Printing and the Impact of Age

The following was written by Brian Bissett, Publisher & Editor of The MFP Report

Screen Shot 2013-06-27 at 8.12.44 PMAmidst all the angst about the future of printing that pervades the hardcopy world these days, it amazes me how little explicit research and thinking on the part of vendors and analysts goes toward understanding the actual printing habits and specific attitudes of the younger folks who are determining what the future of print will be. In fairness, I did notice a recent IDC study that specifically looked at “Printing and the Impact of Age.” I haven’t seen the report, but the fact that it stands out as unique reinforces my point that the industry is ignoring the rapidly changing nature of print among post-Baby Boomers.

Perhaps ignoring is too strong. Some MFP executives, planners and product managers do quietly talk in qualitative and subjective terms about how Gen X or Gen Y are “different” when it comes to printing. But I’ve yet to see those kind of bottom-up anecdotes become a major factor in top-down forecasts and concrete plans emanating from these same hardcopy companies.

In other words, talking openly and reacting objectively to the declining interest in printing and the reduced use of print among younger members of the workforce is something one doesn’t do in polite company. But this head-in-the-sand approach is exactly what not to do if vendors are to plan and respond to the changes at work.

Look no further than the inkjet market to see what happens when companies adopt a policy of “See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil.” During the consumer inkjet boom, AIO vendors were all too happy to tout the demographic underpinnings of growth … soccer moms, kids and teens, even oldsters joining the Internet age. But as the peak approached and passed, the inkjet industry switched to speaking in terms of “people should” rather than “people want.” Among the results were the wasteful detour by HP and Lexmark into print apps, and the billions Kodak spent to be last in a race that was nearing the finish line.

The closest that office vendors ever got to recognizing age as a factor in MFP sales was during the analog-to-digital transition in the 1990s. Back then, it was understood that younger, IT savvy buyers were more open to putting a “copier” on the network. And vendors and dealers alike accepted that older sales reps shied away from selling newfangled multifunctionals.

By the 2000’s, analog copiers and old-school salespeople were history, and there was little reason to worry yet about negative changes in printing habits. For every younger employee who might be less inclined to print, there was an older worker printing lots more e-mails and web pages. Total page volumes were going up, MFPs were replacing printers, color was booming, money was easy, and times were good.

It took a global recession and plummeting placements to shake up the industry, but concern over a bad economy obscured fundamental demographic changes. And then MPS emerged as the new defining trend. Unintentionally, it reinforced the idea that age is irrelevant. In MPS assessments, a worker is a worker. Different industries, businesses or departments may print differently, but everyone in the same group is presumed to print exactly the same way.

While there were occasional worries about a decline in enthusiasm for print among the young, those doubts were quickly assuaged by a mindset that believed kids simply hadn’t adjusted to the norms of the working world. “Give the upstarts some time, and they’ll be printing just like their elders.” 

As MPS became old hat, vendors moved on to mobility as the next double-edged trend to reshape the industry. Unfortunately, their approach has tended to obscure big generational implications that should have been obvious. Simply owning a mobile device need not dramatically alter printing. But an iPad in the hands of a 25-year old probably has far bigger implications for printing than the same device used by a 55-year old. Moreover, truly enthusiastic adoption of smartphones and tablets correlates very highly with social networking, cloud storage, e-books and more. And the intensity of that correlation and the negative impact on print is much stronger among younger workers.

The MFP industry’s simplistic focus on mobile devices — rather than a matrix of technological and behavioral changes associated with mobility — has lead to a knee-jerk emphasis on mobile print apps. But simple apps alone do little to take back prints lost to phones and tablets, or satisfy the complex mobility needs of younger workers.

What I propose instead is far more grand (perhaps even grandiose) and daunting. The MFP industry must abandon its historic age-agnostic view of print in favor of a more demographically deterministic view of the hardcopy market. What does this mean, and what will it entail?

First, vendors must develop or source new products and services that are detached from printing in order to retain relevance and credibility among younger workers and a new generation of managers. Second, vendors must overlay a generational filter onto every aspect of ongoing hardcopy product development, marketing and sales. The idea is to ensure each feature, campaign and tactic is appropriate to a specific age or generation. One size will no longer fit all ages.

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