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A TCI Book Review

Chips & Pop Decoding the Nexus Generation

Robert Barnard, Dave Cosgrove and Jennifer Welsh
Malcolm Lester Books

The three authors of this book run a consulting operation called decode, where they advise clients on the consumer behaviour of what they call the "Nexus generation". Nexus consists of those born between the early sixties and the late seventies (and who are thus now approximately aged 20 through their late 30s). Decode's innovative business strategy entails periodically consulting a network of successful and influential Nexus-generation individuals in different fields. By bouncing ideas off of this sounding board, they obtain useful feedback for their clients.

They also have obtained enough information to write a book about the subject: hence Chips & Pop. Incidentally, the title refers not to junk food, but to the pervasive computer culture that is an integral part of life for the Nexus generation ('chips') and the popular culture that has resulted ('pop').

Before discussing their ideas further, it is useful to have a working definition of the Nexus generation:

"By definition, this generation those born between the early sixties and late seventies has no "hard edges". It is a generation based on formative experiences and pivotal events rather than specific birthdates and cohort size. Essentially, you are a Nexus if you first felt the effects of the computer chip and global media at some point during your formative years. This means you could have encountered a PC for the first time in university or mastered Pong (the first video game) at the age of seven. You could be Nexus if you watched live CNN coverage of the Gulf War at high school, saw the space shuttle Challenger blow up in high school, or were the first kid in your neighbourhood with cable TV and a remote control." (p.17,18)

The authors distinguish this group from David Foot's "late Boomers" (see Boom, Bust and Echo: Macfarlane Walter and Ross, 1996) and Michael Adams' "Generation X" (see Sex in the Snow: Viking, 1997), although they do acknowledge some similarities and overlaps.

Early on in the book, the authors discount the stereotypical view of this generation (courtesy of Douglas Coupland's book 'Generation X', which portrayed this generation as shiftless, hopeless, thrill-seeking, shallow, and living only for today). Instead they are at some pains to show that Nexus does have ideals, a work ethic and is willing to take responsibility albeit on their terms rather that society's.

The book examines three spheres of life for the Nexus generation: as consumers, as employees, and as citizens. The framework that the authors use is that the formative experiences that the Nexus generation lived through have influenced their attitudes and consumption patterns in later life.

"Two common themes that emerge from Nexus' formative experiences are paradox and instability. First, Nexus has been forced to reconcile many seemingly contradictory notions and ideas. It was promised free love and space travel, only to have these promised repealed [by the Challenger disaster and the threat of AIDS]. It was guaranteed nuclear conflict between two ideological solitudes, but the conflict fizzled and the solitudes converged. Energy scarcity pointed to a potentially "darkened" world, though in the end our reckless use of energy holds an even darker threat. The benefits of many religions seem to Nexus to be realizable only after death...

Second, Nexus has been forced to manufacture stability within increasingly unstable environments. Nexus has survived broken or dysfunctional families and endured economic fortunes tied to business cycles. It has lived under a haze of political uncertainty and a political system increasingly unable to cope with this. Nexus' quest for stability will remain important as it moves into full adulthood." (pp. 59,60)

Nexus today is a fragmented generation comprising different socio-economic groups and different cultural backgrounds. Despite this fragmentation, their collective experiences have shaped their attitudes and behaviour into certain consistent patterns. Drawing upon these, the authors describe what they call 'codes of conduct' that members of the generation subscribe to, and that will influence the behaviours and attitudes of Nexus in their roles as consumers, employees and citizens.

In appealing to Nexus as consumers, the authors suggest that there are certain trends that influence the purchasing behaviours of Nexus; these are: environmentalism, 'do-it-yourselfism', and multiculturalism. They further identify four codes of conduct that will be influential in shaping the purchase patterns of Nexus:

Code #1 strive for 'invisible cool': Although Nexus is as fashion-conscious as any young generation anywhere at any time, they do not want to be seen as consciously trying to be cool. Accordingly, under-stated retail and advertising campaigns (such as the recent campaign by the Gap) will appeal to them.

Code #2 be real: The authors warn that Nexus has a very sophisticated built in bullshit detector (most likely as a result of their constant questioning and searching for stability). Accordingly, products and services have to be authentic and 'real' to be accepted.

Code #3 "read me" into the script: Nexus wants to be involved, and be a part of something. Companies that allow them to help shape the product or service, get them involved in ad campaigns (like Saturn), solicit their input and feedback via the internet, and actively involve them in other ways, will tend to be more successful in winning their business and loyalty.

