Understand the mysteries of teens

19 Aug 2010|Lee Shupp

We do lots of work with youth at Cheskin Added Value, and much of it focuses on youth trends. We are repeatedly bemused by “trendspotters” who breathlessly promote the “next big thing” that they saw the “cool kids” doing. Surprisingly, we’ve seen that a lot over the years, and it seems to keep repeating, as different companies come and go, each claiming to understand the mysterious lives of teens.

Teens can appear hard to understand from an adult perspective, but teens, like any subculture, can be easily understood once you dispel some common myths, and apply some useful frameworks. Let’s look at a few of each…

First, let’s get some myths out of the way:
“Of course I understand teens, because I was a teen once.” Being a teen now is not anything like when you or I were a teen. Sure, some basic teen needs are timeless. But our dim memories of our teenage years are more likely to blur our perspective than to clarify it. It’s much more useful to approach teen research with beginner’s mind, being very open to the unique ways that teens experience the world now.

“Of course I understand teens. I have two of my own!” If you have teens of your own, it’s not usually useful to generalize from your own teens to teens as a whole. Your experience of your own kids will cloud your perspective, especially given the emotional connection that you feel towards them. Every teen is a unique, wonderful human being who may or may not represent wider teen experiences. And as great as your relationship is, and as open as it is, there is likely lots your teen isn’t telling you. Not that it’s bad- it’s just complicated.

Three frameworks help lots when understanding teens.

The most basic is life stage research, which looks at how people move through different life stages. I had the wonderful experience of collaborating with a really smart client at Hershey’s to develop a “Kids 101” primer that described in detail the stages that kids go through as they grow into their teens. Life stage work typically begins with tweens and goes through life stages into elderhood and retirement. While most life stage research focuses upon specific life stages, the seams between them can provide opportunities. There are transition points between life stages where much exploration takes place, and brand repertoire widens. There are also transition points where consolidation take place, and brand repertoire narrows. Understanding the basics of each life stage provides a strong foundation, and the transition points between stages tend to be points of leverage. One of my favorite mental calibration tools is the Beloit College Mindset List, released every fall to help faculty better understand the incoming freshman class. The list does a great job of helping adults better understand the perspectives of 18 year olds.

The next level is generational research, or understanding how different generations move through each life stage. A couple of caveats about generational research are worth mentioning. First, it’s a bit arbitrary saying where one generation starts, and another stops. Second, grokking the experience of a generation is a very big and general task. There are always some people who embody the experience, and some who feel outside of it. Caveats noted, generational research is still useful to consider as background, or foundational knowledge to work with youth. Strauss and Howe have an interesting generational model that posits four different generational “archetypes” that repeat in a cycle over time, described in detail in their book Generations.

Last is a trend adoption model. Cheskin Added Value has a trend adoption model for youth, first developed for Pepsi in the early 1990s, that has held up remarkably well over the years. It’s basically an adaptation of Everett Roger’s work on diffusion, applied to teens. We know that there is a segment of teens who experiments heavily with different ways of being, but we know that few of the things that they do mainstream to a wider teen audience. We know that another segment picks up trends and amplifies them, mainstreaming them across teen culture.

To summarize then, life stage and generational models provide a foundational understanding that is great context for understanding youth. But you still need to keep beginner’s mind, listen and observe openly and empathetically, and develop a diffusion model for how trends are discovered, and amplified through youth culture.

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