Are we underestimating quite how different the audiences of tomorrow will be?
Earlier this week I rounded up some stats from a number of rigorous studies asking some important questions about the way younger people consume media. But while those stats are a useful guide to how media consumption is changing, the picture they paint is limited by the focus on age.
The age brackets almost all consumer research uses are based on the idea that as people age, their habits change. That's undeniably true. Becoming an adult, getting a job, or having children are all going to affect the way someone behaves, and what they consume.
But when it comes to media consumption in the digital age those stages of life are not the primary drivers of change.
Not evenly distributed
Instead, it is technological innovations – smartphones, tablets, social networks – that are changing behaviour. And crucially, the point at which someone is exposed to those innovations, and adapts their media consumption habits to them, don't fall into the standard patterns of life that these age brackets are designed to encompass.
So someone aged 34 now, falling into the 25 to 34 age bracket, would have been about 24 by the time UK broadband internet penetration passed the 50 percent mark in 2004. Meanwhile a 25-year-old would have been 15, and very likely to barely able to remember a time without a fast internet connection.
All of this is of course further complicated by the fact that people get access to services and technology at different times. Someone brought up in the centre of a major urban area will have had access to broadband years before someone living in a remote rural location. Apologies to William Gibson, but when the future turns up it is rarely evenly distributed.
And when someone got their first smartphone will have a much bigger impact on their media consumption habits than whether they're in school or on their second job. Whether someone is on Twitter will have a far bigger impact on their fondness for a particular newspaper brand than whether they are 18 or 38.
What is inevitable, however, is that almost everyone will at some point be exposed to these new technologies and services, and most will end up using them and changing the way they consume media in response.
Why is this important?
This is important because it means that the digital consumption traits we see becoming increasingly prevalent among the young are going to be even more dominant than the figures currently suggest.
Eventually, almost everyone is going to be exposed to new social media networks, web services or new devices that will change the way they consume media.
Right now, for instance, just under 40 percent of 18 to 24-year-olds get their news primarily via social media. But by the time that cohort is 35, many more of them will have shifted to using some form of social media to find what interests them. Media consumption habits aren't a function of age – they aren't set at some specific stage of development.
Not only will this shift be more pronounced than the data we are all looking at would lead us to believe, but it's also going to happen much faster because it's not just about those digital consumers growing up, it's about everyone eventually coming across the new technologies that will change they way they consume media.
Image via Garry Knight used under a Creative Commons license.