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Generation Alpha: Marketing or Science

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Introduction: The transition from the limited information environment to the extended information world has fundamentally transformed the communication and information-gathering processes. The new learning spheres (non-formal and informal learning, i.e. lifelong learning) require rethinking learning strategies. Purpose: The generation logic and knowledge of different generations can help making the learning process more effective and efficient. It also helps, if we know which generation exists and which one is a “fictious generation”. According to theory of Mannheim and the model of Prensky, we can describe Generation X, Y and Z, but now the name of the next generation is being established. Methods: With the help of traditional desk research, such as literature search, data mining and web search, this article covers the origin of Generation Alpha (Alfa), the possible characteristics attributed to this age group, and tries to discern if this concept is meaningful in terms of the generation paradigm. Conclusions: Overall, it is apparent that while the existence of X, Y, and Z generations is demonstrable, the naming and characterizing the Alfa generation is important for marketing purposes, scientifically there is no evidence for “Generation Alpha”.
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Acta Technologica Dubnicae
volume 7, 2017, issue 1
DOI: 10.1515/atd-2017-0007
107
Generation Alpha: Marketing or Science?
1
Ádám Nagy – Attila Kölcsey
Received: September 17, 2016; received in revised form: March 8, 2017;
accepted: March 9, 2017
Abstract:
Introduction: The transition from the limited information environment to
the extended information world has fundamentally transformed the
communication and information-gathering processes. The new learning
spheres (non-formal and informal learning, i.e. lifelong learning) require
rethinking learning strategies.
Purpose: The generation logic and knowledge of different generations can
help making the learning process more effective and efficient. It also
helps, if we know which generation exists and which one is a “fictious
generation”. According to theory of Mannheim and the model of Prensky,
we can describe Generation X, Y and Z, but now the name of the next
generation is being established.
Methods: With the help of traditional desk research, such as literature
search, data mining and web search, this article covers the origin of
Generation Alpha (Alfa), the possible characteristics attributed to this age
group, and tries to discern if this concept is meaningful in terms of the
generation paradigm.
Conclusions: Overall, it is apparent that while the existence of X, Y, and
Z generations is demonstrable, the naming and characterizing the Alfa
generation is important for marketing purposes, scientifically there is no
evidence for “Generation Alpha”.
Key words: generations, GenAlfa, Alpha generation.
Ádám Nagy, Pallasz Athéné University, Kecskemét, Hungary; J. Selye University,
Komárno, Slovakia; adam@nagydr.hu
Attila Kölcsey, Excenter Research Centre, Budapest, Hungary;
kolcsey.attila@outlook.com
1
This article is supported by Bolyai Research Fellowship
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1 Introduction
According to Mannheim, an age group can be considered a generation if they
share some immanent attributes, generational consciousness or communal
characteristics. For this to happen, three requirements must be met: shared
experiences, actual cohesion, common attitudes and forms of behaviour
(Mannheim, 1969). Mannheim draws parallels between generations and social
classes (one cannot enter a social class at will, he/she is born into it, and cannot
leave it until his/her status changes). Of course, this does not mean that every
single person in a generation will show the same characteristics, only that there
is an observable generational pattern.
2 The logic of generations
According to the model made by Strauss and Howe (1991), a generation change
takes place in our society around every 20 years, with some signs of cyclicality.
Marc Prensky added the relation to the information society and technology to the
age group dimension as an important factor. It is his digital immigrants-digital
natives model (Prensky, 2001) that Székely combines with the Strauss-Howe
model (Székely, 2014):
- Generation X (digital immigrants, McDonald’s generation): The main body
of today’s labour market, born in the late 60’s and in the 70’s, this age
group came in contact with the tools of information technology and the
digital world at a relatively young age. They witnessed computer
technology turning into IT, and then into information society. The Internet
is more or less present in their lives. In Western countries, they grew up
under the influence of electronic media. In Hungary, they still grew up
under the Socialism, but its milder, abating phase, and they were the so-
called Ratkó-grandchildren.
- Generation Y (digital natives): Born in the 80’s and 90’s, the members of
this age group experienced the Internet in their early childhood, they are
confident in using digital tools and navigating the web, the digital world is
their natural habitat, their digital self is consciously formed. They are
characterized by strong media consumption, they are fast to adapt to
technological changes. This age group is the generation of information
society: they started using ICT tools as young children with ease.
