What unites young adults in the UK? A view from ITV

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ITV’s recent research project, “What Unites Young Adults in the UK?”[1] offers a fascinating glimpse into the lives and aspirations of a significant demographic in the United Kingdom – 18 to 40-year-olds. It provides insights into the hopes, fears and values of a generation striving to find their place in a world marked by change and uncertainty. To find out more, we spoke to Lucy Irving, Senior Cultural Strategist at ITV. 

What is the focus of the research?  

At a time where the wider culture and the media industry is focused so strongly on what divides audiences into groups and segmentations, we wanted to look at what still brings audiences together. At ITV, our content attracts millions of viewers from all walks of life, so we wanted to codify the themes, values and characteristics that resonate deeply with mainstream audiences.  

How do you define young adults?  

What was once “young” 20 years ago, is now no longer the case. Not only are we living longer, but the markers of transition from young to “not young” have become increasingly hard to define. So, we looked to define young adults according to viewing patterns and attitudes, speaking to 18 to 40-year-olds but with a weighting on those who were yet to settle down.  

In our study we worked with cultural insight agency Crowd DNA. We hosted an online community with over 45 young adults from across the UK, interviewed five cultural experts and ran a nationally representative survey with over 2,000 young adults and then ran the same survey with 41 to 65-year-olds to compare the results.  

How do young adults today generally differ from the boomers and other generations?  

We found that this generation of young adults are much more intentional and controlled in their actions than previous generations. 

Post-war boomer generations lived according to social norms and expectations, Gen Xer’s – those who had their youth in the 80s and early 90s – spoke about liberation and being in charge of their own destiny. Young adults today feel a lot of pressure to make the right decisions for themselves. 

This conscious mindset has arisen from their perception that the economic and political system is rigged against them. 69% of young adults we surveyed believed that they would be economically worse off than their parents.  

But despite all the doom and gloom, young adults are refusing to feel powerless, in fact when we asked them how they were feeling, “hopeful” was the most common response. So, this generation is uniquely self-motivated, self-controlled and self-empowered. 

Can you tell us more about their mindset and how it affects their behaviour?  

Despite tricky economic headwinds, young adults are determined to create a better life for themselves, so they’re a lot more conscious of their decision making. We found this manifests itself in four different ways.  

First, we found that young adults are being more selective with who and what they spend their energy on to minimise rejection, which is driving their desire for VOD viewing. 

Instead of adopting a hedonistic lifestyle, young adults are getting their thrills through content. We found that young adults are more likely to watch TV to feel good than go on a night out. They might be living more wholesome lives, but there is an increasing appetite for dramatic and messy reality TV shows such as Love Island and Big Brother. 

Constantly living life through a lens means that they are struggling to be themselves and have a sense of integrity. We found that 54% of young adults rarely feel comfortable expressing who they really are. Instead, they are turning to content and outspoken content creators to articulate their opinions.  

Lastly, despite economic pressure, we found that young adults today have truly limitless ambition. What we mean by that is that they are ambitious in everything and anything they do. It’s less about succeeding in one linear career, it’s about constantly learning and developing. We found that 6 out of 10 young adults believe they are not as career driven as previous generations. They’re increasingly turning to content to learn new skills and test their knowledge. We’ve seen a rise in young adults watching game shows and factual entertainment competitions such as Next Level Chef on ITV as a result.  

How do the attitudes of young adults in the UK compare with those of other European young adults? 

 I think there are a lot of similarities between the UK and Europe, as content becomes increasingly global. But 70% of those we surveyed felt resentful towards economic and political institutions. Although not exclusive to the UK, British young adults don’t feel like they can express this resentment openly, so instead they are looking to other people in the media to articulate their feelings, rather than express those feelings themselves. Whereas European young adults are generally more open with their thoughts and feelings and don’t rely on others quite as much to articulate their feelings.

What are young adults searching for on linear TV / BVOD? What do you think broadcasters can offer that other channels can’t?  

We found that young adults are turning to linear TV and BVOD the most for connection and escapism. BVOD and Linear viewing were more likely to be associated with escapism than social media channels, this is likely due to the storytelling power of broadcasters. 

Connection is also interesting, national broadcasters like ITV, the BBC and Channel 4 were associated with content that connected people more than streamers. This is because broadcasters still have the power to create mass simultaneous reach – that sense that everyone is watching the same content at the same time. Appointment TV content such as live sport and nightly shows such as Love Island still create that moment of connection.

65% of young adults agree that putting their needs first, is a necessary part of self-preservation.

They might be living more wholesome lives, but there is an increasing appetite for dramatic and messy reality TV shows such as Love Island and Big Brother.

What are your top three recommendations for ways in which advertisers can address young adults today?  

Firstly, it’s simple but difficult to achieve – be on the side of young adults. They feel like the odds aren’t in their favour but have this undying optimism. How can you as a brand harness that and empower them to create a better life for themselves?  

Secondly, reach them during moments of pressure release. They deeply value their downtime and seek out small pockets of pleasure, mainly through watching entertaining content. Think not only about how you align with entertaining content, but also how you can be an active part of that entertainment. 

Finally, authenticity is key when speaking to this young audience. The more authentic and natural the brand integration into content, the better. As a brand, you are a guest in a TV show or on an influencer’s TikTok; it’s your job to be a good guest and adapt to the language of the show or influencer rather than imposing your brand messaging and identity onto it.  

For those who want to dive deeper, what other audience studies do you recommend?  

Beyond our work at ITV, I would encourage anyone to read Saatchi & Saatchi UK’s report into the state of the nation called ‘WTF is going on?’ It’s a brilliant insight into the mindset of mainstream British audiences. I would also suggest OMD’s ‘Real Britain’ series of insight reports into underserved audiences in the UK. For those interested in young adults, Crowd DNA’s ‘Generation Alpha and the Death of the Teenager’ report is a thoughtful look at the cultural forces shaping the next generation of young adults. 

Lucy Irving

Lucy Irving

Senior Cultural Strategist, ITV

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