If you’re not of my generation, then let me introduce you to Marshall McLuhan by way of this YouTube video.


McLuhan, one of the visionary thinkers in the momentous decade of the 1960s, coined the expression "the medium is the message" which he introduced in his most widely known book, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, published in 1964.

Simply stated, McLuhan was saying that the medium itself influences how the message is perceived. McLuhan who died in 1980 didn’t live to see how spot-on he was going to be.  

So how does all of this figure in to communicating 401(k) plans? I mean really communicating 401(k) plans to participants in terms of saving money for retirement on a tax favored basis and making informed investment decisions with those dollars.

Fact of the matter is that employee education just hasn’t worked. It’s not for the lack of effort put forth by 401(k) providers which I discussed in my September 2009 column for Employee Benefit News, Lost in Translation.

And maybe it hasn’t worked because we are using the same communication methods to reach the four generations now in the workforce for the first time in our history. All of whom communicate and use technology differently.

Here’s what Larry Rosen, a professor of psychology at California State University, had to say about  this in his recent article on CNNOpinion, Generation ‘Text’: FB me.

We are in the midst of four distinct generations of Americans: Baby Boomers (born 1946-64), Generation X (1965-79), Net Generation (1980-89) and the new iGeneration (born in the 1990s and beyond and given the "i" designation to represent media such as iPods and the Wii but also to reflect the "individualized" nature of their media).

Until recently, "communicate" meant to talk face-to-face or on the phone. But both the Net Generation and the iGeneration have turned the concept of communication upside down. The old ways are, well, old. It is now all about texting, IMing, Facebooking, Skype-ing — pretty much anything but talking live or on the phone.

And in the case of communicating 401(k) plans, anything but reading employee booklets and attending 401(k) meetings. So maybe, just maybe, we should relate the “how” we are communicating to the “who” we communicating and realize that McLuhan was right.

The medium is the message, and let’s start using the new ways to communicate.