Generation Y in Hungary basically closed the gap that was usually present
between us and the Western world. Gen Ys grew up from children to
youngsters mostly after the regime change, they met computers and the
Internet - if not at home, at least in schools(Székely, 2014). Their social
interactions take place in the real and the digital world at the same time,
they are more mobile than previous age groups, due to mobile phones and
the Internet. Generation Y is different from previous generations in many
ways, they are attracted to group activities, shared space, they are
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performance-oriented, confident, they mostly identify with the value system
of their parents, and they are highly educated (school and good performance
is important for the majority of this age group). They process information
faster, preferring image and sound over text, they also prefer random
references (hypertext). They strive to immediately and often satisfy their
desires, favour games over “serious” work, and instead of an inconvenient
but necessary ally, treat technology as a friend (Prensky, 2001). Members
of this generation follow global trends, they are among the first to learn to
use new technologies, often changing the course of education. They feel at
home in the digital world much more than the older “digital immigrants”.
- Generation Z (Facebook generation): They are those who were born at and
after the turn of the millennium. They lost their “computer-virginity” in the
Web 2.0, met social media in its full, they do not know what life without
the Internet is. Their primary communication channel is not e-mail
anymore, but social media. They not only consume information but
generate and share also. This generation does not know life without
wireless network, mobile phones and the Web. The most important cultural
difference between them and the previous generations is that they not only
consume digital content, they also generate it, on sites like YouTube,
Facebook, Twitter and torrent sites (and if we think this is only an irrelevant
pastime, we should remember the snowstorm in March, 2013, when
traditional media failed to help, and social media took over as primary
information source). They use devices on a skill level, they are typically
multitasking: writing blogs, listening to music, following email and social
network messages at the same time; their decision-making speed increases.
Gen Zeds do not simply pick up these tools and contents, but use them in
their everyday life and change them to their own tastes; they are practically
not limited by location. Generation Z’s social environment is radically
different from previous generations, thus making their learning,
socialization and pastime totally different, too (Tóbi, 2013). This difference
is mainly not sub-cultural (shown in clothing, use of language), it can be
seen instead in methods of information gathering and communication
strategy. They consume content on several different channels at once
(multitasking), their combined consumption exceeds the “physical” limits
of a single person, and most of them show no awareness of the legal and
institutional environment of their everyday internet usage (e.g.
downloading, file sharing). Moreover, changes in the world not only affect
the rational part of their psyche, but their emotions as well. Many of them
relieve this emotional tension without any cathartic experience. This
“emotional incontinence” brings with itself the expectation of others
tidying us up” (at least in an emotional sense) (Tari, 2011; Csobánka,
2016). Thus, we live out our emotions through them (for example on a blog,
through thousands of comments, but also in some identity situations,
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relationship aspects and the world of work. As of Hungary, the differences
between the Western world and our Central European region have
disappeared altogether, in the generational sense, bringing some kind of
global youth culture with itself, as innovations appear only a couple months
late on the domestic market.
3 Generation Alpha
The alphabet ends with Z, but the generational change probably does not.
Therefore, the question about the name of the next generation arises. In 2005,
Mark McCrindle, an Australian demographer, and his team conducted a national
survey, which resulted in “Generation Alpha” being the most popular choice.
The name was explained referring to other science disciplines, where after
“exhausting” the Roman alphabet and Arabic numerals, the Greek alphabet was
used.
After getting the name straight, let us look at the contents. As a quick reminder:
according to Mannheim, an age group can be considered a generation if there are
common characteristics differentiating them from previous ones. So, what are
the common attributes of these “Alphas”, what makes this generation different
from the digitally integrated Generation Z?
There is surprisingly little to know about them. Most articles on Generation
Alpha only concern themselves with the name and its platitudinous origins,
perhaps contemplating a few possible attributes that the age group of those born
after 2010 would possess. These articles appear mostly on Australian news sites,
on McCrindle’s own website, or in online marketing journals. Since there is
virtually no academic source to dissect, let us analyse some of these sites in
order to get a clearer picture about “Gen A”.
Starting with the “purest source”, Mark McCrindle’s website
(http://mccrindle.com.au/), it is not surprising that several blog posts can be
found about the topic here. Not many of these contain any scientific explanation,
though. The most informative article is a Q&A, made with McCrindle by the
New York Times. In this article, an entire paragraph explains the information
gathering method used regarding the Alphas (who, we must not forget, are still 6
years old at most). According to the author, this method is basically prognosis,
forecasts. They draw conclusions like an increased screen time, shorter attention
span and digital literacy. These digital skills, however, are not that different from
the ones observed in Gen Z, or even Gen Y (Tari, 2010; Tari, 2011). McCrindle
mentioned, that Instagram and the iPad launched in 2010, the year of the
“generation change”, and the word of the year was “App”. With this, he tries to
accentuate that growing up in this world of smartphones, touchscreens and
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constant Internet connection, the primary medium of youngsters will be glass,
the touchscreen. This phenomenon is already well known in youth research
(Nagy, 2013a). It is also mentioned, that physical and psychological maturity is
starting earlier, while the adult life stage (marriage, children and career) is
pushed back, caused mainly by the increasing time spent in education. This is
also old news (Nagy, 2013b), since in the generational change narrative,
researches showed similar results since the 80’s, regarding the length of
adolescence (Zinnecker, 1993; Gábor, 1996).
