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Generational Insights and the Speed of Change

Generational Insights and the Speed of Change

Jennifer Murtell

illustration of generations of people

Looking 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, they 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 popular vernacular, and has been the basis for “generations” of targeting and marketing initiatives.

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, such as class, gender, race and education. More on this complexity later, but it’s easy to see why this cohesion, seen more cynically 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.

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Let’s consider the historical timeline of these social generations:

  • The Greatest Generation fought in WWII. They were born from 1901 to 1927; 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 1945–1965—increased birth rates were observed during the post-war baby boom, making them a significant demographic. Their timeframe is roughly 20 years.
  • Generation X (or Gen X for short) follow baby boomers. This generation is generally defined as people born between 1965 and 1980. In the U.S., some called Xers the “baby bust” generation due to the drop in birth rates—their time frame is roughly 15 years.
  • Millennials are the generation following Generation X who grew up around the turn of the millennium. The generation is widely accepted as having been born between 1981 and 1996; their time frame is roughly 15 years, but many analysts break this group into “Gen Y” or even “Xennials” (hybrid Gen X overlap or older millennials) and “true” millennials (younger and born closer to the turn of century).
  • Generation Z (or Gen Z, for short) are those succeeding the millennials. Late 1990s to early 2010s are their birth years, though this is fluid; their time frame is 15 years or less.
  • Generation Alpha (or Gen Alpha for short) follows Gen Z. Researchers typically use mid-2010s to mid-2020s as their birth years, though this is currently 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 their meaningful differences—motivations, aspirations, drivers, needs, barriers—might shift more quickly along with it. 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. 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, Scribd 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. 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 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.

This fracturing, or “collapsing” of traditional demographically driven insights is challenging, without question. But it also forces us to do 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.

In our future state, will demographics represent meaningful, actionable intelligence? Perhaps not. In this future state we will require a more robust and agile toolbox to resonate with consumers. Micro-targeting is already beginning to anticipate 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?

Photo by scusi courtesy of Adobe Stock.

As vice president of strategy, Asia Pacific, at Marks, part of SGS & Co, Jennifer Murtell leverages design thinking to solve business challenges, develops brand portfolio architecture, whitespace models and positioning for a variety of leading consumer packaged goods brands.