Generation “U”

Jeremy Edwards, director of Xtreme Insight, explores the new Generation “U” group of consumers created by the recession.


A generation shaped by the recession and defined by attitude as well as age – Gen U is lacking in inspiration, dynamism, positivity and hope.

As government cuts begin to bite, the short and medium-term future looks bleak and Gen U is taking to the streets. Late September saw protests and marches start to turn violent across Europe as widespread anger began to show.

The challenge for brands is knowing how to respond to this group. Should they take a long-term view and invest in them as future customers and if so, how? Could they provide them with tools that help them find jobs, or even sponsor their protest marches?

U is for unemployment

In the UK research suggests 1.3 million people have been made redundant during the recession and a further 750,000 public sector workers are predicted to lose their jobs over the next five years as result of cuts.

Generation U contains more out of work “young adults” than other age-groups. Between 2008 and 2009, official government figures show US unemployment rose from 13% to 18% amongst 16 to 24-year-olds. With a significant portion of this demographic being students, only 46% of 16-24s had a job in September 2010, the lowest figure since the records began in 1948.

U is for Undergraduates

Some young adults are trying to ride out the recession/post-recession period at university. Student numbers in the UK are at an all-time high and the number of new starters in September 2010 was up 5.5% year-on-year, according to the university admissions service UCAS.

Demand is so high that even some of the brightest British teens – even those predicted to achieve more than 90% in their exams – are failing to secure university places.

Current undergraduates may feel partly protected from the economic problems but their prospects look bleak and many are just mounting up debts before joining the unemployment lines.

In the US, graduate unemployment has now reached 18%. A recent UK survey of 502 companies by the Centre for Enterprise found 89% have not recruited a recent graduate in the last year.

In the UK research suggests 1.3 million people have been made redundant during the recession and a further 750,000 public sector workers are predicted to lose their jobs over the next five years as result of cuts.

Cuts in public sector recruitment will make the situation even worse and could contribute to a doubling of graduate unemployment, according to the Higher Education Careers Service Unit. Its statistics show 59% of full-time, first-degree graduate found full-time work after six months – down from 62% the previous year.

U is for ’under the influence’ and ’under one roof’

David Kern, chief economist at the British Chambers of Commerce, says that a large increase in people claiming benefits, more part-time work and rising inactivity “may lead to a crisis of confidence, particularly for professionals who are unable to work, depression and alcohol dependence”.

And, researchers who collected statistics from 15 European countries for the years 1980 to 2005 found that each £80 cut in social welfare spending per person pushed up alcohol-related deaths by about 2.8%. Additionally, research from the US Census Bureau revealed that the number of people living in the same property rose in 2009 for the first time since 1993.

U is for ’branded utility’ and ’usefulness’

Brands can help Gen U learn new work-related skills and offer retraining tools as well as providing branded entertainment to lift the gloom and motivate them.

Some brands have been activists and supporters of protest movements for years – The Body Shop sponsored Greenpeace posters in its first year as a public company back in 1985.

American Apparel built its 2008 marketing message around sweatshop-free local labour and ran ads that called US immigration laws an “apartheid system”.

Since the recession started to hit home, several brands have run campaigns that provide some solutions to the downturn. Actions include providing consumers with tools to help them find a job, internship competitions and even making commitments to entire communities to help them through the hard times.

For example, Virgin Mobile in Canada took a humorous, yet practical approach. “Screw You Recession” was an integrated, multi-element campaign underscored by the classic Virgin fun/rebellious mix. The initiative was built around a central website and included online challenges and competitions, tools, tips, branded utilities and consumer-generated content.

There was an online and ambient “Mood Meter” to gauge the effect of the downturn on the Canadians (with options ranging from ’Everything Sucks’, ’Sorta Freakin’ Out Right Now’, and ’The Recession Ain’t Getting Me Down!’)

But there were also more constructive and practical elements to the activity. There was an intern programme that offered work placements. Young adults could apply by making a video, which were posted online for viewers to vote on.

Levi’s is a brand taking an altogether more serious response to the problems of Generation U. Part of its current “Go Forth” campaign is a real world regeneration commitment based on the Pennsylvanian town of Braddock. Identifying that brands can play a role in helping Generation U revitalise and recover, Levi’s is supporting a new generation of “real workers” who see challenges around them.

Levi’s is supporting projects that enlist locals and modern pioneers – artists, craftsmen, musicians and business owners – to rebuild and revive the town. The brand’s advertising also features real people doing real work in Braddock.

In the UK, Asda and Cadbury’s charitable arms have signed up to support Prime Minister David Cameron’s Big Society vision, but brands who don’t support this could appeal to Gen U. Bookmaker BetFred became the official sponsor of MUST (Manchester United Supporters Trust) and is backing protests and marches against the football club’s current owners.

The unique and challenging nature of the economic climate could see brands go one step further. So which brands will suit a strategy of supporting Generation U by backing a jobs march or even sponsoring a strike?

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