Reading across the generations

Reading across the generations

The reading habits of people in the UK can provide golden insight for publishers. But they're all too often clouded by assumptions and anecdotes rather than actual research.

Which generation reads the most? Can we predict which genres will be most popular in the near future? And what is the key to fostering a lifelong love of books in children?

I decided to create an infographic on the subject, compiling data from multiple studies and surveys to create a broad picture of how we read today. In particular, I was curious about generational differences in reading habits. Some findings were unsurprising, such as the fact that teens and young adults of Generation Z (ages 5-25) hear about new books via social media and are fond of young adult fiction. But others are more unexpected, and are worth taking time to think through. 

First, it's good to be reminded that, despite the onslaught of new technologies, many younger people are still reading—and like their older counterparts, they prefer paper books to e-books. Millennials (ages 26-40) are among the most voracious readers, with 80% of Millennials having read a book in the last 12 months, a higher percentage than any other generation.

Moreover, Millennials are the most likely demographic to have visited a library in the last 12 months. They love libraries not only because they’re free, but also because they provide a quiet space to read, work, study, and browse the shelves. This trend may also come down to family reasons. Millennials and members of Gen X (ages 41-55), the two most frequent library patrons, are the most likely to have children who would benefit from library story times.

It remains unclear how the COVID-19 pandemic will ultimately affect libraries, many of which have had to close their doors at least temporarily. Without libraries, where will Millennials turn to acquire books? And will busy Millennial and Gen X parents struggle to encourage their children’s love of reading?

Hopefully not. While professionally-organized story times are great, we know that a tradition of reading to kids at home can nurture a new generation of readers: Baby Boomers (ages 56-75) whose parents read to them as children report that they read regularly to their children in turn. Furthermore, the pandemic has left many people with more free time on their hands, which in turn has led all five generations—and especially Gen Z—to read more than before.

While the generations share many things in common, such as an enduring preference for paper books, their favourite genres reveal some differences. When it comes to fiction, the Silent Generation (ages 76+) enjoys mysteries - which makes sense, given the huge influence of classic detective fiction from authors such as Agatha Christie, whose numerous mysteries were published between the 1920s and 1970s.

In contrast, the young members of Gen Z prefer fantasy, which may reveal the influence of star fantasy authors such as J K Rowling, Philip Pullman, Rick Riordan, Neil Gaiman, and George R R Martin. 

Millennials, meanwhile, have a penchant for general adult literature, and Gen X is a generation of wide-ranging readers who don’t show a marked preference for any single genre.

Ultimately, it looks like there is no inherent generational preference for one genre or another. Some of these generational preferences appear to result from an especially popular or prolific author popping up at just the right time, while some can be chalked up to historical circumstance; It’s no surprise that in 2020, apocalyptic literature is having a moment.

As for non-fiction, most adults (Millennials, Gen X, and Baby Boomers) are drawn to practical subjects geared towards self-improvement: fitness, business, parenting, crafts, cooking, gardening, and interior design. Despite the proliferation of blogs and video content in these areas, many people still reach for books to learn crucial skills.

The very youngest and very oldest generations instead take an interest in less immediately practical subjects such as humour (Gen Z) or history and philosophy (Silent Generation). 

Does that mean most adults under age 76 have no appreciation for, say, history? Of course not. The popularity of history podcasts such as Mike Duncan’s "History of Rome" (which led to a best-selling 2017 book) indicates that there’s still plenty of interest in more academic topics; younger adults may simply be consuming this information via different media. Publishers looking to market a history book to a younger audience could bear this in mind and seek to tap into existing podcast audiences.

It’s clear that our reading habits have changed over the years, and the effects of COVID-19 are still unfolding. For a quick overview of reading across the generations, check out the infographic below.

Lachlan Brown is the founder of Hack Spirit and Best By The Numbers, where he writes about eastern philosophy, mindfulness and self-improvement.