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The New American Mobility

by Jon Berry , 14.11.2013

With the days getting darker and the temperatures dropping, talk among my consumer-trend colleagues has turned to how long into the winter people will use New York’s new Citi Bikes bike-sharing program. If our research on Americans’ changing lifestyles is indicative, the answer seems clear: as long as they can.

We are an increasingly mobile society. Almost 6 in 10 Americans describe their lives as “very mobile.” That’s up significantly from a decade ago. And the increase runs across the population – men, women, young, old, rich, poor, East, West. And, across segments, this is seen as a positive development signifying freedom, flexibility, and progress.

But it’s a different kind of mobility, predicated less on the open road and more on choice. It began with technology. Now, as described in our latest Roper Reports US Need to Know Report, “A Pace of Your Own: America Redefines Mobility,” it’s spreading outward. Having grown to appreciate – and rely on – their smart phones and tablets to connect to anyone and anything, anytime, anywhere, it seems consumers want the same “choice mobility” across life.

Traffic bad? Forego your bus and ride home on a Citi Bike or Capital Bikeshare two-wheeler. Not sure you have time to stop and eat? Reach into your messenger bag or backpack and grab a savory coconut-curry Journey meal-replacement bar. Tired of bars? Pop the top of a Hotcan chicken curry; the meal heats itself in 10-12 minutes. Too busy to slow down and look at your phone to order a pizza? Call in your order, Star Trek-style, on an Android-based Samsung Galaxy Gear watch. Or maybe, before long, your Google Glass glasses.

Expectations of options are rising. Ask Americans how they get around now, and how they’d like to in the future, the clear message is “more.” People don’t expect to get rid of their cars. But they want the choice to walk or bike, take a motor scooter, use a car-sharing service, or ride mass transit more often, as it suits them.

All this, in turn, is reshaping people’s thinking about where they want to live. The urban renaissance that futurists have been predicting for years is unfolding, especially in Gen Y and Gen Z (aka the Millennials, born, respectively, between 1980-89 and 1990 and after). As many in Gen Z – the leading edge of this trend – want to live in an choices-rich downtown or city center in 10 years (31%, +18 points from all adults) as in a traditional suburb or rural area (37%, -14 points from all adults). Gen Z’s #1 desire: to live where they can walk to shops and restaurants (43%, +13 points from all adults).

Marketers are facing a new mandate. Pragmatism is important. But fun is, too. Indeed, 7 in 10 Millennials say they own mobile devices “to be entertained wherever you go.” About as many say they just “enjoy trying the latest gadgets.”

Some marketers are getting the message. Take Wrigley’s 5 gum. Its go-anywhere pop-open “bottle” and “mini-bottle” containers and new micro packs are not only practical. They’re also new-looking and fun – a cool, go-anywhere design.

“Practical” and “inventive.” Full of the “individualism, buoyancy, and exuberance which comes with freedom.” Ready to “escape the bondage of the past” and full of “impatience with the restraints” of the old. It’s been more than 120 years since Frederick Jackson Turner used those words to describe the restless spirit of the new country in his seminal essay “The Significance of the Frontier in American History.” But the words keep circling back. Expect to hear more of them – indeed, they’d make a good segue from Walt Whitman in Levi’s “Go Forth” campaign – as we move forward in this restless, ever-mobile time.

For more information on our latest Roper Reports US Need-to-Know Report, “A Pace of Your Own: America Redefines Mobility,” or on GfK’s Roper Reports US or Roper Reports Worldwide consumer trends services, please email rrteam@gfk.com.