Blog post

When Gen Y’ers Will Use E-mail

By Craig Roth | August 09, 2010 | 1 Comment

Social software

I’m proposing some counter-wisdom about whether Gen Y and social software will kill e-mail.  I’ve read and repeated the assertion that Gen Y will challenge the enterprise’s reliance on e-mail since they have learned – successfully – to leverage Twitter, SMS, blogs, and Facebook instead.  So e-mail’s dead, right? 

Not so fast.  Whenever I hear a story that sounds too pat, or that something is dead, I start looking at it another way.  So allow me to introduce another hypothesis: the reason Gen Y doesn’t use e-mail is because they haven’t had to communicate the same types of messages that e-mail centric enterprise information workers do.  Gen Y’ers have adapted to their use cases, and once their use cases change – when they need to communicate enterprise-type messages -they’ll adapt again by using e-mail.

How could I say such rubbish when the studies are against me?  Usually the Pew Internet studies are quoted as evidence of Gen Y’s disdain of email.  Like here, where it says:

Fully 74% of internet users age 64 and older send and receive email, making email the most popular online activity for this age group. At the same time, email has lost some ground among teens; whereas 89% of teens claimed to use email in 2004, just 73% currently say they use email.

But they are still teens, with teen-aged communication needs.  My hypothesis is around whether e-mail usage is tied to their generation (in which case it will remain constant) or their usage patterns (which change when they enter the workforce).  Here’s an example of an enterprise usage pattern: it’s a paraphrased version of an e-mail I sent my boss this morning (which is similar to many of the e-mails I send):

I talked to Phil about the XYZ conference (see attached email below).  I told him A, B, and C.  [inserted little joke to sympathize and build rapport].

I have a few recommendations going forward:

First, xxx.  Here’s why.  Rebuttal to expected counterargument.

Second, yyy.  Point 1. Even if you don’t buy that, then point 2.

If I recall my teenage and college years correctly, I did not have a need for these types of communications.  Quick calls (we were always around to take them), texts, or Facebook postings would have worked fine for what I needed to talk about back then.

But should I handle this message to my boss via dozens of IM or SMS messages?  Post it on a blog or social “wall”?  I am currently doing research about which tools fit which situations.  And I think an e-mail is the best tool for the type of communication I needed to do about the conference and that even a Gen Y’er would agree.  Or if they didn’t, they’d be much less efficient.

There is clearly a spectrum of messages.  More public ones may be appropriate for blogs or walls, depending on their size.  And simple, “transactional” messages may be fine to text, although I have written previously that I think the nuance-clobbering aspects of mobile messaging may take its toll.  Just as non-verbal communication is a significant portion of how verbal communication is interpreted, I believe there is a lot of non-written communication in e-mails based on how it is worded, what is chosen to be described, and little jokes like the one in the e-mail to my boss.

I also think Gen Y’ers needs don’t chance the second they walk into a corporate door.  They will slowly evolve their patterns, and the organization will slowly move closer to their pattern as well.  But there are still a core set of communication needs where e-mail beats social tools and will continue to do so.  Gen Y’ers will use e-mail when its clearly the most efficient tool for a set of their communication needs.  This is just one more way that teenagers may grow up to learn why their parents do things the old-fashioned way.

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1 Comment

  • Philip Allega says:

    Craig –

    I appreciate the way in which you are framing the generational use of communication media. This resonates well with me and my professional use of various communication channels to share information with constituents and stakeholders in my area of research, personal friends, and professional networks.

    Consider common communication channels before email ubiquity: post cards, personal letters, memorandum, business letters, phone calls, phone call messages written on a message pad, voice mail. All of which had their particular uses, adoption rates by particular generations, and etiquette surrounding them. As a child I engaged in phone calls and post cards and the occasional personal letter to communicate with friends and family. I had no use for a memo and couldn’t be bothered to read the results of a message that my mother wrote down from a call to me. Like many today, just seeing the number or name was enough to prompt a decision to call back (or not).

    I recall a number of years ago when Gartner predicted the demise of University email addresses for students. They were right, as most moved on to other social networking sites for such communication needs.

    The channels may have expanded and changed, but I’d agree that you’re on to something here.

    When I was in University I did a lot of things that I no longer do as an adult. I also do a lot more things as an adult that I could only read about as a student. You could read a lot into these statements, but I am, of course, only referring to communication media.

    Philip