How Our Generation Impacts Our Mobile Use

Read Time: 5 - 10 min

There’s tons of information out there -- some more valid than others -- on mobile trends relative to different generations. These mobile trends, in turn, have a lot of implications around everything from product search to selection to even how our workday looks.

First, it’s probably helpful to define the current generations working, earning, and interacting with technology. Depending on which research you cite, the exact age ranges of the generations (birth years) can differ slightly, but the buckets are usually:

  • Generation Z (youngest generation; typically in college or just out of college)
  • Millennials (a little more established in their careers by now; mid-20s to early 30s)
  • Generation X (mid-30s to early-50s, generally; probably have younger children and are more established in their careers)
  • Baby Boomers (50s/60s, generally; very established in their careers and potentially considering retirement relatively soon)
  • Silent Generation (sometimes referred to by other names, but typically born between 1925 and 1945; usually retired by this point, but not always)

There’s obviously a huge age range here. Whereas a Boomer may have had a Palm Pilot or Blackberry from the late 1990s, they still began interacting with mobile technology later in life than a Generation Z member -- for whom the first generation of the iPhone came out in fifth grade. This all factors into how mobile trends evolve across these generations.

We’ll walk through this generation-by-generation, starting with the youngest: Generation Z.


Mobile trends: What types of apps are Generation Z using?


Via Fluent’s annual survey, the top five categories of app usage in the Gen Z demo are:

  • Social media
  • Messaging
  • Music
  • Gaming
  • Travel/Maps

By contrast, the five least-used are:

  • Data
  • Fashion
  • Bargain/coupon
  • Retail
  • Food-related

The above makes sense if you think about the fact that most Gen Z’ers haven’t grown into their real spending power. But the fact that mobile is their go-to for key areas of their life, from friends to music, tells us that as they become more financially independent, they will undoubtedly turn to mobile to spend.


Mobile trends: Millennials and purchasing products on mobile


Per research from Forrester:

When it comes to purchasing products, 40 percent of Gen Z does so at least weekly compared with 49 percent of Gen Y, 26 percent of Gen X, 11 percent of younger Boomers, 7 percent of older Boomers and 4 percent of the Golden Generation.

(In that pull-quote, “Golden” refers to “Silent” from above and “Gen Y” is being used for “millennials” above.)

These numbers would indicate millennials are doing the most mobile purchasing and that the less-established Gen Z is quickly picking up the pace.

What does this mean for retailers? Get ready. Invest in mobile now or risk losing out on capitalizing on what soon may be the preferred way consumers buy: via mobile apps.


Mobile trends: Gen X and messaging apps

SMS still has a lot of promise in terms of mobile marketing. Most research indicates that 90% or more of text messages are read, and usually within three minutes or less. That’s a goldmine for marketers, but many companies still haven’t mastered mobile marketing yet. Per research from RealityMine as reported on AdWeek, we can compare different generational segments in terms of SMS and OTT messaging:




These stats are likely in line with what you’d assume -- texting goes up as the ages go up, and tools like Snapchat and WhatsApp go down. That 35-to-44 bucket combined with the 45-to-54 bucket on this study is where Gen X resides. They text more than anyone, and the younger Gen X members use Facebook Messenger more than any other cohort. While the Forrester research above noted the mobile purchasing power of millennials, research on Gen X has shown higher earnings than even some segments of the Boomer population. Mobile marketing to Gen X should involve a mixture of SMS and messaging apps, per these usage statistics.


Mobile trends: Have Baby Boomers embraced smartphones?


Per research from Nielsen:


Almost 8.5 in 10 millennials own smartphones, with that number likely to rise for Generation Z. That’s rather large scalability -- and should point to the fact that every brand needs to be competing on mobile by now.

Boomers and the Silent/Golden Generation have the lowest ownership of smartphones, but…

Mobile trends: The Baby Boomer context

Baby Boomers are still (overall) the most powerful generation in terms of earning, so understanding their relationship with technology and mobile is crucial as a marketer. There’s an interesting psychological context here. Despite a generalization about Boomers often saying millennials (and other younger people) are “always on their phones,” Boomers view technology a little bit differently. 82% of Boomers and above equate their mobile device with “freedom.”

Younger generations tend to view it more as “a leash.”

This is likely because Boomers use mobile for direct conversations (SMS, calling people) and don’t spend as much time in apps (see above). Mobile trends around connecting with Boomers in a mobile marketing context, then, are more about being direct and less about wooing them through a hot new app. Or, if you are trying to market an app to the Boomer audience, focus on the value proposition. How will this help their lives? Can it improve their communication with others or help them complete a task easier?

Less Baby Boomers own smartphones than these younger generations, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be focused on mobile marketing to Boomers.

Mobile trends: Mobile usage by generation

There’s a detailed report from Pew released near the end of 2015 on
the topic of mobile usage by generation, including this key take away: “An ‘experience sampling’ of smartphone owners over the course of a week illustrates how young adults have deeply embedded mobile devices into the daily contours of their lives.”

Survey Sampling International did a global study in April 2016 and found the largest difference in mobile usage occurs between Baby Boomers and millennials. For example, 71 percent of millennials surveyed said they use a smartphone for reading news; 41 percent of Boomers said the same. The closest gap was on using a smartphone to choose a restaurant, and that was still 25 percentage points -- about ¼ of Boomers said they used smartphones for that purpose, whereas ½ of millennials did.

Global research consultancy Kantar TNS has found millennials spend about 3.1 hours per day on smartphones, which equates to essentially one full day per week. By contrast, Boomers spend about 1.2 hours per day on their mobile phones -- but 4.3 hours per day on TV, newspapers, and the radio. Baked within that statistic is a major marketing shift of the next 5+ years.

Mobile trends in general

You can find numbers around mobile trends to support almost any argument; there are dozens, if not hundreds, of different studies and infographics out there on how different generations use their phones. Take some of it with a grain of salt and use vetted brand names to make sure you’re not totally off base. But rest assured that while mobile usage may vary across different generations, the underlying theme that mobile plays a key role in all of our lives remains true.


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