Final word: Martin Wilde

Martin Wilde's views on how technology is set to change the office products industry for good.


Young, Wilde and (paper) free?

I cannot have been the only one to have been stirred by Martin Eames’ Final Word (OPI #215), in which, in his call for greater innovation in the OP industry, he notes: “a seismic change is the behaviour of office users under the age of 35; they simply do not use paper… if you are over 45 you will probably still take handwritten notes and print off hard copies of important documents.”

Having started my working life during the dawn of the fax machine and sheet-fed office printer in the 1980s, I am very comfortable with hard copy, thank you. When I write a report, I’ll print it off to proofread it before despatch, and I’ll keep a hard copy (as well as an electronic version) of the final version. My project files – often also containing meeting notes, printouts of emails and other ephemera – are stored in an imposing set of filing cabinets, although, yes, my PC hard drive also has copies of
all of these.

Speaking to compatriots of a similar age, I find an identical tale: raised on the knee of the hard copy printout, we over-40s are reluctant to leap off it.

However, I find that my elder son – now 17 and deep in A-Level essay composition – barely disturbs the slumber of the inkjet printer I bought for him. As a church Trustee, I find myself in meetings with a 28-year-old Youth Pastor who insists on taking notes on his iPad, which is rather disconcerting, especially when I find minutes from the meeting waiting in my inbox when I get home!

Martin may well be right to posit c35 as the watershed for this change in working behaviour. A few key events in recent history show why:

Event #1: The internet was first commercialised in 1995 when the last restrictions on the use of the internet to carry commercial traffic were removed.

Result #1: Office workers who turned 18 when the internet was commercialised in 1995 will be 35 in 2012. For them, the internet has been a commercial reality for all of their working lives.

Event #2: The earliest smartphone was the IBM Simon, designed in 1992 and released to the public in 1993. 

Result #2: Office workers who turned 16 when the IBM Simon became available in 1993 would be 35 today. Smartphones are central to their lives.

It seems that office workers aged under 35, raised within and at home with the digital age, are likely to behave very differently to their senior colleagues. They are more likely to work on screen only, will rarely print documents out and will take notes during meetings on an iPad or smartphone. 

In short, their demand for traditional OP items is likely to be minimal. And their influence on OP demand is only going to increase. Currently, under-35s account for only 36% of the labour force in the US and UK; in 2022 this group will account for over half of the working population and their needs and behaviour will have become the norm.

Moreover, this will be a worldwide phenomenon because it is driven by technology that is available – and being adopted – worldwide, kicking over traditional local working practices. The implications of this for the OP industry will be monumental.

So, together with Martin Eames and OPI, I am currently working on a research project to test this out. Due for publication in summer 2012, it will look at how office workers below and above this age think and behave. It will be fascinating reading.  

Contact Martin at