Remember dating in your youth? Asking out a crush to dinner and a movie? Getting there and back in a car you, your date or someone’s parents owned? These are all milestones of adolescence, strong memories that trigger powerful emotions … and antiquated relics that Gen Z is increasingly consigning to the dustbin of history.
As The Telegraph reports, Professor Jean Twenge has written a provocative new book on teen dating habits, iGen, based on surveys of 11 million young people, as well as in-depth interviews. Twenge finds that the so-called “iGeneration” (those born between 1995 and 2012) are less interested in romance than Millennials were at that age; more comfortable socializing online than in person; dating less; having sex later, and less often; having fewer babies; and are “safer” but also more apt to show signs of mental illness, especially if they spend three hours or more a day on their devices.
The statistics she cites are jaw-dropping: high school seniors now go out less than 13 year olds did as recently as 2009; only 56% of teens are dating, nearly 30 points lower than the number of Gen Xers and Boomers who dated at that age; sexual activity among young teens has declined by almost 40% across two generations; and the teen birth rate is at an all-time low, down 67% from its modern peak in 1991.
This is clearly a sea change in behavior; what are the implications for marketers?
*Going out has changed for good. When teens do go out, they tend to go out with groups of friends or with their families rather than as couples on dates. This changes the types of movies that they go to see, and it’s no coincidence that the “romantic comedy” genre has all but dried up in favor of superhero movies with broad appeal. Dining out has changed, too, as inexpensive restaurants with table service such as Applebee’s have suffered some of the steepest declines in traffic, as business migrates to “fast casual” chains with counter service, or more expensive concepts geared toward older diners with more disposable income. So if you’re offering a product or service aimed at young couples, it’s time to adapt it to extended families or groups of friends, who will probably not spend as much if they’re not trying to “impress,” and have a larger group to pay for.
*So have the “trappings” of going out. In the old days, going out involved a car, yours or somebody else’s. It was lame to pick up a date in your mom’s station wagon or minivan, and much cooler to show up in your own sports car. Now all of that has gone out the window; bad news for Mustang, Camaro and Civic Si sales. And going out also involved nice, “dress to impress” clothes. Look for this to change, too, as teens perhaps spend less on “dress-up” clothes that they’ll rarely wear, and more on nice casual clothes, accessories and athletic wear to look good in every day.
*Marketing to new parents means marketing to 30- and 40-somethings. Over time, ads targeting parents have gotten younger and edgier, and more inclusive of all family types. The latter trend will almost certainly continue, but look for the parents in the ads and their tone and language to reflect busy 30-something and 40-something professionals, rather than Gen Z and young Millennials. If teens and young 20-somethings aren’t dating, aren’t having sex and aren’t having babies, it doesn’t make sense to target them with ads for diapers, baby food, toys, etc. The new target looks more like Rainbow Johnson (married professional in her 40s) than Haley Dunphy (single woman in her early 20s).
Don’t let your teen customers break up with you, or “swipe left”; adapt your product and messaging to their changing lifestyles, to keep the love alive.