How Mobile Usage Varies Across Generations

By Pete Cape, Global Knowledge Director

Just a few short years ago, working people always on the road typically traveled with five or six gadgets in their bag, including a cell phone, a smartphone, a notebook PC and an iPod. Today, all this functionality can be contained in just one device: the smartphone.

Mobile is understood to be one of the most important technological trends market researchers need to be watching today. It’s equally important that they understand how mobile usage varies across generations, and how that influences market research studies.

Research Reveals Key Generational Differences

The results of a recent eight-country study across the U.S., Europe and Asia conducted by SSI revealed interesting global trends in device usage differences between generations. In terms of technology adoption, there are three key groups:

Baby Boomers: Born between 1945 and 1965, Baby Boomers are digital immigrants. Every piece of modern technology was introduced during their lifetimes and they had to learn how to use it.

Generation X: Born between 1965 and 1985, these digital pioneers were the ones who adapted technology or adapted their lifestyles to fit—but the technology was introduced when they were young.

Millennials: Finally, Millennials born after 1985 are digital natives, who have never known anything other than a digital world and take it largely for granted.

While there are clear differences in behavior between the generations, they are not mutually exclusive. Baby Boomers do use Facebook, for example, while Millennials do own the odd CD. But the intensity of the behavior is different.

This can blind us in market research as to each one’s relative importance, which leads us to make mistakes in our questionnaire writing. For instance, omitting certain behaviors or downgrading them (putting them last in an answer list, for example).

There is also the potential to make mistakes in our analysis, as well, by concentrating on what we understand (or feel) the world to look like, rather than actual respondent behaviors. In reality, research reveals a complex set of behaviors and patterns that may defy our initial assumptions.

How Generational Differences Manifest Through the Mobile Phone

Our research revealed a number of important points about the generational differences in mobile phone usage.

The largest gaps exist between Baby Boomers and Millennials: Differences can be clearly seen by asking about mobile phone usage behaviors. In our U.S. sample, about a quarter of all Baby Boomers told us they used their mobile phone to help choose a restaurant, so it is a minority behavior. Twice as many Generation X and Millennials do this, however, making it very much a mainstream activity. Yet, this was the closest Baby Boomers got to Millennials in the study. It’s a powerful illustration that while Millennials have seen a high degree of device convergence, Baby Boomers are still using a wider array of devices, depending on the task.

Completing practical activities on the smartphone: There was a 30 percent point gap in terms of reading the news, with 71 percent of Millennials doing this on a smartphone. Looking at other practical activities, there’s a 31 percent gap for getting directions, 37 percent for watching TV, 38 percent for comparing prices, 46 percent for watching movies and an almost unbelievable 56 percent point difference for streaming music between Millennials and Baby Boomers. Only a quarter of Boomers do this on their phone, compared to over eight in 10 Millennials. The trend is confirmed across a range of activities.

The gap isn’t as dramatic between Millennials and Gen X: Where does this leave the ever-squeezed Gen-X? For the most part, they keep up with Millennials. They equally use their mobile phones for the practical—choosing restaurants, getting directions, reading the news, comparing prices. These were all things that perhaps had previously been done on a PC. Where gaps begin to emerge are on watching TV, streaming music and streaming movies. Generation X is closer to Millennials but a definite gap begins to emerge.

Device substitution levels vary across generations: For the Millennial, there has been no device substitution. The mobile phone is the only way in which news has been consumed, for example. Gen Xers are the ones who are substituting devices, having switched to reading news on their PCs. Baby Boomers perhaps continue to buy paper newspapers. Thus, we can easily see the long-term future of the printed newspaper, and imagine what a shock it will be to any remaining Baby Boomers when the last newsstand finally closes.

The trend for mobile to replace other devices in people’s lives makes it imperative for researchers to understand how to leverage the technology. For researchers, it’s important to think about mobile in two key ways. The first is when developing and analyzing questionnaires. Are there underlying assumptions about mobile behaviors around specific generations that could influence your research outcomes? Second, does your target demographic have a preferred device usage pattern that should influence your research platform choices? By strategically considering your target research audience’s relationship to mobile, you can make decisions that are more informed at all stages of the research process.