Why Millennials Are Texting More And Talking Less
July 15, 2015 | By Neil Howe
This editorial originally appeared in Forbes.
As part of a firm-wide campaign to cut costs, JPMorgan Chase offered to eliminate voicemail for thousands of employees who don’t interact directly with clients. About 65% took the offer, resulting in over $3 million in annual savings. Executives say that the decision is overdue, pointing out that most workers—particularly those under 40—have long relied on e-mail, text messaging, instant messaging, or social media to reach others on the job and in their daily lives. Over the past decade, these technologies have ushered in a new era of communication—redefining standards of etiquette, introducing new tensions between generations, and prompting concerns that the timbre of our voices will soon be drowned out by the click-clack of keyboards.
JPMorgan nixing voicemail is only the latest indicator that the service’s days are numbered. Last year, when Coca-Cola KO -0.39% made a similar move, only 6% of employees decided to keep it. Bank of America BAC -0.22% and Citigroup C -1.5% are considering following suit. In 2012, Vonage reported that the number of voicemail messages left on user accounts dropped 8% from the year before, while the number of people who retrieved their messages fell 14%. In aHarvard Business Review essay urging companies to dump voicemail, author Michael Schlage doesn’t mince words: “A communications medium that was once essential has become as clunky and irrelevant as Microsoft MSFT -0.11% DOS and carbon paper.”
As with most declining technologies, the exodus has been led by young people. A 2014 Gallup poll confirmed a truth that has become self-evident: Text messages now outrank phone calls as the dominant form of communication among Millennials. Fully 68% of 18- to 29-year-olds say that they texted “a lot” the previous day, which plunges to 47% among 30- to 49-year-olds and 26% among 50- to 64-year-olds. Older Nielsen data indicate that average monthly voice minutes used by 18- to 34-year-olds plummeted from about 1,200 in 2008 to 900 in 2010. Texting among 18- to 24-year-olds more than doubled over this period, soaring from 600 to over 1,400 texts a month.
Why are Millennials shying away from calls? Many see the phone as overly intrusive, even presumptuous. One young worker tells The Wall Street Journal that calling someone “without e-mailing first can make it seem as though you’re prioritizing your needs over theirs.” Additionally, task-oriented Millennial employees just want to know what to do; reading emotions can be an unhelpful chore. They default to whichever communication method will help them complete their to-do list as efficiently as possible—a priority that is reflected in how they communicate more generally. One employer tells theMinneapolis Star Tribune that her Millennial workers tend to skip the small talk and “get right to the point.”
Still, the rise of texting is not without its critics. Messages are so condensed that they often fail to convey the sender’s intended meaning and tone, causing misunderstandings—and that’s not even factoring in the confusion of “autocorrect fails.” To eliminate these misunderstandings, messaging apps like Viber and Line have even experimented with more visually-based texting that’s virtually impossible to misinterpret.
The buffer of texting is also used to skirt difficult face-to-face conversations. “Face It, Don’t Facebook It,” instruct the pins given to high school students during a Boston Public Health Commission etiquette seminar. But Xers and first-wave Millennials aren’t much better: In a 2013 survey, fully 59% of 21- to 50-year-olds said they would or might break up with someone they were dating casually via text, while 24% would consider ending an exclusive relationship this way—figures that would probably send Emily Post rolling over in her grave.
Texting poses further problems for professions that rely on the gift of gab. Personal rapport, for example, is key to successful sales pitches—a fact that has led some firms to hire consultants to help Millennial staffers feel more comfortable on the phone. Some companies are even using Big Data to alter their sales method: With tools like the popular CRM platform Salesforce, firms can build comprehensive customer profiles to determine which customers they should call and which they should e-mail.
To be sure, traditional conversation is far from dead. Every new communication technology that has emerged over the past century has inspired similar worries—and through it all, people haven’t stopped yakking. Contrary to reports that portray Millennials as being perpetually hunched over their phones, a Bentley University study found that 51% of 18- to 34-year-old workers still prefer to communicate with colleagues in person, far exceeding the share who prefer e-mail (19%) or text (14%).
Nevertheless, today’s new communication preferenceshave created a perception gap between generations. A teen might never listen to a voicemail or take days to return a call, leaving parents assuming that their child is intentionally ignoring them when he or she would respond in seconds to a text. One Millennial explained to The Washington Post that when she asked her mom to text instead of call, “she said, ‘What? You don’t like to hear from me? You don’t like the sound of my voice.’” On the flip side, a Boomer boss who only texts to stay in touch with family and friends might be irritated by the presumption of a Millennial employee who sends him a text.
Others are raising alarm about the potential consequences of today’s texting-friendly culture that many Homelanders have experienced from birth. Some researchers speculate that this immersion will undermine Homelanders’ ability to empathize and interpret nonverbal cues—but optimists counter that it will actually encourage tighter personal bonds, since digital messaging tends to supplement rather than replace face time.
Either way, it’s safe to assume that most of the next generation’s conversations won’t be recorded on voicemail, the one form of communication that observers seem to have already consigned to the bins of history. Asked by NPR last year about the medium’s place in the future, one 26-year-old tried to be optimistic. “[Voicemail] might evolve into something kind of special and exciting,” he said. “Like a telegram once was.”