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Generations or life stages?

Reading Time: 9 minutes

Generations or lifecycles? – Why am I asking this as a question? I’ve had a bit of time to think about consumer behaviour. At the moment you can’t throw a stick without hitting ‘an’ expert in at least one of three generations:

  • Gen-Y or millennials
  • Gen-Z
  • Gen-A

There are older generations that also exist but are mentioned in passing:

  • Gen-X
  • Baby-boomers
  • Silent generation
  • Greatest generation
  • Lost generation

The principle behind this is that each generation would relate to the world in different ways. The implication is that each would require different marketing considerations radically different to anything that has come before.

This lens has a number of results:

  • It encourages marketers to segment markets in certain ways. This facilitates marketing assumptions that are unhelpful
  • It continues marketing focus on a set age group, rather than mining a portfolio for lifetime spend
  • It feeds into a wider marketing culture of ‘disruption’ that can be unhelpful

A history lesson in generations

Generational labels seems to have been started in journalistic essays. These essays tried to convey common experiences. For instance, the sense of loss and dislocation that many felt after fighting in World War 1.

The massive scale of the war meant that armed service touched more people. Over time they have been used to illustrative effect by governments, media and business.

Generations

This has meant that generations varied in length. I reviewed a raft of reports and media coverage and found that from Gen X onwards there has even been an variation in definition of what the generational length was.

Over time an industry of journalists and consulting firms has been built up. They point out the various flaws that are supposed to characterise each generation. They point out to company boards how their businesses will be disrupted if they don’t change the way they do business to meet the needs of a generation. This consulting mirrors the way consultants have preached a similar disruption message around different aspects of digital transformation and requires a regular cyclical refresh.

Is this a deliberate ruse? Probably not, but book publishers need books and consultants need to bill. Both of which are insatiable machines that require a ‘new, new thing’.

A final factor to consider in defining generations. Historically the definition of generations has been done with a global north, western-centric lens. If you look at markets like China the differentiation tends to be done in decades: post-90s generation, post-80s generation and so on.

Now, we’re in a time period where the bulk of young people are going to be born in the global south. There is likely to be emigration north for economic opportunity. There is likely to be a corresponding need due to population decline in developed nations. A trip to Tokyo or London already shows the impact of this. From nurses and care home workers to combini staff and baristas; many of the workers are young and foreign. A global north, western-centric lens makes even less sense.

Period trends and generation trends

One of the things that the generations stereotypes can blind marketers to is cross-generational trends within a period of time. One of the stereotypical characteristics that Gen X was labelled with was cynical. Researchers found that Gen X did exhibit higher levels of cynicism than previous groups of 18 – 29 year olds.

But Stanford University took the research one step further and looked the accuracy of this cynical label. What they found was that all generations at that time were exhibiting higher levels of cynicism. It was a period trend rather than a generational one. As a marketer, that might have a huge implication in the way you deliver messages beyond Gen X.

What are the causes of this increase in disaffection? “Media commentators may be right in emphasizing the malaise-inducing effects of ‘historical underdosing’,” the researchers said. The term refers to the belief that history has come to an end, with such institutions as the family and government becoming ever more corrupt and exhausted. It suggests that the great regenerative struggles of the past, such as civil rights and feminism, have already been fought, and all that is left is the winding down and decay of present institutions. “Generation X commentators have, however, glossed over the possibility that such disaffection can just as easily affect older folks as younger ones. If anything, older individuals are especially vulnerable to romanticizing the past and thus becoming disaffected and disengaged with the present,” Grusky said.

Oldsters Get The Gen X Feeling | Sci Gogo

David Grusky, one of the two Stanford sociologists who conducted the study highlighted some great actionable insights that marketers at the time could have used when targeting older market segments. Unfortunately, the Gen X = cynical impression stuck, marketers failed to ask the right questions and got the wrong heuristic.

Grusky’s work and the rise of social media adoption across all age groups does make me wonder about Gen Y’s reputation for narcissistic behaviour – when we could be living in a more narcissistic time.

Unhelpful stereotypes

Stereotypes are heuristics that help us make sense of the world. If we constantly had to analyse everything, we’d have been eaten by large predators whilst in a state of analysis paralysis. In a resting state our brain accounts for 60 per cent of our body’s glucose consumption. So anything that can drive energy efficient actionable insight would make evolutionary sense.

