Opinion: Wake up and smell the coffee – generation Z is coming

Recent media stories have highlighted the falling appeal of lamb to the British palate.

Many have been calling for more cash to be committed to marketing. Some see tempting lamb recipes on Instagram as a solution. Others blame Antipodean imports for flooding the market and taking market share.

See also: Education is a vital public good and needs support, says Ian Pigott

British farmers have fixated on reducing costs, increasing yield and navigating through the clouds of Brexit, but basic economic fundamentals have been overlooked. Bluntly speaking, UK sheep farmers’ competition isn’t New Zealand lamb, its chicken.

ian pigottIan Pigott farms 700ha in Hertfordshire. Ian is also the founder of Open Farm Sunday

We need to better understand our audience. Speak their language rather than trying to get them to understand ours.

A large segment of British agriculture still sees the “baby boomer” generation, “generation X” and the “xennials” – in layman’s terms, anyone born between 1946 and 1985 – as its lead.

But this demographic now constitutes less than half of the British population. With the greatest respect to anyone nearing a half century and beyond, you are not a trendsetter. Those days are behind you.

Generations Y and Z

The trendsetters now are generations Y and Z. Those born since 1985. And they aren’t eating much lamb. But that is not all. They have very different purchasing behaviours, tastes, ways of accessing information and, to some extent, values to their elders.

Research indicates that these people are not going to “grow out of it” as previous generations have. Moreover, there is evidence that their habits are influencing the older generations to change theirs.

Millennials devote less time to food preparation and allocate the smallest share of food expenditure to grains and red meat of any demographic. Meanwhile, the habitual influence of generation Z (those under 23) is still evolving.

Early signs are that food’s ethical values and provenance carry much greater weight. This could be good for British agriculture. Generation Zs are much more likely to test fads such as vegan or paleo.

Millennials have been born into an on-demand society. Amazon, Netflix, Deliveroo. Planning means “just in time”, not “just in case”. Millennials and generation Z seek immediate gratification from a purchase.

They have little appetite for annual membership and subscriptions. NFU, CLA, RSPB, be warned. Generations X and Y would rather pay more at point of purchase than invest in a “just in case” subscription. They are cash rich and time poor.

Growing influence

UK farming needs to be more acutely aware of the trends being set by generations Y and Z. It is not just their influence in changing demand for foods that affects farming.

It’s how they want to be educated, spend their free time, and the jobs they choose. Visit any careers fair and you will hear at least one teacher announce that half the careers that generation Z will pursue have not been thought of yet.

Agriculture needs to up its game. Farming isn’t competing with the last decade’s best jobs, let alone the next. Similarly, our reconnection and education programmes need to be more in step and relevant to the lives of generation Z. 

Sitting on a tractor and trailer being driven around a field will not inspire them into farming. Greater interactivity and relevance to their lives is paramount.

Twenty years ago demand for real ale was falling off a cliff. Today, it is stratospheric. Change can happen. Don’t throw out the mint sauce just yet.

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