University of Bamberg / Young and flexible

October 2012

Professor Schulze, Generation Y, that is, those born after 1981, is considered particularly flexible and always willing to pursue new directions in terms of both career and personal life. Is this because they have a particular capacity for this or, to put it bluntly, are we in fact looking at a ‘directionless generation’?

We have all had to become more flexible, not just those born after 1981. And at the same time, we are continually striving for order and continuity. Less and less, direction is prescribed and imposed on us and this means we have to establish it for ourselves, at work and in partnerships, often by trial and error. In order to do this, we need to define criteria, make judgments, gather information, exchange experiences and make risky decisions. If anything can be considered typical for the generation born after 1981, then it is the extensive use of new media to precisely this end. With their mobile phones, iPods and notebooks, they have become the architects of their own direction. We are all cultural observers, not just market researchers and their clients, and must therefore ensure that we do not make it too easy for ourselves. Our desire for simplicity begins with cluster analyses and ends with summary labeling of key groups of people. The major residual variance magically disappears in the compartmentalization into terms such as ‘Generation Y’ and ‘Directionless generation’. Such classifications can be misleading, since they imply a basis of knowledge, but in fact, they have the opposite effect of falsifying reality.

If you compare this generation with the earlier ‘baby boomers’, where do you see the main differences in lifestyle?

I also think that the term ‘baby boomers’, with all its connotations of schematic mindset intimations, is an untenable construction on an empirical basis, rather comparable to shifting sands. Its function is to furnish decision-makers with notional arguments. The philosopher Hans Vaihinger sums this up with his own conceived term of useful illusions. To growing degree, differences in lifestyles, insofar as they are connected in time, can be ascribed to period effects. Even age effects are diminishing. This might well be a problem when dealing with markets, where simple certainties would be preferable. However, from the consumers’ point of view, it represents an expression of increased freedom.

How does the feeling that nothing in life is certain influence the value perception of young people?

This feeling is pure realism and should not be confused with the fear or uncertainty which can make it impossible to act. That nothing is certain brings with it risks, but also opportunities, which increase as there is greater potential for action, and no conceivable upper limit to the number of options. The impact on value perceptions is in liberation from fixed ideas, overbearing dogmas, lifelong regulation and pseudo certainties. An experimental way of life has emerged which includes biographical adjustment as much as it does the willingness to put down roots when appropriate.

In your experience, what impact does this have on buying behavior?

On the one hand, unpredictability and heterogeneity with regard to the collective, and, on the other, the development of personal consumption patterns, including particular preferences and principles (increasingly also moral) as well as experimentation.

If you would risk a prediction for the future: what comes after Generation Y and permanent flexibility? Will future generations continue this trend?

Gotthold Ephraim Lessing considered “the education of the human race

You were born in 1944. What events or influences have particularly shaped your life?

The protests of 1968. For me, the key message was not political, but very much private: you can do what you want. Until that point I had been told, you must do what you have to. This message was above all conveyed through pop music and a new style of consumption. Today, this message still holds true and in that respect, we are all generation 68.

Thank you very much for the interview!