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.

Supremely Better: A Multi-Generational Workplace

Personally and professionally, I get a lift from counting among my colleagues Baby Boomers, Generation Xers and Millennials — and I definitely am more aware by encountering, engaging and collaborating with each, individually and collectively.

I’ve never enjoyed hanging out solely with people just of my age group.

Personally and professionally, I get a lift from counting among my colleagues Baby Boomers, Generation Xers and Millennials — and I definitely am more aware by encountering, engaging and collaborating with each, individually and collectively. And that’s just counting “age” as diversity. There are many other components of diversity: gender, race, religion, politics, geography, national origin, veteran status — but I’ll focus on age here.

Mentoring is increasingly a two-way street, and even better a hub-and-spoke. As seasoned marketing and communications professionals, we have a lot of experience to share. But better believe it, I learn every day from younger colleagues — and I appreciate every lesson I get. Likewise, there’s always someone with more experiences (or different experiences) to keep an open door to. Here, too, I sponge. Simply said, there’s very little to “grow” by surrounding yourself with people exactly like yourself.

Yes, there’s community in like-mindedness.  But even recognizing like-mindedness means continually challenging and exploring other points of view.

Here’s What I Learned in 2015….
• Student debt is burdensome: There’s no sense in comparing your experiences as a Boomer new graduate years ago to those entering the workforce today. Unless someone enjoys a full-tilt academic or athletic scholarship, chances are young adults are carrying a hefty amount of student debt.

Education inflation has far outstripped the cost of living — college costs today are a world away from what I experienced just three decades ago. As a result, very few grads can stand on their own at 21, even if they want to. Few starting salaries allow them to live on their own, while repaying debt. Families with grown children are staying together for longer, as an economic reality, at least financially so.

Is there a professional takeaway here? I’m not altogether sure how this affects risk-taking, or the timing to pursue advanced degrees, but the zeal to contribute in the workplace, and receive commensurate compensation, is perhaps heightened.

• You really don’t [have to] retire: On the other scale, woe to any business that sends senior execs packing prematurely. Some businesses might offer early retirement packages to move more expensive workers off payroll, or just lay folks off — but are they harnessing all that experience before they do so? Is there a knowledge sustainability plan? “Peak earning years” must translate to “peak productivity” — the dynamics of business no longer allow anyone to rest on his or her laurels and nominally contribute.

Alternatively, I’ve come across more and more firms who are “hiring back” would-be company retirees as contractors, and as project and long-term consultants. For the aging, many of whom have under-saved for retirement, this removes the shock of a suddenly missing paycheck and a perception of being no longer valued, enabling them to contribute to business growth while softening the financial blow. For business, where experience is a teacher, common mistakes of the under-experienced are avoided. The bell curve of post-peak earnings, and the idea of “retirement” are being redefined, out of necessity.

• Mentoring should be bi- or omni-directional: When a project team, or workplace environment, is cross-generational, there will be better outcomes. In marketing, where target audiences may involve one or more age (or other) demographics, it simply makes for a more informed strategy to have architects who share personal knowledge and experiences of the market. So older teaches younger, vice versa, with in-betweens, too. I know of agencies pitching new businesses who ensure such diversity is “built” into the campaign planning team. That’s smart.

Here’s to a healthful, prosperous New Year, at any age.

Why Don’t Millennials Use Cash?

When’s the last time you saw a Millennial pay with cash? Even convenience store purchases of less than $5 are paid with a debit card. Coffee in Starbucks is paid via cell phone. Money is exchanged between friends using PayPal and Venmo.

As I paid a dinner check, my Millennial daughter affectionately quipped, “You old people and your cash!”

My response was, “Everybody likes cash!” I was wrong of course, (and perhaps prejudiced by my South Philly roots, where some businesses are still “cash only” for one reason or another).

When’s the last time you saw a Millennial pay with cash? Even convenience store purchases of less than $5 are paid with a debit card. Coffee in Starbucks is paid via cell phone. Money is exchanged between friends using PayPal and Venmo.

Many of the Millennials I give birthday gifts to prefer gift cards to specific retailers, like Home Depot or Banana Republic, rather than cash that they can spend anywhere.

A survey by TD Bank of 1,300 Americans, reported in ABA Bank Marketing last month, found that 25 percent of Americans either currently use or have used a reloadable prepaid card in the past two to three years. But among Millennials (ages 18 to 34), this proportion jumps to 33 percent. According to FICO, more than one-third of Millennials are expected to use a mobile wallet in 2015. (Opens as a PDF)

Professor Bernardo Batiz-Lazo of Bangor University, Wales, speculates that Millennials’ predisposition for non-cash transactions could eventually result in the demise of ATMs. His blog post reprinted by Newstex last month states:

“Perhaps the biggest issue shaping ATMs in the near future will concern the choices of Millennials, those for whom the Internet, mobile phones and plastic cards are a fact of life, checks are unknown and cash is quaint. They challenge financial institutions and their business models to do more, faster because they have easier and faster access to better technology than offered by the banks’ legacy systems through the multitude of apps on their smartphones, wearables, tablets and elsewhere. Left to their own devices, Millennials could spell the end of the ATM by 2035 or thereafter.”

Now of course the use of electronic payment methods is not limited to just Millennials. Boomers and Silents are also moving away from cash transactions, but Millennials are certainly leading the charge. If your business requires a minimum purchase to use a card, you’re probably losing customers among the largest demographic group. Millennials represent 24.6 percent of the population vs. 23.3 percent for the Baby Boomers.

I’m waiting to see the first panhandler with a card reader. Let me know if you spot one.

Baby Boomers, Gen Y Embrace Personalized Online Ads

This past week, I came across a new study by Q Interactive, an advertising network specializing in predictive behavioral targeting. It found Generation Y Americans (individuals born between 1982 and 1995) and baby boomers (individuals born between 1946 and 1964) are the two most active generations, with the greatest willingness to provide information online in exchange for more personalized advertising.

This past week, I came across a new study by Q Interactive, an advertising network specializing in predictive behavioral targeting. It found Generation Y Americans (individuals born between 1982 and 1995) and baby boomers (individuals born between 1946 and 1964) are the two most active generations, with the greatest willingness to provide information online in exchange for more personalized advertising.

The study’s core finding showed that when given the choice, 63 percent of Gen Yers would provide personal data in exchange for targeted advertising. In addition, 53 percent of baby boomers would do the same.

The study surveyed more than 1,500 consumers on their feelings about targeted online advertising, and these groups had the highest percentages.

“The findings were surprising to us, because they go against a lot of perceptions advertisers have about what consumers will provide in order to receive personalized advertising,” Q Interactive’s President/CEO Matt Wise told me this week.

It’s little surprise that Gen Yers are used to providing personal information on social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace, Wise said.

But baby boomers’ comfort with providing this type of information online was more surprising, Wise said. “Baby boomers finally really understand the value proposition of offering personal information online in exchange for something now,” he said. “If we surveyed them in 1999, I’m sure we would have gotten a different response.”

The study also found consumers, as a whole, value online advertising targeted to their individual needs and interests. Additional findings from the survey included the following:

  • 56 percent view advertisers “favorably” when ads are tailored to a personal interest; and
  • approximately one in three Gen Yers and baby boomers feel more relevant ads tailored to personal interests improve their online experiences.

So, if you’re targeting either Gen Y or baby boomers, try testing a program that offers more personalized advertising in exchange for their information. But make sure you do it the right way by following behavioral targeting best practices.