It is unlikely that the modern marketer will be eaten by a pack of ravenous wolves. Yet stereotypical heuristics will make their way into the decision making biases of marketers and their management teams.

Generational labels lend themselves to stereotypes and some of the biggest of them are questionable at best.

  • Boomers are selfish and don’t care about the planet. The publication of Silent Spring by biologist Rachel Carson, could be considered the point at which the modern environmental movement was born. Counterculture figure Stewart Brand lobbied for the release of the iconic ‘blue marble’ whole earth in space photo by NASA which galvanised the environment movement. His Whole Earth catalog series also went on to influence the ‘back to the land’ counterculture movement that sprang out of hippydom. It is no coincidence that groups like Greenpeace and Friends Of The Earth were founded around this time. The first Earth Day happened in San Francisco in 1970. As the counterculture movement went around the world in the early 1970s, so did green-orientated political parties. Without Boomers there wouldn’t have been an environmental movement. Extinction Rebellion (XR) stands on the shoulders of direction action groups like the Greenham Common women and Greenpeace. There is however, anecdotal evidence to suggest that public interest in environmental issues dips during an economic recession and this seems to have been the case after the 2008 financial crisis.
  • Gen X are slackers. They came into a world that had much less economic opportunities than their parents generation. The lack of balance in corporate culture was as unattractive to young Gen Xers as it was to Gen Y and Gen Z first jobbers. As outlined earlier, the move to deregulation and globalisation led to increased cynicism thoughout generations at the time when Gen X entered adulthood. Yet on the flipside, their entrepreneurship has been lauded over the years. Though often that entrepreneurship was forced upon them as industries globalised
  • Gen Y are tech savvy, demand work life balances and are narcissistic in nature. Pew Research indicates that Gen Y do indeed adopt smartphones and tablets, but despite the research article headline of Millennials stand out for their technology use, but older generations also embrace digital life – the difference with Gen X is just three percent in terms of smartphone usage and tablet usage is broadly comparable across generations
  • Gen Z are digital natives and are socially conscious. A classic example of how the truth is more complex and nuanced than this is a recent Kings College London research done into UK attitudes and behaviours towards COVID-19. In it is a group called resistors. They buy into the fake news around the virus, are more likely to violate the lockdown regulations and the majority are in the 16-24 year old category.

Massively parallel cultures

Cultural movements used to align in a serial manner to moments in time and space. There was a serial progression as one cultural movement was created in reaction to; and on the legacy of another.

The nature of media and connection changed with technology. Cheaper air fares mean’t that the world has become much more accessible. I am not saying that it is cheap to fly to Australia, Japan or Brazil – but it is cheaper than it was. In my parents life time in Ireland, families and friends used to hold a wake for members of the community emigrating to the United States or Australia.

The reason for the wake was that the distance was only likely to be bridged by the occasional letter and post-departure it was unlike that they would be seen again.

Media is no longer something that has a time slot like the morning paper, drive time radio or prime time TV; but a membrane that surrounds us. It is in our pocket with us everywhere. We are the media; we have a portable broadcast studio of sorts in our pocket and the means of transmission.

To give you an idea of how revolutionary this concept is, here’s a clip from Back To The Future which was released as a film in 1985. Note the sense of wonder that the 1950s era Doc Brown has when confronted with a 1980s vintage JVC camcorder.

Victor legendary video camera
The iconic JVC GRC-1 camcorder. It is branded Victor for the Japanese domestic market.

The Victor / JVC GRC-1 camcorder had been launched the previous year and was the first all in one VHS camera and recorder – so at the time of the film release this was still cutting edge stuff.

The ‘Mondo‘ series of documentaries shocked and thrilled audiences with practices from around the world that would have seemed fantastical. At least to the average member of the public in the Italy of the directors, or mainstream audiences in the US. As the introduction to the English dub of the film says:

Intro to Mondo Cane

By comparison e-commerce and websites allow us to sample culture and products from around the world. You have access to Korean dramas and beauty tips, vintage Hong Kong movies, Brazilian funk carioca music from the ghettos of Rio De Janeiro or Chinese rap. The web isn’t a perfect memory, content disappears or often never gets seen.

Content is often mediated through algorithms governing e-commerce, search and social platforms. But despite those impediments; culture evolves and morphs in a massively parallel way. Which makes a mockery of generational stereotypes.

Consumption is becoming an attenuated concept

Part of the focus on generations is due to a focus on grabbing early life time spend. Brands want to get consumers as young as possible. An oft-mentioned heuristic was that half a consumer’s spend was done before they reach 35. There are a few things wrong with this approach:

Marketing science research has shown that consumers are brand promiscuous. Light consumers are more important for brand sales than heavy consumers. So an exclusive brand building focus of going after young consumers like a game of capture the flag isn’t the most effective approach.

We also know that there are a number of factors attenuating consumption patterns and spend along the generations so a youth focus makes less sense:

  • Older people tend to have more assets and the ability to spend. This is due to property prices, historic performance of pension investments, life insurance policies and a lack of student loans
  • Earning power in real terms has been declining over time. Taking into account a parity in education and inflation; boomers earned more than gen x, who in turn did better than gen y. Gen x managed to keep ahead of boomers only by having both partners in a marriage go out to work, to compensate for the man’s reduced earning power
  • Younger people are having to spend a larger degree of their income on somewhere to live. Student loan repayments creates an additional drag on their income
  • People are delaying life stages like marriage later due to the financial burden and have been having less children in most of the world
  • People are acting younger for longer and this reflects in their consumption patterns. Part of this is down to ageism in the employment market and part of it is down to them continuing to do what they love. I know Dads of college age kids who still skate or do martial arts. I know pensioners who love to buy lip gloss. An exception to consumer attenuation is the luxury sector. Luxury consumers have become younger, but that is also because the centre of gravity in luxury has shifted from US consumers to east Asia. Scions of first generation entrepreneurs from China, Korea, Singapore and Malaysia are not afraid to embrace their affluence

Life stages rather than generations

Culture is very important in making brand messages resonant. Culture is also adrift of generational labels. It is ethereal and finds its way to people, now more than ever. Being massively parallel in nature has made culture more democratic.

Thinking about the brand challenge in a consumer life stage way allows us to build strategic rather than short term communications. It allows to think about meaningful brand propositions across price, place, promotion and product. And then manifest it in a way that resonates culturally over time.

In an industry when marketing effectiveness is failing and campaigns are taking an increasingly short terms approach. Peter Fields’ report The Crisis in Creative Effectiveness for the IPA highlights the dangerous position that marketing is in. It’s a big hill to climb, but a good first step would be to ditch ineffective stereotypes as part of an effort to improve the quality of long term thinking and ideas.

Update (August 17, 2020)

BBH Labs looked at group cohesion data and in the process added another reason why generations don’t make any sense.

The Group Cohesion Score is our attempt at calculating the relative likemindedness of a group of people. Using TGI’s Jan-Dec 2019 UK dataset, we measured the size of the average majority viewpoint across 419 lifestyle statements. These statements range from the mundane (“I use a refillable water bottle most days”) to the profound (“There’s little I can do to change my life”) to the philosophical (“A real man can down several pints in a sitting”). The available responses are Agree, Disagree, Neutral or Not Applicable. These statements will elicit conflicting opinions in every group, but close-knit, homogenous groups (e.g. Mormons) will have larger majorities than weaker ones (e.g. left-handers). You can access the same data yourself through TGI – we haven’t manipulated it in any way.

As an entire populace, the UK’s Group Cohesion Score is 48.7%. In other words, the average majority opinion is held by 48.7% of the population. …On average, the generations have a Group Cohesion Score of +1.3, making them only marginally more like-minded than the nation as a whole. For Gen Z, this score falls to +0.2. People born between 1997 and 2013 have no stronger connection to each other than to the rest of the country. There’s an entire industry built on churning out Gen Z insights and it’s complete bollocks. They have no worldview.

Puncturing The Paradox: Group Cohesion And The Generational Myth | BBH Labs

More information

From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism by Fred Turner

Generation X not so special: Malaise, cynicism on the rise for all age groups | Stanford News Service

Gallup Historical Trends | Environment

Living: Proceeding With Caution | TIME magazine

X Saves the World: How Generation X Got the Shaft but Can Still Keep Everything from Sucking by Jeff Gordinier

Creative effectiveness is collapsing, claims new IPA report | Contagious

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ICYMI | 万一你错过了| 당신이 그것을 놓친 경우에 대비해서

Reading Time: 2 minutes

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ICYMI | 万一你错过了| 당신이 그것을 놓친 경우에 대비해서

Reading Time: 2 minutes

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Lao Dongyan, “Artificial Intelligence” – Reading the China Dream – piece on biometric recognition