Curious to see the "reality" of student life, our Insights division audited the school bags of 1,113 U.S. high school and college students on a nationally representative basis, balanced by gender, class year, state and race.
The first insight is that the school bag is indeed a backpack for nearly three-quarters of males and slightly more than half of females. Shoulder bags and fashion totes are extremely popular among females, representing more than a third of what female students carry with them daily. In those instances when males aren't wearing a backpack, chances are that they are using a messenger bag or laptop bag instead.
Surprisingly, we collected plenty of ethnographic evidence that the modern student retains the traditional tools of yesteryear: pens, pencils, notebooks and textbooks are the four most-often found "devices" that students carry with them. More than three-quarters of students had these items in their backpacks on the day that they were interviewed.
Cell phones are equally ubiquitous: more than nine out of ten high school and college students have a cell phone and this device is with them all of the time. Interestingly, females are twice as likely to have their cell phones in their backpacks as males, who keep cell phones on their person rather than tucked inside their backpack.
The same is true of wallets -- females are twice as likely to carry their finances and identification in their backpacks than males who, again, insist on finding a different pocket or pouch to keep their wallet.
Apparel manufacturers should take note of the need for more nooks and crannies to house wallets, cell phones and other personal items that are deemed either too important or too essential to be left in a backpack by young males.
Most likely due to a chronic shortage of pocket space, males are as likely to keep their iPod/MP3 player in their backpack as females. More than half of the backpacks examined had an MP3 player present and, interestingly, nearly half of backpacks had a flash drive.
It's telling that flash drives are carried with students more often than laptops and, if you spend time at a high school or college campus, you'll quickly realize that students aren't monogamous in their computing, moving from desktop to laptop to computer lab with ease.
While laptops are owned by two-thirds of high school students and more than nine out of ten collegians, a laptop was present in only one-quarter of the backpacks of females and around one-third of the backpacks of males.
While we tend to picture students as being constantly connected to social networking sites, chances are high that their laptop was left in the dorm or bedroom rather than carried with them throughout the day.
Finally, the backpack is also a snack center: nearly one-half of females and one-third of males carry gum, one in five females and one in seven males carry granola bars and slightly fewer than this ratio carry mints.
Bottled water is onboard a little more than one-third of backpacks, while a further one in five carry a reusable water bottle. In this and other research we've conducted, it's clear that water dominates the beverage choice of Gen Y.
After scouring over 1,000 backpacks and diligently recording their contents, we feel quite comfortable stating that while technological items such as cell phones, MP3 players and laptops have rapidly found a home in the backpacks of Gen Y, there are plenty of traditional items that share this same space.