These are the kind of discussions we have with clients just about every month these days. Digging into available research just amplifies the confusion around generational definitions. This was also the experience of Ted Schadler at Forrester, "…the more we looked, the more we realized that nobody f*@#*' knows…" 1
So who creates these names and who is the generational expert out there?
It all started with a book I received on my 33rd birthday, Generation X. Coupland seems to have borrowed a term first used by photographer Robert Capa in the 50's to describe young people growing up just after WWII. Coupland, born in 1961, told the story of young adults in the late 80’s, suggesting birth dates in late 60's to early 70’s.
In the 90's and 2000's, marketers continued to use (incorrectly?) Gen X term to describe 18-30 years old youth, even though the characters in Coupland's book would have all been over 30 by the year 2000.
Who coined the term Gen Y is not really clear, but marketers, demographers and media jumped on it to continue with the generational alphabetization. Soon thereafter, the Gen Y term changed to Millennials, though they are not always considered the same. According to The Wire, "Generation Y is a fake, made-up thing." 2 Whatever you call it, this group is generally seen as today's 18-30 year olds (roughly born early 80's - late 90's), though age definitions vary as much as 10+ years.
Today, we are realizing that a new generation with different values is emerging, and everyone is jumping on the naming and definition bandwagon. They are called everything from Gen Edge, Gen Z, Gen Katniss, Digital Natives, iGeneration, Gen Next, etc. Worse than the implications of inconsistent naming is the wide gap in the definitions – these seem to be consumers that are infants to as old as 23 today.
The exception to all this has always been the Boomers, who are largely recognized as a distinct generation (born 1946 - 1964) based around significant world events that helped shape this generation. (Boomers are the only generational group recognized by the US Census Bureau by name). Which means that Coupland, self-defined as Gen X, is actually of the tale end of Boomers.
So what does this mean for us as marketers, researchers and brand managers?
1. Given no standards, clearly define the age grouping you mean when you use a generational term.
2. Remember that values of youth are a function of the social, economical, cultural and political environment they are raised in and as such, it is the year of birth, not the label, that is key for appropriate targeting.
3. Be creative, generate your own term to define a group of your target with similar ages and values - why not, everyone else is doing it.
This article was written in conjunction with Chris Thomas of Thomas Market Insights. Here are pictures of us from 1982, which generation would you put each of us in?
1 - http://blogs.forrester.com/ted_schadler/09-09-15-defining_generations_based_technology_era
2 - http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2014/03/here-is-when-each-generation-begins-and-ends-according-to-facts/359589/