A characteristic I’ve always appreciated in a good leader is that they know when to accept conventional wisdom and when to swim against the stream. The power of independent thinking within the marketing and media sphere must be spear headed by leaders that understand when to pull the curtain back and challenge stagnant beliefs.
We’ve all heard about over-entitled millennials who demand promotion and a bonus after 6 months in a role, subsist on $30+ smashed avocado brunches and side-hustle their influencer profiles on Instagram.
Then there are the baby boomers – the ‘grey nomads’ who love a cruise and a weekday matinee, but harbour secret dreams of burning through their super in a convertible attached to a motorhome, jaunting around Australia with the wind in their thinning hair.
And who could forget Generation X, who once rocked out to Pearl Jam in their Winona Ryder haircuts, but now go by ‘Karen’ and like to loudly ask for the manager.
If you’re reading this, you almost certainly identify as one of the above by birth cohort, but do you identify with the descriptor? And more importantly, does it feel right?
A Brief History of Naming Generations
Generations are groups of people born within a defined time period. The theory is that people who were born in a similar part of history share similar experiences of the world, cultural traits, values, and preferences.
Historians generally agree that generational naming began when Gertrude Stein coined the term “Lost Generation”, referring to those who devoted their lives to service during World War I, in her epigram to Ernest Hemingway’s “The Sun Also Rises,” published in 1926.
As for the rest of the generations, theorists Neil Howe and William Strauss are usually credited with identifying and naming the ones we commonly refer to now in their 1991 book, aptly titled “Generations 2”.
While generational names have existed for years, their regular use is a recent cultural phenomenon.
Some handy definitions:
Baby Boomers are those born between 1946 – 1964, currently aged 56 -74
Generation X born from 1965 – 1979, currently aged 41 – 55
Millennials born between 1980 -1996, currently aged 24 – 40
Gen-Z born from 1997 – 2012, currently aged 8 – 23
Now, while we all might enjoy a bit of good-natured inter-generational jest at a family gathering (Okay, Boomer), the question is, does a generation-based ‘target audience’ help businesses connect more meaningfully, or merely blunt the sharper edges that make people – and marketing – more interesting?
I, for one, have three major misgivings to using generation descriptors to assist in targeting marketing spend:
Firstly, generation definitions are very broad and don’t really accommodate a whole cohort. To lump today’s 8-year-old in with today’s 23-year-old in Generation Z is to suggest they have more in common with each other than the same 8-yr-old and her 7-year-old sibling or classmate. It’s almost as confusing as living on the border of QLD and NSW during daylight savings time.
Secondly, generalisations are better at leading to negative than positive associations. When a generation is named, the negative stereotype tends to rise to the surface faster than any positive. For every article bashing millennials as entitled, there should be several lauding their ingenuity and adaptability – alas, pop culture remembers snark better than faint praise.
Lastly and most importantly, it’s lazy. Media planners and marketers get a free pass by using these terms instead of thinking.
As leaders in our industry, we need to hold ourselves accountable when the easy way out has become accepted as the norm.
Okay, so do generation definitions ever help?
Yes! However only when a ‘generation’ is bonded by something deeper than just the era in which they were born. I’m talking about a defining moment where the world truly changed, with a clear before and after.
In South Africa, for example, people born after the end of apartheid in 1994 are referred to as the Born-Free Generation. Romanians born after the collapse of communism in 1989 are sometimes called the Revolution Generation.
Marketers absolutely need to understand these generational differences, and their implications on culture and human connection. They also need to understand the differences between generations either side of such events, and that’s where things can get interesting.
As a leader in my business, I say swim against this one whenever possible.
If you find yourself writing or receiving a brief that cites Boomers or Millennials as the target audience, please question it! I promise you will get stronger creative and a better media strategy if you do, and that will impact the bottom line.
And remember, if you don’t like being lumped in as a male-bun wearing, tattooed hipster barrister side-hustling DJ/influencer millennial – don’t do it to someone else.