How We Get Generations Wrong

The idea of a generation isn’t actually meant to be a label. No one who studies the topic considers your generation to be what you are or expects all individuals in it to think or act the same. That’s not the point at all.

Thinking about Millennials a couple weeks ago got me deep into a sidetrack: What the heck is a generation, anyway?

The idea of a generation isn’t actually meant to be a label. No one who studies the topic considers your generation to be what you are or expects all individuals in it to think or act the same way. That’s not the point at all.

That’s why when you start talking about “Millennials” in a room that actually has some, the first thing you hear is “Hey, we’re not all the same!” They’re not alone, “Doesn’t feel like they’re part of a generation” is one of Gen X’s iconic traits.

So what is this idea that describes people even when they swear it doesn’t?

What Makes Your generation Unique?
How the generations think of themselves. (Circa. 2010)

Generations are really a shorthand way to think about the shared experiences different age groups have had, and the way those have influenced many in that group.

Some things are unique compared to the other generations: The Vietnam War and the draft for Baby Boomers, broken homes and latchkey kids in Gen X, or growing up with smartphones while graduating over-indebted and underemployed for Millennials.

Other experiences echo in different forms for each generation: The John F. Kennedy assassination, the Challenger disaster and 9/11 serve as similarly dark, childhood/teen traumas for each respective generation.

When computers and the Internet emerged, and what they meant on a personal level, was different for each generation too. For the Baby Boomers, computers were technical disruptors of their adult lives (though not necessarily unwelcome). For Gen X, they were the cutting edge tech as they entered the workforce, and a good handhold to climb into the workforce. For Millennials, they’ve been a constant feature since childhood, no more exceptional than TV or the refrigerator.

What if this generation's dad humor is just washed-up Internet memes?
This! … actually really worries me.

Regardless of the different shared experiences, though, some age-based traits are constant. Younger workers as a whole always seem lazy, disinterested in work, and distant from their elders. That’s not a generational trait, that’s just how young people in any age enter the workforce. Not every young person, but enough that elder generations notice and complain about it, so these adjectives get attached to every new generation.

New workers don’t necessarily understand how to get along in the work environment yet; that’s just what it means to be new and inexperienced. (Frankly,  I’m just shocked the people who say it about Millennials now don’t remember hearing it about their cohort when they were young.)

The thing to remember is this: A generation isn’t a label, a category or a demographic. It’s more like a type of behavioral targeting. It’s studying how people react to their lives, and praxis is figuring out what that means to your marketing. It’s real people, and the specific events they experienced. Don’t focus on who you think that makes them, just focus on what you know: What they’ve been through and how they’ve reacted to that.

Understanding that is the difference between creating ads that speak to your target market in a specific generation, and ads that blatantly pander and make them mock you.

Author: Thorin McGee

Thorin McGee is editor-in-chief and content director of Target Marketing and oversees editorial direction and product development for the magazine, website and other channels.

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