A strong resemblance to Generation Z is also apparent. Those born around the
turn of the millennium have not experienced the world without Internet either,
the majority of them used smart devices at a very young age, while YouTube
and Instagram have more influence on them than television. Their learning
habits also changed, which would require new teaching methods, since they are
used to rapid information gathering, and multitasking is a basic skill for them.
4 The criticism of Generation Alpha paradigm
The borders between Generations X and Z are already blurred, because it is hard
to connect “overthrowing” an age group to a specific date. Even the Strauss-
Howe model refers to the 20-year lifespan of a generation as a crude estimation,
thus stating that every child born after 2010 is to be considered an Alpha” is
only as binding as the categories seen in the graph below (generations, by birth
year). It is apparent, that Generation Y and Z are overlapping by almost a
decade, so children born between 1995 and 2004 could belong to both
generations (SIC!). Based on these facts, it is not impossible to imagine that Gen
Zed will last way longer, making the catchy Generation Alpha title redundant.
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Figure 1. Generations, by birth year (Suderman, 2016).
This catchy, but empty name became the favourite of tabloids nonetheless:
numerous articles, similar in content and style, were published during the past
few years. The Business Insider, for example, published two writings (basically
repeating the same ideas, word by word) about Generation Alpha, only six
months apart (Sterbenz, 2014a; Sterbenz 2014b). They are exploring the
background of the name itself, but impart very little scientifically accurate
information. The most interesting statement is about demographic change,
naming China and India as the “gravitational centre” of the future, at least in
terms of social matters.
An article from Dan Schawbel, a bestselling author, researcher and FORBES
columnist, found on his own website (Schwabel, 2014) provides us with little
more insight. In this writing, he tries to predict 5 attributes that Gen Alpha
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children will possess growing up, which are very similar to those written about
Gen Zed.
- They will be the more entrepreneurial generation.
- They will be the most tech savvy and not know a world without social
networking.
- They will primarily shop online and have less human contact than previous
generations.
- They will be extremely coddled and influenced by their Gen X and Y
parents.
- They will be more self-sufficient, better educated and prepared for big
challenges.
Advertising Age (AdAge) published similar “observations”, but with a different
style. The author of the article, published in January 2016, chose a more cynical
approach, by stating 13 conclusions drawn from observing a young Alpha
(possibly his own child). These are, of course, not entirely serious “facts”, but
some of them could (if they persist at an older age) shape the general
characteristics of this generation.
Scientifically it can be criticised at least in three ways. They hate sharing
economy (shouting “Mine!”, “All mine”, and not sharing anything), they do not
care about privacy and rules, they break free of any boundaries and they live in
the moment. However, the question if these conclusions, drawn by watching a
single, 6-year old or younger child, are generational characteristics, or simply
attributed to young age arises.
- Even if we accept the Strauss-Howe model, we should not use it
mechanically. It is certainly not true, that if someone was born in
December, 2009, he/she belongs to one generation, but if in January 2010,
belongs to another. Trends and characteristics can obviously be found,
based on previous generations, but these are to be interpreted on a large
social group, certainly not on a single person. In our case, people try to
come up with generational characteristics and attributes without large
amounts of data.
- In this light, it is still not known if the growing age group will show
generation features based on Mannheim’s interpretation, and if these
attributes are any different than the previous generation. Ergo, we cannot
tell if there is a substantial change compared to Generation Z, or even if this
age group can be considered a generation at all.
- In the last few years, there was no narrative that would start of any
scientific interpretation pointing beyond generations X (digital immigrants),
Y (digital natives) and Z (content creator). Some ideas are close to coming
through and promise the possibility of a new generational interpretation
(VR-glasses, self-driving cars, touchscreens, voice recognition), and some
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of them are pure sci-fi (surrogate robots controlled by people at home, as in
the movie Surrogates). But no one of these are realities re-shaping the social
space.
5 Conclusions
Overall it is apparent that naming and characterizing the new generation is
important mostly for marketing purposes, which would be relevant only after
many years, when we have more information about “Generation Alpha”, which
is literally in its infancy right now. Based on current facts, Gen Alpha is
basically just “Z 2.0”, which is not that different from its predecessors, only
carries forward their “legacy”.
Several innovations can become society shaping breakthroughs, thus being core
elements in a new generational interpretation (if such a thing becomes reality).
But without the knowledge of their existence, and if any, their attributes, naming
a generation is not unlike naming an undiscovered star about ourselves: nothing
but the vanity and displacement activity of a scientist.
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