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iGen: The Next Generation

I’ve been thinking about the generation who will inherit what we’re seeing this summer, from 93% of the land in the western United States experiencing drought to flooding in Europe and China. The generation born since 1995 (and running, apparently, until 2012) was coined “iGen” by Dr. Jean Twenge in her 2017 book of the same name. As noted on her book’s website:

“iGen is the first generation to spend their entire adolescence in the age of the smartphone … But technology is not the only thing that makes iGen distinct from every generation before them; they are also different in how they spend their time, how they behave, and in their attitudes toward religion, sexuality, and politics. They socialize in completely new ways, reject once sacred social taboos, and want different things from their lives and careers. More than previous generations, they are obsessed with safety, focused on tolerance, and have no patience for inequality.”

For those of us in the utility sector – whether water or energy – I also wondered what this generation thinks of utilities, if they think of utilities at all. And then it occurred to me: hey, I live with three of them!

So I decided to interview them about what they think are the most important jobs of utilities and the digital experiences provided by utilities today. My survey sample included three cohorts of iGen (and included free bagels to incent focus):

  1. College age (Freshman)

  2. High school age (10th grade marching band member)

  3. Elementary school age (2nd grade kickballer, borderline Generation Alpha)

Utility Roles and Responsibilities

Fair or not, my survey sample set a pretty high bar for the roles and responsibilities that utilities should undertake. (Note: I’m so proud.) “Utilities are the custodians of our natural resources” said the college representative, “and they should be intelligent and ruthless in the management of those resources. When a resource has gotten scarce, waste needs to be punished.” The high schooler focused on transparency and the availability of information. “If I’m paying for a resource, then I should be able to see things like how much energy is from renewable and non-renewable resources, and if I am not getting a resource during an outage of drought, I want to know who does and doesn’t have that resource, and what that lack of reliability is costing me.”

[The impact of the Texas blackout last February is still very much in the mind of my kids. Not only did the lack of information on what was happening frustrate them enormously, the older ones are very much aware that some businesses made windfall profits as a result. The “college cohort” knew that someone gave Governor Abbott a $1 million donation after making billions from the blackouts, and was adamant that energy and water resources should only be in the public interest.]

The elementary school cohort rep was a lot more focused on compassion, fairness and health. She felt that utilities needed to make sure that their resources were safe and healthy and that everyone is getting enough.

Utility Digital Experience

Following that interview, I then showed my survey sample the Austin Utilities customer portal as an example of a utility digital experience. [Note: City of Austin, I’m sorry that you have to put up with me, but we seem to be tethered to one another.] I walked them through the bill overview and payment section, then the energy usage section, and then to the energy tips. The high schooler noticed right away that one of the tips, installing energy efficient lights, was not relevant to our household because we already have LEDs and ageing CFLs throughout the home. “You mean these aren’t tips for us but they’re just general ones?” Both the college age and high school cohort expected more tailored experiences given the advertisements they’re routinely shown on YouTube.

They also had the following observations:

  • It’s frustrating to have to go outside the portal to get information on things that are important, like outages or the mix of renewable energy. And the people who find those other links are the ones who already know what they’re looking for. If you want everyone to have this information, it needs to be in the portal.

  • Can’t you have a ‘Bot so that we can ask questions to find missing information? If I want to know about outages or rebates from the portal, you could just build a ‘Bot so I don’t have to scroll around looking for everything.

  • If we live in a “more efficient house,” what’s the reward for us? Can you show me how much lower our bill is, and what you’re doing to help everyone become a “more efficient house?”

  • The portal really needs to be more visually interesting. It takes a lot of scrolling down to find everything you care about. It would help to have a single summary graphic or table with the ability to jump to the appropriate sections.

  • On the Austin Water website, which didn’t connect to the Austin Utilities portal, the elementary school cohort looked at the “Free Tools” and “Rebates” and didn’t know what each link meant. Again, it seemed like you already had to know the information on the website to be able to find and use the website.

What’s Next for iGen?

There aren’t a lot of surveys out there of iGen and what utilities in particular should be expecting. A recent survey by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication didn’t even include iGen. The Annie E. Casey Foundation, in discussing the “Social Issues that Matter to Generation Z” (the alternate name for iGen) reported that “In America alone, an overwhelming majority – 87% - of Gen Zers report being worried for the environment and the planet” and “93% of Gen Zers surveyed say that brands have an obligation to take a stand on environmental issues.”

All of this suggests that while my survey sample is (a) small and (b) biased, they fall within the broader survey trends of iGen. What this means is that utilities should expect higher demands from their customers to address climate change, drought management, and racial equity.

Which, all things being equal, is heartening.

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