Code #4 establish multiple access points: "...keep in mind the fragmentation of this generation: its members are highly diverse and confident in their ability to assimilate information from a variety of sources. This reality means you need to give Nexus multiple-access points for your product." (p.151)

Turning to Nexus as employees, the authors discuss two areas: attracting Nexus generation members as employees, and secondly, keeping them as employees.

In attracting Nexus as employees, Barnard, Cosgrove and Welsh identify five of these 'codes of conduct':

Code #1 be transparent about who you are: Related to the 'be real' theme earlier discussed, Nexus generation members want to work for companies that are up-front about who they are and what they do.

Code #2 leverage your greatest strength your own people: The authors make the point that one of the greatest selling points for potential Nexus generation employees is testimonials from existing employees.

Code #3 differentiate yourself: To attract the best and the brightest of the Nexus generation, as well as to demonstrate that your company is innovative and exciting, your recruitment strategies should differentiate you from all the other recruiters out there.

Code #4 create a memorable experience: Especially for big monolithic corporations, creating a memorable experience for prospective employees (such as the Royal Bank of Canada taking potential recruits on a one day rock climbing and team-building experience) can have a major positive impact on the impressions of potential Nexus employees.

Code #5 diversify your pool through diverse channels: "We believe many companies particularly those that are large and well-established are too narrow in their perceptions about the ideal employee and are too quick to write off those who haven't jumped through the right hoops. Bankers tend to hire only bankers, consultants hire only consultants, and so on. Such practices do not permit you to introduce new genetic material to your organism. Over time, you become less able to adapt to changes in your environment.

To get around this obstacle, companies should consider making two adjustments. First they should broaden the definition of the ideal candidate to take in a more diverse group of Nexus applicants... [Second] to find those employees who are committed to learning, recruiters should also diversify the channels of their recruitment drive." (p. 188)

In retaining Nexus as employees, the authors suggest the following:

Code #1 create a context of continuous learning: Nexus understands that the days of life-long employment are long gone, and that to be employable in future they must continually upgrade their skills. Companies that provide these opportunities are thus more likely to retain Nexus-generation employees.

Code #2 it's not all about money: Nexus is motivated by things other than money. Employers who recognize their need for interesting work to do, fun, a sense of contributing, and recognition, will also be more likely to retain Nexus-generation employees.

Code #3 community is relationships: "The weakening of traditional community structures has led Nexus to search for new ways to belong. And the workplace is quickly filling the gap as the focal point of this generation's aspirations." (p. 199)

Code #4 create ownership in a compelling vision: "The first point to be made about having a corporate vision picks up on a theme that runs throughout this book: give Nexus something compelling to be part of." (p. 204)

Code #5 support entrepreneurial dreams: Companies that find ways to give reign to Nexus employees' entrepreneurial urges within the company will be more likely to retain these employees that to see them leave and start up their own (possibly competing) businesses.

Finally, turning to the role of Nexus as citizens in society, Barnard et. al. point out five 'codes of conduct' that will influence the extent to which Nexus can be co-opted into various social causes and movements:

Code #1 treat Nexus as a valued "customer": This is an extension of Nexus' need to belong to something, and to have some sense of community.

Code #2 touch emotional trigger points: "Above all, communication efforts should strive to reach the emotional trigger points of Nexus citizens. While rational arguments can move the Nexus generation, the most powerful messages are those that dig deeper, to seek out their dreams and aspirations." (p. 256)

Code #3 use a pack mentality: Appeals to Nexus as a group, rather than individually, may be more successful. The authors point out that many members of the generation, despite their attitudes of individualism and 'do-it-yourselfism', may be uncomfortable on their own with members of other generations.

Code #4 appeal to altruism and self-interest: According to the authors, the most successful engagement strategies will be those that manage to appeal both to the sense of altruism and the self-interest of the Nexus generation.

Code #5 prove to Nexus that it is a valuable partner: See code #1, immediately above.

Fundamentally (as the authors acknowledge at the outset of the book) Nexus is not a generation from another planet they do share many of the same goals and values as many members of other generations. They have, however, spent their formative years undergoing some experiences that are to some extent unique, and these have shaped their thinking to a significant degree. Chips & Pop is a valuable field guide for those wishing to sell to, employ or involve Nexus generation members.






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