A new reality: Government and the IPOD generation

The report is based on a deliberative workshop with 35 IPODs, carried out in London in May 2008. Our aim was to understand what kind of government IPODs want to see, and the relationship they want to have with government.

Welcome to the world of the “IPOD” – the generation between 18 and 34 years old, who Reform has described as Insecure, Pressurised, Over-taxed and Debt-ridden. Reform‘s work in 2006 and 2007 identified that the balance of taxation and public spending has tilted against young people, so that they now face an unfair burden, without being able to expect many of the benefits; and this at a time when their economic profile is already difficult. They are also faced with increasing levels of debt from higher education, much stronger labour market competition, lower growth in earnings and acute difficulties in getting onto the property ladder.

In British culture as a whole, “IPODs”, or “Generation Y”, have received something of a bad press. They have been labelled as apathetic and uninterested in politics, binge-drinking consumers with a short-term mindset. But the truth is more complex. Despite their debts, IPODs show the hallmarks of a generation which has grown up during a time of economic plenty; they are non-ideological, laissez-faire, live and let live, and tolerant of difference. They are very confident people, demanding a lot from employers and corporations. They have a generous, inclusive spirit and are sophisticated, creative consumers, with a lot to offer society.

At present, however, IPODs feel disconnected from the public realm. They tend to vote in smaller numbers than other groups, express more cynicism about government and politics overall, and focus on the personal sphere rather than the political. Worryingly for politicians, they do tend not to connect the ups and downs of their daily lives with the macroeconomic sphere or with decisions made in local government or in the House of Commons. So, they tend not to look to politics to provide a credible answer to society’s ills.

It is crucially important for government to engage better with young adults. IPODs are valuable to society – perhaps more so than government realises, and perhaps more so that they realise themselves. They may not have the majority of society’s wealth (far from it) but in the modern economy, skills and dynamism matter just as much. Also, though this generation is different from its elders in assumptions and attitudes, many of the principles of communicating with IPODs also hold true for successful communication with older groups.

Myths about IPODs abound; this report looks at some of the prevailing myths about young adults, their habits, culture and assumptions, and reveals the more complex truth about IPODs.

To counter these myths, we have identified six key themes which policymakers must bear in mind when communicating, and set them out in terms of a “playlist for policymakers”. We hope that, like a successful music track, these ideas will be disseminated and “downloaded” across government.

Some of these ideas will already be familiar to the reader, but this report goes beyond the externalities of young adults’ culture or behaviour, focusing on how to achieve the spirit of the engagement young people want with government – helping government to change the record on communication.

Playlist for Policymakers – the myths and the reality in communicating with IPODs

1. “Whatever people say I am, that’s what I’m not” – Arctic Monkeys

MYTH: 18-34s are “the young” – a homogenous group

REALITY: There are many segments within IPODs, all wanting different relationships with government and services.

2. “Speed of sound” – Coldplay

MYTH: Young adults are apathetic and uninterested in public life

REALITY: 18-34s are very busy, time pressed, sophisticated consumers who mete out their attention carefully and expect a return on emotional investment immediately, whenever they engage with government. Learning styles have changed, meaning they value modern conventions of communication and will not pay attention to old fashioned approaches.

3. “I can” – Nas

MYTH: IPODs live in extended adolescence, and don’t feel empowered to create change in society.

REALITY: They do not feel engaged with the political sphere, yet they are very confident and empowered in other areas of their lives, for instance in their careers and their relationships with corporations. They call for government to behave more like a corporation; giving them “management information”, communicating results clearly and transparently, making individuals accountable on the local level for delivery, and brokering a more imaginative relationship with the media to convey information better.

4. “Gold Digger” – Kanye West

MYTH: Because IPODs have close relationships with brands, the ideal relationship with government must be a consumer relationship.

REALITY: IPODs are cynical about corporations and feel that shareholders are the real winners in a consumer relationship, not consumers. The parts of the consumer world they wish to draw into the public sector include clarity over value for money, and creative service delivery; not the whole relationship.

5. “Standing in the way of control” – Gossip

MYTH: Consumer choice appeals to IPODs, so choice in public services must be the solution to most problems and give them a feeling of control.

REALITY: Though personalisation of services is important, and the choice agenda is well established, IPODs want government to behave like the best consumer brands, pre-empting their desires, coming up with elegant solutions for services, and nudging people towards good behaviours in a “soft paternal” way; personalised, tailored services but with a reduced burden of responsibility on the service user for researching and making complex choices.

6. “Digital Love” – Daft Punk

MYTH: IPODs love technology, so government can signal youth credentials by using technology as much as possible.

REALITY: this generation understand and use technology, but it is such a norm, for them it is no longer exciting just for its own sake. Government must use it creatively.

We offer a toolkit to policymakers grappling with the IPOD question. Government’s action plan falls under four headings: communication, competence, leadership and localism.


Government needs to understand the potential of new communications technology to excite, surprise and delight. IPODs will get involved with communications that skilfully use new technology to simplify information and to entertain them; at best technology represents the chance to help people navigate complex information in an elegant, exciting, engaging way, and hence create greater empowerment and genuine choice.


Government must be competent. One element of young people’s vision of government is that it is businesslike and effective. They will respond to politicians who are professional and who can deliver success and in particular value for money.


Government must lead. Choice and personalisation must be a centrepiece of public service reform policy, but government must take on a leadership role, like a consumer brand, in identifying people’s needs and shaping services to meet them. The reforming agenda of liberalising public services – of changing the role of government to funder rather than funder and provider – will help a lot here.


Localism can appeal to young people’s desire to express their active interest in political issues, and also to hold services effectively to account.
Leading politicians in all parties have already begun talking this language. The four themes are in fact the battleground of post-Blairite politics. Those policymakers who take on these lessons will find that the IPOD generation is ready and willing to support their efforts.