Marketing to Generations: A farcical thinking that has gone too long

Marketers are obsessed with generations. Creating cohorts of people based on when they were born were thought to be decisive enough to draw unique traits for each and define a unique marketing strategy for each. Just Google it and you will find encyclopaedic level of content on understanding Millennials. We truly are a mysterious bunch.

Baby Boomers are thought of as selfish and entitled, Millennials are self-absorbed and narcissists, Gen-Z is addicted to the internet. Many marketers still argue that generations are distinct and that brands need to educate themselves about each of them. Perhaps the biggest critic of these classifications are the people themselves being compartmentalised based on a loose defintion.

How did we get here?

Let’s make a few things clear. I am not saying that when you are born does not matter. It does. It does affect the spectrum of things you experience in your life. Being a teen in today’s social and cultural climate is a very different experience than being the same age in 1990 or even 1960. People today are not the same as people 40 years ago. The period someone grows in can shape how, when and whether they form a family, own a home, pursue higher education, attain financial stability etc.

Generational labels capture certain basic details about the lives of different people that lead different lives in different periods of time. But these labels have been proven to be as inaccurate and unscientific as astrology. They conflate experiences of millions of very different people, remove nuances from the equation, and infer correlation and commonality where there are none. Scientists put it succinctly: Generations labels are stupid.

What are Generations?

Those who promote the concept of generations, define it as a group of people who are roughly the same age and who were influenced by a set of significant events. These experiences supposedly create commonalities, making those in the group more similar to each other and more different from other groups now and from groups of the same age in the past.

The idea of generations intuitively makes sense. But science does not support it. In fact, most of the research findings showing distinct generations are explained by other causes, have serious scientific flaws, or both.

Baby Boomers are perhaps the only currently living cohort defined by an actual demographic event — the postwar baby boom. Rest of the generation labels have arbitrary lengths and labels. The Silent Generation was born across the span of 18 years before the end of World War 2; Millennials entered the world between 1981 and 1996. These time periods just got accepted after being repeated over and over.

They have become more meaningless in the last few decades. The average age at which people become parents has been rising, meaning that the generational span has been increasing, and yet, Gen X, Millennials, Gen Z span shorter lengths of time than Baby Boomers and Silent Generation. As marketers and pundits have observed the profits and attention that come with labelling a generation, they scramble to be the first to do so.

Problems with Generational Labels

Most studies that purport to show generational differences likely found something else. For example, millennials score lower on job satisfaction than Gen Xers, but are millennials really a less satisfied generation? Early in their careers, Gen Xers were also less satisfied than baby boomers. As people get older, they are more likely to leave jobs they do not like and migrate toward ones they do. Ask a 22-year-old in her first job and a 42-year-old in her fourth about job satisfaction. Would you be surprised that the older one, who has had the chance to move around, explore, and advance in her career, likes her job more? This is an age effect, not a generational effect.

Perhaps the most commonly cited generational effect is the so-called epidemic of narcissism among young people today. (Of course, narcissism cannot be an epidemic as it is not an infectious disease, but I digress.) Numerous books, articles, and pundits have claimed that millennials are much more narcissistic than young people in the past.

Guess what? The science does not back this up either. Research shows that while narcissism among young people did increase slightly through the mid-2000s (about 1.8 points on a 40-point scale), it is now back to where it was in the 1980s. That’s right, on average, millennials are no more narcissistic now than Xers or boomers were when they were in their 20s, and one study has even found they might be less so than generations past. While millennials today may be more narcissistic than Xers or boomers are today, that is because young people are pretty narcissistic regardless of when they are young. This too is an age effect.

Then there is the issue of identification. 74 percent of Boomers associate themselves with their generational label, and the share declines with each successive generation: 53 percent of Gen X, 45 percent of Millennials, and 39 percent of Gen Z said the same. The labels have lost relevance increasingly to the group they are supposed to represent! In a somewhat bizarre set of survey data from 2015, 33 percent of Millennials identified as Gen X, and 8 percent said that they were Boomers. Fifteen percent of Gen Xers said that they identified as Boomers, while a baffled 2 percent of Boomers and 4 percent of Silents thought of themselves as Millennials. Whether these results reflect confusion about how generations are defined or intentional resistance to those labels, it’s clear that many people don’t identify with the generation they’ve been slotted into.

Why is relying on Generations a bad thing?

First things first, relying on flawed science and pseudo science always leads to poor decisions that will inevitably lead to decline in business growth. Let me explain with an analogy.

Women live longer than men, on average. Why? They engage in fewer risky behaviours, take better care of themselves, and have two X chromosomes, giving them backups in case of mutations. But if you are a man and you go to the doctor and ask how to live longer, she doesn’t tell you, “Be a woman.” She says eat better, exercise, and don’t do stupid stuff. Knowing the why guides the recommendation.

Now imagine you are a manager trying to retain supposedly narcissistic, disloyal, commitment-averse millennial customers and you know that Xers and boomers are less likely to leave you. If you are that manager, you wouldn’t stop targeting millennials! Instead, you would focus on addressing benefits, using relevant mediums to reach them and create mental structures.

Consultants and “Marketing Ninjas” take advantage of the appetite for these sorts of narratives by framing generations monolithically and presenting themselves to clients as authorities on entire segments of the population. “Someone will create this sense of difference [between generations] in order to give you a solution to that difference,” Bobby Duffy, the author of, ‘The Generation Myth: Why When You’re Born Matters Less Than You Think’ wrote,

“Cultural commentators and pundits, too, stand to get more attention when they make sweeping statements about the character of a certain generation.”

The problem with the shorthand, though, is that it steers every conversation toward generalisation, fairly or not. Yes, Gen Z grew up with the internet. No, not all of them think that being a TikTok star is the pinnacle of success. Ask millennials if they are narcissistic job-hoppers and most of them will rightly be offended. Treat boomers like materialistic achievement seekers and see how it affects their work quality and commitment. We finally are starting to recognize that those within any specific group of people are varied individuals, and we should remember those same principles in this context too. We are (mostly) past it being acceptable to stereotype and discriminate against women, minorities, and the disabled. Why is it OK to do so to millennials or boomers?




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