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The Difference Between Age and Generation Comparisons

J. Walker Smith

Generations are misunderstood. As a consequence, generational analysis is disdained. No one argues that young and old are the same, only that differences are due to age or circumstances, not generation. Yet age and circumstances are precisely what generational analysis is all about. The things that make a generational cohort distinctive are the circumstances shared by members of that cohort as they were coming of age. In short, generations are about starting points.

Often, generations think or act in the same ways as one another. That is, they show no differences in the marketplace today. But these identical opinions and behaviors belie very different paths to arrive at the same place. Contrasting young and old today is an age comparison, not a generational or cohort comparison. Generations are about trajectories of belief and action that began at particular starting points. Generations may wind up in the same place, but they got there in different ways.


The relevant contrasts for generations are those comparing the opinions and behaviors of cohorts at comparable ages. A generational comparison of millenni‚Äčals versus boomers is not millennials today versus boomers today. Rather, it is millennials and boomers at comparable ages, which is boomers when they were 19 to 36 years old, or the ages of millennials today. Cohort comparisons like this spotlight differences in starting points, and thus provide insights into the trajectories that define the essence of a generational experience and mindset.


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J. Walker Smith is chief knowledge officer for brand and marketing at Kantar Consulting and co-author of four books, including Rocking the Ages. Follow him on Twitter at @jwalkersmith.‚Äč