Advertising Feature
An advertising feature is created, supplied and paid for by a commercial client and promoted by the Irish Times Content Studio. The Irish Times newsroom or other editorial departments are not involved in the production of advertising features.

In a modern world how does business tap into what’s important to under 35s?

Understanding unwritten codes of youth culture is the pathway to brand relevance and business leadership, writes Claire Hyland, head of The Youth Lab at Thinkhouse

In the world of marketing, the perennial focus on understanding the customer is the marketer’s job. But the younger customer or potential customer can sometimes feel elusive. Trends shift year on year, month on month, day by day, and fads come and go in a digital moment. Savvy marketers know it can be a blind spot and they risk getting caught off guard by a more culturally astute brand.

So how do marketing and business leaders keep up?

Our belief at the Youth Lab is that culture is best understood as the unwritten rules, the codes of behaviours and connection that make a cohort distinct and different from other cohorts. We’re not talking fads and passing trends but a deeper human understanding. To get to the heart of youth culture today we undertake an annual investigation. Entitled Youth Culture Uncovered it explores what it’s like to be young today.

This year’s investigation, the sixth in the series, looked at how young people are finding joy and purpose in a permacrisis environment, where uncertainty and instability is the norm. It involved both qualitative research with young people and cultural trendsetters, and nationally representative quantitative research with 500 16–35-year-olds. This explored topics that help provide businesses and organisations with a deeper understanding of the realities of life today for the under 35s. This gives them continued relevance in the short and long term.


The report highlights a new cultural dynamic that reflects the highs and lows of the rollercoaster of an uncertain life. Individual behaviours are more fluid, constantly shifting in dynamic and contradictory ways. This is characterised by the idea of either checking into life to deliberately manifest joy and a sense of purpose for yourself, or checking out – either intentionally or because you have no control. Given the intensity of growing up in a world where every day brings a new crisis, the peaks and troughs of everyday life are more accentuated, meaning behaviours can quickly move from the conventional to the radical.

Polarities are at play in terms of young people’s outlook for the near future. This is reflective in the growing disparities that now exist among young people themselves in terms of their own personal wealth, sense of security and wellbeing. Recognising the need to find some sense of self-control in this environment of flux, 21 per cent of those surveyed said this was the year to ‘sort out my personal shit and get myself organised’, with 17 per cent looking to 2023 as the year they ‘find balance and just focus on what I can control’. In contrast, one in 10 claim this will be the year to financially survive, with one in 20 claiming they won’t be able to move forward this year due to forces outside of their control.

Overall, their top three issues of concern are the cost of living, housing and health. Climate change comes in fourth, reflecting young people’s reality of having to reconcile personal values with practical realities in a landscape of increasing economic challenges.

The phrase ‘there is someone who looks like me and understands me in government leadership’ garnered only 15 per cent agreement among those surveyed

Given external forces can’t be relied on for a sense of security and control, young people are increasingly creating it for themselves. Key areas of the report where they are channelling their energy included ‘travel and adventure’, ‘all things foodie’ and ‘sport/wellness/gym’. ‘Joy snacking’ was noted as a coping mechanic with some 75 per cent of the respondents having claimed to ‘focus on the little things that give you personal joy’.

The top two sources of purpose for young people are rooted in people – family and friends. Friendships are central to helping young people manage anxieties that come with rising uncertainty, with 64 per cent seeing their friends as their ‘chosen family’ and helping to create ‘a supportive and safe space for me to be my authentic self’. Some 43 per cent agreed that ‘making new friends is a priority’ in a post-Covid world.

Connection through community is also heightened with almost one in two, or 49 per cent of those questioned, reporting that they are ‘engaged with and feel part of a community’. Many of the young people we spoke to recognise the power of the collective to drive change. Perhaps this very understanding of their own combined power might be the defining legacy of their generation. It may help counteract the avalanche of crises and challenge the very fabric of Irish society today.

Only 15 per cent of those surveyed agreed that ‘there is someone who looks like me and understands me in government leadership’. Similarly, only 16 per cent claim to ‘trust in the state to actively govern in my best interest’, with 55 with agreeing that ‘society is run by the old, for the old’. Almost one in two, or 49 per cent, felt that ‘they have no choice but to go abroad for better opportunities’.

Despite being one of the most highly educated young populations in OECD nations, second only to Luxembourg, their high levels of education and resulting jobs in a knowledge-based society have not translated into the prospect of security.

With home ownership either increasingly pushed out, or simply no longer an option, their long-term sense of purpose is under threat. The feeling that Ireland might not be the place to offer them the best chance of both a happy or a successful life, accounted respectively for 49 per cent and 53 per cent of those surveyed.

The numbers in agreement reflect the growing recognition of inequity in the social contract, with the high barriers to financial autonomy hampering their ability to grow into independent adults. The inaction of those in power to address their challenges is compounding their frustration and anger.

Where does this leave marketing and business leaders today? In the short term there are opportunities for brands and businesses to support young people on their journey of accentuated highs and lows – facilitating moments of joy and connection and helping to build resilience and find balance.

Practically, it’s all about delivering on their top three expectations of brands today. They are to: ‘deliver trustworthy, quality products and services’; be ‘honest and transparent’ and be ‘ethical and responsible, conducting business fairly and sustainably’.

In the longer term the bigger opportunity is the role that business plays in contributing to society in a way where young people are seen less as customers and more as citizens, and where the balance of power is less in the hands of the old and is more evenly distributed across the generations.

The challenge of keeping up with customers will become second place to the opportunity of leading the way for our young citizens.

To hear more go to