“Black to the Future”- South Africa’s Gen-Y

Shifts in societal change over the decades have radically changed the way we do business. Some creep up on us while others happen like a tsunami. Is your business in symbiosis with its ever changing environment?  In order to attract and retain your target market, and indeed survive and thrive in current times, businesses need to be in touch and in tune with changing landscapes. This is both in terms of internal customers (talent) and external customers (target market). South Africa is no exception and the landscape has changed!

Around the world, it has become clear that the children born in the last two decades have been born into a very different world.  The momentous, world changing events of 1989 reverberated from Tiananman Square to Tehran, from Tallin to Johannesburg, and from Berlin to the birth of the world wide web in CERN, Switzerland.  The world was changed, in so many ways, a tech boom was about to start, and would then bust, and boom again.  These global events form the backdrop to local forces in different countries around the world.  South Africa is one of the developing success stories of the past two decades, and provides a great case study for understanding the new global generation of young people, known globally as Generation Y.

My colleague Graeme Codrington is quoted in his book, Mind the Gap, as saying “There is a generation (Gen-X’ers) of white South Africans who are old enough to have been counted as part of the old regime, but not old enough to have actively participated in it”.  Anyone who has any interest in South Africa will know that since 1994 (and probably a little before that behind the scenes) the political landscape has changed. While over the past 16 years the New South Africa has been preoccupied with political change, many businesses have been slow to realise that along with it come huge societal change and therefore changes in consumer demographics and behavioural trends and indeed changes in the make up and management of organisational talent.

South African Gen Y’s

There is a new generation of South Africans born into a new world order and indeed a new South Africa.  This often called “born free” generation of mostly black South Africans have grown up in a different world, and in particular a country that is very different to what their parents knew. Many of these kids are the first black generation of South African kids to have benefited from political change, sometimes also referred to as model “C” kids because they have been able to attend traditional white model “C” schools in previously exclusive white suburbs.  The oldest of these Gen-Y’s are already grown up and many have already, or are just about to enter the world of work, and it is certainly a New World of Work.  For South African businesses it is important to realise that these future employees, customers, entrepreneurs and leaders are different and they bring a different set of values into play. For South African business leaders, this pool of generation “next” is specifically different in at least their demographics and the fact that there is legislative intervention on governments’ part to ensure that they are not forever more excluded from the main stream economy or confined to being blue collar workers only.

However, the question is: given that they come from different race, ethnic, religious and cultural back grounds to what traditional white South African businesses leadership are used to, and the fact that this generation is largely the offspring of the emerging black middle class (the main economic benefactors of  political transformation), how different are they actually, and different to whom?

I guess the answer to that question can be dependant on the framework or lens you use to view the world around you (i.e. your world view).  Our world view is based on our values and our values are based on our experiences of the world we grew up in. Therefore, as human beings, we are slaves to a circular reference. Understanding this paradigm for the middle class black Gen Y in South Africa has to do with both South African specific as well as global influences that would have shaped their value system while growing up.

Local Insights

Foshizi a South African black consumer insight agency recently conducted a study into urban black youth trends and insights. Some of the highlights of the study show that there is a level of dissimilarity in terms of association with local music personalities and brand recognition that can vary significantly from region to region. However, there are national similarities, such as music (including international music) playing a big part in the lives of this generation. In particular how brands mentioned in the lyrics of international music may influence brand recognition and top of mind awareness.  Technology also seems to be a unifying influence in that these kids grew up in the era of i-pods and i-phones and at a very young age were exposed to the internet.  Even with those who have not been able to access any of this technology personally, they get to hear about it, and they aspire to access it and therefore will identify with certain aspirational brands.

International trends with local impact

A recent American study conducted by DMW, a direct response marketing agency, reveals a number of very interesting insights including that 38% of Millennials (Gen-Y) in America identify themselves as “non-white”, suggesting a integration of culture driven values and viewpoints that may significantly redefine what it means to be American.  With more and more racial integration taking place in our own back yard and as more and more, black South Africans enter the mainstream economy, moving into the suburbs, attend model “C” and even private schools, gain access to global media, a melting pot of culturally integrated values and viewpoints is emerging amongst the South African youth. Increasingly Black and White South African Gen-Y’s have more in common with one another because of global influences (despite local differences) and less and less in common with their older siblings and parents and grand parents. There is an increasing trend toward a global “one world culture” and characteristics that transcend traditional divides.   One of the tenets of generational theory is that in an increasingly globally interconnected world, global influences have local impact. This is evident in the Foshizi research into urban black trends in as much as music being a large part of their lives, influencing brand awareness and preferences. It is not just current pop music that has transcended international, racial, cultural, and other divides impacting South African youngsters in so many ways but also film and television, the internet, and technology platforms and other forms of media. Gen Y’s have been shaped by their own times and experiences.

So who are these Millennials a.k.a Generation Y?

  • There is no definitive agreement on birth years but for South African purposes I would suggest a “best gauge” as those born between approximately 1983 and 2003.
  • Mostly black in South Africa. According to Statistics South Africa mid-year population estimates June 2009, approximately 14,5 million people are between the ages of 15 and 29 yrs (based on my best extrapolation of the data available given the fact that it does not account for exactly the same cohort parameters suggested above). Upon further analysis approximately 94% of South African Gen-Y’s in this age grouping are non-white (83% black African, 8% coloured, 3% India/Asian, and 6% white).
  • They are Children of Baby Boomers and younger siblings of Gen –X’ers.
  • They represent the largest generation currently in South Africa

While there is no escaping the fact that there are local differences based on situational context both from country to country and with in our own boarders between townships and suburbs, it is increasingly difficult for this generation not to have been impacted by globalisation and international influences.  Some of the common characteristics of Gen-Y’s around the world include that they are:

  • Techno-Savvy and Connected 24/7
  • Self- Confident, Optimistic, Hopeful
  • Independent
  • Determined, Goal driven, Success driven (an achieving generation with strong goals and aspirations)
  • Lifestyle- centred
  • Diverse but Inclusive
  • Global, Civic, and community-minded
  • Entrepreneurial

They reflect some of the same values of their Boomer parents and Gen X siblings but have put a spin on them that reflect their own unique experiences. They have watched the world go through booms and busts, grown up amidst armed conflict around the world, global terrorism, but also in a very different South Africa.  The older group of South African Gen-Y’s would have been fairly young and probably not able to remember much of the political transition, the younger group of Gen Y don’t understand what it was like under institutionalised apartheid.

They are just beginning to make their mark in South Africa and the word “entitled” is often used to describe this group.

For marketers, South African Gen Y’s represent a multi-faceted challenge that defies easy categorization.  Consumer driven marketing integration is a reality and SA Gen Y’s (many of whom maintain their connections with their town ship roots despite having moved to the suburbs) are more likely to be attracted to corporate cause-related initiatives.  Therefore, cause marketing will be an important part of the marketing mix, establishing a “shared values” connection that transcends product and is community uplifting and socially responsible (particularly given our passed political history) is of paramount importance.

Many of them dream of living large, but these dreams are balanced with reality, they know they need the tools to make this dream a reality. Their Boomer parents and Silent grandparents have sacrificed much and have struggled to give them the confidence to be optimistic about their future in New South Africa.  They are the future of our consumer market, the future leaders, captains of industry, and heroes, but take note they are different and have their own unique experiences that inform the way they see the world around them.  They will accomplish much but they will do so in ways that are increasingly different to the ways of passed generations but not that dissimilar to their counterpart across different cultures and races and countries as globalisation intensifies.

Understanding Gen Y means you can connect better with then, and connecting with them is important because the future of business (your business) is largely dependant on this next wave of consumers and employees. Marketers and business leaders need to be asking themselves: who is going to be my customer or employee in the next 5 – 10 years”. Leading on from this, you need to answer “what action needs to be taken that will help you understand this future customer or employee and what they value?”

Collin Smith is an associate consultant for TommorrowToday and has a strong back ground in sales and marketing management. He has also spent a number of years consulting to organisation across South Africa on transformation. He holds a BBA degree in marketing as well as an MBA (with distinction) in Strategic General Management. Collin can be contacted on 082 463 2890 or collin@tomorrowtoday.co.za

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One Response to ““Black to the Future”- South Africa’s Gen-Y”

  1. sunrisedatacare March 30, 2010 at 4:55 am #


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