Jose Palomino

Paper People: Boomers vs. Gen Xers in a Paperless Society

June 16, 2015

Paperless billing

Image Credit: Erich Ferdinand on Flickr

Recently, I was discussing banking habits with one of the younger staffers at Value Prop. Although I use online banking, my banking experience often includes driving to the bank to complete transactions face-to-face with a teller. Every month, I’m mailed a statement that lists those transactions and provides me with a physical paper trail, for bookkeeping or to answer an inquiry. My younger colleague, however, doesn’t have  a physical bank. She uses Simple, which, like Schwab and Ally, exist only online. Every transaction is completed through their mobile app, and only in extraordinary circumstances will she ring their customer support to talk to a human being– and not after trying their online chat support first. I admit it – although I can and do these things online as well – I like the human contact. Her… not so much.

To me, paper is security. When you’re in business, you learn early on that backing up and maintaining records of everything is the only way to protect yourself if something goes wrong. But for my kids, and the generation that are just now coming in to the workforce, the concept of a paper trail is completely outdated.

To them, paper is fallible! A printed receipt, a bill, or a statement is too easy to lose, or be rendered unreadable by something as basic as a spilled cup of coffee, or a month-long ride in the bottom of a purse or a backpack where it sits forgotten. “Important files”, to them, only means a digital file that is backed up in more than one place in case of failure. Document back-up means investing in an encrypted external hard drive, not a locked and fire-proof filing cabinet.

Paperless is Coming

As a society, we’re told that we’re going paperless (and yes, consuming more paper than ever before – a seeming contradiction that actually makes perfect sense.) And that’s because the generation coming of age mistrusts it (paper) the way we once mistrusted the systems that they now prefer. Personal computing was in its infancy when most of my generation entered the workforce, bought houses, opened bank accounts, started families, and purchased insurance policies and investment accounts. Early laptops, we found, were dangerously vulnerable. Networks failed, hard drives crashed, and a spilled cup of coffee could render thousands of dollars of equipment useless in an instant. Even the work that we did in school was handed in to the professors in person — on paper.

But our children have never worked that way. Even the composition papers they wrote in elementary and middle school were composed and printed on a home computer. They were being taught proper keyboarding and how to access the internet for information a scant year or two after they were taught to read. Now, Generation X protects their digital files in the same way that we protect our filing cabinets from a basement flooding. Many laptops now come standard with technology that detects a fall and freezes the hard drive to protect important data and prevent a crash, even if the laptop itself is destroyed. Their data is backed up on external hard drives and in the cloud to guard against multiple points of failure.

The Paper Trail Didn’t Go Away

If you are doing business in the digital age, you need to understand our society’s changing relationship with paper. It is expected, now, that you at least provide an avenue for customer service that can be accessed by smartphone, whether that means online chat, social media support, email, or customer service phone line. Ironically, the younger generation’s love of online customer service and aversion towards the in-person transaction may have a lot to do with transparency and security. If you are mistreated by a customer service representative while in a store or during a phone conversation, you may complain to their higher-ups, but it will still be your word against theirs. An online chat or an email comes with a digital paper trail.

A screen capture can even preserve words that may be destroyed or deleted later on in haste, should a journalist, a politician or a celebrity make a statement that is untoward. And, of course, a single sheet of paper can be destroyed by someone with something to hide, while a digital file can be duplicated and transmitted indefinitely. Enron taught us that.

It’s Not About Convenience

It’s too easy to mistakenly conclude, then, that Boomers value security over convenience while Gen-Xers are more afraid of wasting time than of losing their data. That’s thinking about the problem while assuming the mindset of a Boomer. It’s not about security over convenience, it’s about understanding “security” in two completely different ways.

To the paperless crowd, their internet-connected devices are their most protected possessions–and the cloud will never go down. In banking, not having instant access to funds and account instantly is more of a liability than a transaction getting “lost in the cloud”. To a millenial, the internet isn’t a black hole where things can get lost–the post office is. In their experience, paper mail takes a prohibitively long time and fails more often than their online accounts.

Know Thy Audience

This is why knowing your audience is paramount. Are your customers in the paper or paperless camp? Which of these options feels more secure to them? When you’re looking at what your customers want and need, don’t assume that you know how they think about a problem by drawing the conclusion yourself. Talk to them. Ask them what they need, and they will tell you.

Does paper or paperless feel more secure to you? Why is that? Tell me in the comments or connect with me at @jpalomino.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

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