Forget “digital natives.” Talk about “mobile natives.”

Mobile Natives

I would think (hope) that most people in the general marketing field understand that marketing is changing as generations change out — here’s one small example — although I’m not entirely sure marketing always quickly catches up to trends going on around it. (I work in the marketing field, but where I work I really have no clout at all, so everything I’m saying is a concept or an idea, not necessarily a fully-formed reality.)

Here’s what is interesting, though: we often talk about “digital natives.” Perhaps, instead, we should be talking about “mobile natives.” 

I got this idea from a blog post by Thomas Husson of Forrester. He talks about “mobile natives” as such: the first iPhone was released in 2007. On average, a kid gets their first cell phone from their parents around 11 years old. As such, the first entire generation that mobile has impacted won’t fully enter the workforce until about 2025 — 11 years, give or take, from now. At that point, assuming you believe there will be any money for said workers to even capture, you’ll have a ton of people in the workforce who essentially “came up” with fast mobile as the dominant form of communication.

That means marketing professionals — and people in a host of other fields — need to realize that they’re dealing with:

  • Shorter attention spans
  • Quickening ability to find information
  • A focus on flashy, viral-type content
  • Etc, etc.

At the big-picture level, this probably means more than “digital natives” did, conceptually.

I used to have a boss at ESPN who was about 42 when I was about 27. It was very clear that I was a digital native and he wasn’t. When my wife first met my parents, right before that I had to run by the office (on a Saturday) to grab something. My wife still talks about this: we got there, and my 42 year-old boss was covering that weekend. We walk in and he’s sweaty, basically panting, he has about 19 windows open on his laptop, and he looks like he’s going to collapse from stress on the spot. That weekend, we had three articles to post.

He was a train wreck, and the only real thing I could ever determine was that he wasn’t a digital native — so some of this stuff was totally foreign to him. (In the first meeting we ever had, he didn’t know what Google News or Fark were.)

Even with how big a total mess he could be, the fact that he wasn’t a digital native and I was didn’t mean much in the grand scheme of ESPN making money (we were both peons) or even our work getting done (he viewed himself as a line-editor more than anything, and that work can be done on pencil and paper).

I’m sure there are literally millions of examples from the modern workforce of digital natives being managed by non-digital natives, and you know what? Work is still getting done, and money is still getting made. It’s OK.

But this “mobile native” shift might be bigger — we basically have cell phones in our pockets now that have the strength of early space shuttle models. One generation before us didn’t have that. There are probably 14 year-olds right now who can do things with a phone that would blow my mind. So when those people become the workforce, how different are things going to be?

I met a guy about 3-4 weeks ago at a bar who told me he has a friend in IT, and said friend claims that in 20 years, you’ll simply walk into work, plug your cell phone into your desk, connect it to a monitor, and do everything off that. I’m sure there are people right now doing that, somewhere.

Point is: we talk about “mobile” all the time as a thing, and a big thing, and an emergent thing. We may not 100 percent be there just yet — although there are 7 billion mobile subscriptions right now — but the mobile native shift could be the biggest thing to hit the workforce, and how we sell/move products, in a long time.

Ted Bauer