their ‘buddy’ has other buddies.  This has moved beyond the somewhat sordid arrangement of ‘fuck-buddies’ that characterised GenX, (GenY, unlike GenX know that quantity is not quality) and has now become the most socially acceptable form of union. Commitments are made ‘till further notice’. And at any point a person can be dropped from the rota of favoured partners. At all times the buddy must guard against ‘getting too serious’ and as all players are aware that they can be dropped and replaced at a moments notice, this keeps buddies constantly on their toes in terms of attractiveness, pleasantness, not being ‘too heavy’, being ‘entertaining’ and up-to-date in fashion, cultural products, style, fitness, etc. The opportunities here for the tuned-in retailer are not hard to see.

Comments (2)

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  1. KW says:

    I think I see what yer going with this Ewan and part of me is pulled along with the train of thought but another part thinks Generation Y should get its critical faculties in gear pronto and start differentiating between the snake, the snake-oil and the snakepit. After X & Y the letters start running out kinda quick.

  2. Pingback: Mall Culture |

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