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Ring Ring: The Unexpected Rise of the Dumbphone

Imagine you were offered the chance to swap your all-action smartphone for a more basic handset. A factory reset, if you will. Would you take it?

If you answered yes, you may not be alone.

Smartphone popularity exploded with the launch of the first iPhone in 2007. By 2022, 93% of Brits owned one, including millions over 40 who once adored their Snake, corny ringtones, and clunky Blackberry buttons.

Yet, in recent years, a small but growing number of consumers have been trading the always-on lifestyle for more basic living.

The ‘dumbphone’, defined by the Cambridge Dictionary as ‘a very basic mobile phone that cannot connect to the internet,’ may sound derogatory. But the term is embraced by those motivated by data privacy and social media addiction, amongst other concerns.

Demand for such devices remains low, but is predicted to grow in the next five years – enough for ‘traditional’ mobile phone manufacturers including Nokia to re-enter the market with low-cost, basic functionality models.

Smartphone fatigue appears to be driving this trend. Asked how they feel about their smartphone, 61% of Gen Z say they would be lost without it (Kantar TGI, April 2023), compared with 68% of Millennials. In the same period 4 years ago, the generations were at parity, 65.4% vs. 65.9%.

For a generation that spends nearly 3 hours each day scrolling social media (IPA Touchpoints, H2 2022), such a shift is startling. And while the dumbphone is unlikely to achieve mainstream adoption anytime soon, growing evidence suggests that Gen Zs increasingly ponder disconnecting.

the7stars’ Cultural Codes framework offers clues to factors driving this emerging behaviour. For one, many in Gen Z are seeking ‘fauxstalgia’ for a time they did not live through or were too young to remember. This partly explains why vinyl record sales are at a 30-year high and the percentage of music streams classed as ‘catalogue’ rises each year. In turbulent times, a sense of nostalgia for simpler times can offer comfort.

Moreover, championing sustainability and circular living, half of Gen Z say they are increasingly taking their purchase decisions ‘slow’, being consciously considerate of their wider impact (the7stars Pulse, 2023).

In the same survey, one in four said that when they next need a phone, they will be most likely to choose a more basic or upcycled model, while 15% would even consider swapping their smartphone for a dumbphone at some point in the future.

As Tara Watkins, Head of Insight at the7stars, observes ‘Ephemeral Experimentation’ in Gen Z’s trial-and-error approach to identity exploration, including their smartphone habits. ‘Whilst millennials felt the need to be everything, Gen Z are open to trying everything from music, fashion to technology but this doesn't mean they are that indefinitely.’ Gen Z fluidity allows for exploring life both with and without smartphones. As she notes: ‘This shift may last, they may revert back, or they might find a middle ground.’

At least for now, commuters will keep swimming in a sea of slick smartphones. But as consumers increasingly consider climate impact, cost of living and their own need to unplug, the tide may gradually start to turn.