We are all familiar with the terms “baby boomers” and “millennials.” However, these terms are more useful than just creating memes. Knowing the difference between the various generations can help us target audiences and customers better. Understanding what resonates with each generation and using those insights to plan content strategies is an important way for businesses to connect with the right consumers, bolster their brands, and grow revenue. Generational insights allow marketers to look past traditional data and demographics to earn a deeper sociocultural and psychological understanding of consumers.
A generation is defined as “all of the people born and living at about the same time, regarded collectively.” It can also be described as “the average period, generally considered to be about 20-30 years, during which children are born and grow up, become adults and begin to have children.” The term generation is also often used in the social sciences to mean “a delineated population who experience the same significant events within a given period of time.”
In other words, generations share, in broad strokes, a similar sociological or cultural experience of the world at a particular time in history. Also known as social generations, this definition is widely used in the popular vernacular, and has been the basis for “generations” of targeting and marketing initiatives. For example, you can target a particular generation or another demographic with your ads on Facebook.
Some analysts are quite comfortable with the idea that a generation is one of the fundamental social categories in a society, and these categories enable a cohesive (though perhaps overly reductive) view of people’s attitudes and aspirations.
However, other newer perspectives question its importance in the face of more formidable and potentially challenging cultural influences, like class, gender, race, and education. We will discuss more of this complexity later, but it’s easy to see why this cohesion, seen more cynically by some as stereotyping or generalizing, can lead to a loss of nuance and deep understanding.
According to this hypothesis, a society’s entire population can be divided into a series of non-overlapping “personas,” each a unique generational personality due to the period in which each persona comes of age. The movement of these generational personas from one life-stage to the next creates a repeating cycle that shapes the history of that society. This is the Strauss-Howe generational theory.
Each generation is separated by the years they were born and marked by various characteristics. Let’s define each of these social generations and create a historical timeline:
The “Greatest Generation” were born from 1901 to 1927 and fought in World War II. Their time frame is roughly 26 years.
The “Silent Generation,” also known as the “Lucky Few,” came of age in the post-WWII era. They were born from 1926-1945, roughly 20 years.
Baby boomers were born between 1945 and 1965. They are called baby boomers due to the increased birth rates that were observed during the post-war time frame, and they are a significant demographic. Their time frame is roughly 20 years. Baby Boomers are still the biggest spenders in the United States, yet they remain woefully neglected by brands on social media and other online channels.
Generation X, or Gen X, follow baby boomers. This generation is generally defined as people born between 1965 and 1980. In the U.S., some call Gen Xers the “baby bust” generation due to a drop in birth rates. Their time frame is roughly 15 years.
Millennials are the generation following Gen X who grew up around the turn of the millennium. The generation is widely accepted as being born between 1981 and 1996. Their time frame is roughly 15 years. However, many analysts further divide this group into “Gen Y” or even “Xennials” (hybrid Gen X overlap or older millennials) and “true” millennials, who are younger and born closer to the turn of the century.
Generation Z, or Gen Z for short, are those succeeding the millennials. They were born in the late 1990s to early 2010s, though this is fluid. Their time frame is 15 years or less. This generation is the spenders of tomorrow.
Generation Alpha (or Gen Alpha) for short, follows Gen Z. Researchers typically use the mid-2010s to mid-2020s as their birth years, though this is also very fluid. Generation Alpha is the first generation to only know the 21st century. Their time frame is 12 years or less.
Clearly from a mainstream social science perspective, these “generations” are getting shorter, and many futurists argue that they can be further fragmented as we move with the speed of change. Why might the idiosyncratic traits that define any particular generational group be shifting with accelerated momentum?
Common sense pulls this question in two directions: on one hand, the influences that define this generational “zeitgeist” are accelerating, so one could assume that the meaningful differences — motivations, aspirations, drivers, need, and barriers — might shift more quickly along with it.
Additionally, major events like the COVID-19 pandemic can also transform consumer behavior across generations.
Consider technology as one of culture’s most dominant influences. As Moore’s Law fulfilled its promise of faster, smaller, and more powerful technology at an exponential rate of speed, consumers have responded with rapidly shifting and discrete perspectives on the world around them. For example, social media usage has grown considerably in every generation over time.
Because of this speed of change, a 22-year-old and a 28-year-old have little in common. They use, respond to, and internalize technology in radically different ways. Do a quick check of phone apps of an early 20-something and a late 20-something and you’ll recognize the disparity: the differences between Apple Music and Spotify, Scrib and Audible, Mint and Robinhood are subtle, yet distinctive.
On the other hand, this access to technology, particularly in the areas of biological sciences, has created an opportunity to expand our windows of opportunity — to lengthen time, to keep this acceleration at bay. For example, consider women’s access to fertility technology, and the flexibility of choice that comes with that access.
Women can have children in their 20s or in their 40s, if they choose. The outcome of this choice is a broader, more diverse group of children who, despite their basic demographics, could not be more different from one another. And a broader, more diverse set of experiences will be influencing parents as well. A 42-year-old mother of a toddler will inevitably have a different perspective of the world than a mother in her mid-20s. So even marketing to “mothers” is not a simple task. It is important not to reduce a single customer to solely their generation or their job title.
This means that marketing to simply just “millennials” as a group might not be particularly effective anymore, when millennials are actually an enormous group with a wide variety of experiences, wants, and needs. A marketing campaign that works for one millennial might not work for another.
The fracturing, or “collapsing,” of traditional demographically driven insights is challenging for marketers, without question. But it also forces us to the difficult (and incredibly rewarding) work of moving beyond data and demographics into a place of much deeper sociocultural and psychological understanding of our consumers.
So, what is the future of generational insights? In our future state, will demographics represent meaningful, actionable intelligence? Perhaps not. In the future, we will require a more robust and agile toolbox in order to resonate with consumers.
Micro-targeting is already beginning to advance this acceleration, but it will require even more human connectivity to keep its inevitable “dark side” in check. So-called “lifestyle” brands will need to quickly instigate more authentic two-way conversations and stop pushing a veneer of affluence and perfection. (Gen Z isn’t buying it.)
And finally, Moore’s Law has been declared dead. If technology’s speed of change slows, will generational insight become meaningful once again, or will we have created a more sophisticated way to respond to consumer desire?
Rather than using basic generational insights, deep-dive behavioral segmentation is the key to understanding consumers. Marketing teams can and should use their data to understand the preferences of each generation and audience so that they can curate and execute a marketing strategy that transcends generations.