“Men resemble their times more than they do their fathers”-Marc Bloch
We are formed by our experiences, particularly in childhood, and shared experiences are likely to mould us in similar directions. That, in a nutshell, is generational theory. I'm going to discuss the evidence, some from our own research, about the impact that generational differences have on the behaviour, values and motivations of your customers and staff. I'll end with some thoughts about what generational theory has to tell us about the future of management, customer service, and marketing. But first, I want to put Marc Bloch's idea to the test.
Do I resemble my father?
My dad is 80 this year. He was born, in April 1931, at number 26 Greenwich South Street, a Victorian terrace pretty much like this one. In some respects we're very similar, but there are times when I wonder if he was born on a different planet. Like the times when he eats out-of-date food, just so it doesn't go to waste. Or when he spends half an hour driving around in order to find somewhere to park without paying. Or the times he goes into the bank and queues for a teller to draw money out, rather than using the ATM.
In some ways he was born on a different planet. London was a very different place in 1931.The pub his grandmother used to own, the Blue Eyed Maid on Borough High Street, is still there...but it didn't serve curry out of the top floor in 1931!
The southeast wasn't affected by the Great Depression as much as the North, but the country as a whole was suffering. These were hard times, but also times when innovations in technology and manufacturing where changing the world rapidly (not always without mishap).
My dad was staying with his uncle on a farm in Suffolk when the war broke out, and his parents decided it would be safest if he stayed there. By 1940 Suffolk didn't seem so safe, and he was packed off to relatives in Wales during Dunkirk week (sharing a packed train with kitless soldiers fresh off the "little ships"). The rest of the war was pretty remote for a kid in Wales, but its effects were all-encompassing. Rationing was in force, men were off at war and women were increasingly called into work to replace them. Duty and self-sacrifice were everywhere.
So that's a potted biography of my dad's formative years, does it help us to understand him? I think so. It's not just my dad who will go to silly lengths to avoid waste - most people probably recognise that in parents or grandparents who went through the same things. We can trace the roots of it to a childhood spent during the Great Depression, rationing and war. Like most people of his generation, he worked for one company for most of his adult life. Those values of duty, loyalty, respect for authority are also pretty universal; and again we can trace their roots to shared experiences of war, national service and a nation pulling together. My dad's generation is known as the "silent generation" (a little bit unfairly). They're self-sacrificing, hard-working, conformist, law-abiding, patient, and above all they hate waste!
The silent generation:
- “Waste not, want not”
Let the good times roll
But what came next? