Lies, damned lies, and generations

by Toon Diependaele - June 15, 2016

Less than six out of every ten members of my generation identify with their generational label. Still, the web is drowning in specific, supposed insights on mine and other age cohorts. Are generational labels a relic from the past or can they still make sense from a marketer’s point of view?

A couple of months from now I will turn 48. It seems like yesterday that I received birthday cards saying life starts at 40 and in just a few years from now I guess life will start at 50. Born in ‘68 I'm officially labeled as part of Generation X, also known as The Lost Generation. If I would’ve been born two years later, I would be a member of the pragmatic generation. Maybe that's why now and then I feel pragmatic yet rarely lost.

All kidding aside, the typical characteristics of Generation X, let alone any other generation’s, feel as strange to me as they do to many others who are classified with just one small generational letter. X, Y, Z, … No labels for me.

Generational labels come in handy for those who invented them: sociologists, researchers, marketers and people who try to convince someone of something.

An example of the latter: since the first banner appeared on the web and a few organizations started seeing the potential of the Internet as part of the marketing mix, we've been bombarded with reports on the evolving adoption and usage of Internet in nicely segmented age groups and generations. Replace Internet and the web by any 'hot topic' of the moment and you'll see the same phenomenon. Why? Because someone always needs to convince someone else.

Generations connect cross-border

The difference between those early days and today is that we’re obsessed with generational labels and certainly with those defining “younger” generations such as Generation Y (Millennials) and Gen Z. The web is saturated with research, briefs, papers, opinions and posts about how to deal with these age cohorts: in their capacity as workers, as consumers, you name it. We are even bombarded with advice on how to market to specific generations.

The big question is whether it all makes sense. Let’s look at today’s most often mentioned ‘generation’: the Millennials or the Millennial Generation, defined by Pew as those born after 1980 up until 1997. In other words: an age group within which the youngest members are 19 and the oldest 35.

What could possibly connect these people? Well, a lot, it turns out. In most cases, however, the things that interconnect them are rarely confined within generational borders. Even if they are known as more digitally proficient, what connects them is what connects us all: values, behavior, hopes, dreams and needs across generational borders.

The thing is that generations have more in common than we are made to believe. A simple example: more than half of the songs on my son’s Spotify playlists feature on mine as well. The other way around, there are also less differences between these generalizing and descriptive constructs, which generational labels are, that leave out a range of important parameters (for instance, the fact that people, all people, change and have different expectations and behavior in the dynamic reality called life).

Generations dismiss their generational labels

In an article entitled ‘Your Generational Identity is a Lie’, The Washington Post shows an interesting graphic with various names that have been invented for sometimes similar and sometimes overlapping groups of people born between year "x" and year "y" (experts even disagree on what the exact timeframes per label would be).

However, at least as important as the graphic is this statement by the author: "Only the person born in 1948 has not been lied to". It's safe to say that the Baby Boomers, indeed, did have some 'typical' traits (but let's not generalize) as they had at least one thing in common: their parents had experienced the horror of a global war and shared some values as a consequence of such a life-changing and, sadly, massively life-taking 'event'.

The interesting thing is that, as Joe Pinsker reported in The Atlantic: 79% of Baby Boomers feel their generational label fits them snugly, while people born between 1981 and 1997 don’t feel comfortable with their label at all. Is it because nothing particularly differentiating happened in 1981 as Joe writes? Maybe. But then why do I and many of my generational peers feel as detached from our label Generation X? What if the answer to that question was related with differentiating events and with something else, on top of our relentless obsession with age groups?

Pinkster refers to data from Pew Research Center's American Trends Panel (Wave 10). And what do we see? The percentage of each new generation that came after the Boomers, and identifies with its generational label is low. Only 40% (!) of Millennials identify with their generational label; in the case of Gen X only 58% find their label a pleasant fit. And even that is nothing more than a snapshot.

Generational labels are useless for marketing

There is more. Even if we step away from discussions and flaws in the ways generations are identified, labeled and used for everything and nothing, the question for marketers ultimately is if these labels can help us to be relevant and create value for both our businesses and the ‘target audiences’ we seek to engage.

The fact that generational labels, just like demographics or geographical variables are descriptive, as Erika Bruhn explains in a great piece,  doesn’t mean that they are also predictive – and thus useful.

This descriptive and non-predictive character has a consequence for us, marketers in the here and now. You cannot market, solely based upon demographics. Not to Millennials, nor to any other generation.

First of all because a demographic cohort can simply not be a segment which can be marketed to in a relevant way. Secondly, because a segment is not a ‘target audience’. And, thirdly, because taking actions based upon descriptive characteristics that say nothing about what people feel or need - and aren’t even valid for the overall demographic or generational segment - is simply meaningless.

In an age of data-intensive and integrated marketing, revolving around intent, values, behavior and experiences, the use of demographical labels and even of sheer demographics to segment are a relic of a past where we had little more than these demographical data and limited insights in the behavior of our ‘audiences’.

The call to rethink how we segment and how we target isn’t exactly new either, by the way. Judy Bayer and Marie Taillard, for instance, wrote about the need to target based on the outcomes or experiences that customers want to realize with products. Keeping the famous quote of Harvard marketing professor Theodore Levitt in mind - "People don’t want to buy a quarter-inch drill. They want a quarter-inch hole!" - it's about time to start segmenting and targeting how we always really should have: by understanding the customer's "job" as Bayer and Taillard put it: by understanding the context, the intent, the emotion and the goal behind the need and by dropping those generational models altogether.

Generations that matter are not about age

When realizing these, in the end, simple facts on segmentation, targeting and today's personalized marketing possibilities, it's hard to understand why we still fall for the generational label trap.

If we think it through and focus on the reality of the individual, the only generation that still stands is one without borders or demographics. It's a generation that is connected through common beliefs, common goals and shared values.

It's not about age but about behavior in what soon will be a post-generational world where individual characteristics make the difference. It's what Google calls Generation C: "it's not a quirk of when or where you were born; it’s a way of life (…) and they thrive on Connection, Community, Creation and Curation."

Pretty soon, in sum, we will all be “Generation C”, albeit each with our differences and needs to be truly engaged in the most relevant and contextual way possible.


Toon Diependaele, Head of Strategy at These Days.


Toon Diependaele

Chief Strategy Officer

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