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Older men in a choir

Don’t talk to me about boomers: exploding the myth of adult generations

Many people oversimplify when they talk about age cohorts like ‘baby-boomers’ and ‘Gen X-ers’, which can lead to misconceptions about how people of ‘a certain age’ think and behave.

Kate Downer, Research Director at Breaking Blue Research, explores different ways of segmenting across ‘micro-generations’ to get a clear picture of later life.

When did you last see or hear the word 'Millennial'? Probably pretty recently, especially if you have any interest in consumer culture, employment issues, societal trends or marketing. Ditto the terms 'Boomer' and 'Generation X'.

Just in case you need a reminder, we tend to talk about three adult generations within society today. 'Baby Boomers' born between 1946 and 1964; 'Generation X' (1965 to 1980); and 'Millennials' (1981 to 1996). While these ranges are from GoSocial, a quick literature search will highlight the lack of consensus on the exact start and finish dates for each generation.

And that’s just one of the problems.

It’s obvious that these strict splits don’t represent reality. Indeed, others have recognised the crudity of these divisions – and suggested micro-generations. Xennials, Old Millennials, Young Millennials, Early Boomers, Generation Jones. But let’s leave subdivision aside and focus on the key groups.

First the Millennials. There are an awful lot of provocative assertions about this group. For example, that they’re ‘highly social,’ and ‘socialise while consuming products and services’. Shall we assume everyone over 35 stays home with their pipe and slippers? Millennials, apparently, ‘expect technology to simply work – so you’d better make sure it does.’ None of the Boomers we know would dream of putting up with poor tech that doesn’t work.

Generation X are now aged between about 37 and 53, and commentary tends to focus less on them than it does on the generations above and below. In fact, Google ‘Generation X’ and you’ll find various 'Hey, what about me?' articles by X-ers who feel neglected.

A stereotypical X-er will be family oriented, financially responsible and self-reliant.

It’s true that for those who have children, families are typically formed in the years between mid-30s and mid-50s. But many people, for many reasons, are choosing not to have a family. And clearly the presence, or absence, of children will make a huge difference to needs, priorities and perspective. As researchers, and as policy influencers, do we give enough attention to the consequences of this, or acknowledge that we might be neglecting a group?

And how often do we forget that nearly a quarter of working adults under 35 still live with their parents?

Finally, we have the Baby Boomers. It’s widely communicated that Boomers have significant disposable income and are, therefore, a segment for marketers to embrace. We’re consistently told they’re the wealthiest, most active and most physically fit generation up to the era in which they arrived.

Beware sweeping demographic generalisations. Don’t assume that ‘oldness equals sameness.’
Talking ‘bout the generations

You probably already know that this is a big oversimplification. The higher Boomer age groups especially display huge disparity. Multiple factors drive that: wealth and financial capability, health and housing, to name a few.

This is a cohort that simply can’t be ignored: over 65s account for nearly 20% of the UK population, and that’s set to increase dramatically, to nearly 25% by 2046.

But we should never assume the members of a segment based on demographics are all the same. A person’s attitudes towards food and drink, clothing, personal care, diet and exercise, financial products and technology will vary among Boomers – just as it will within the Millennials and Generation X.   

If we aren’t going to use these crude generational labels, how should we seek to understand and target different groups? Over the years, many alternative models have come and gone, but none has replaced demographics as a mainstream framework.

Geodemographic models like MOSAIC can be useful for some forms of targeting, but not everyone in a specific group conforms exactly to what is typical of it. The sheer number of MOSAIC types also makes it difficult to grasp them quickly.  

Some companies have developed bespoke segmentations, based on one aspect of people’s lives – for example their digital savviness.

While these can be useful, they can also be too broad, or too tightly focused on their own specific offer to be useful elsewhere.

It seems clear that the most relevant, and the most powerful, way to understand users of a particular brand or service, of consumers at large, and of society in its widest sense, is to create a segmentation of your own.

But beware sweeping demographic generalisations. Don’t assume that 'oldness equals sameness.'

And be very, very careful with labels.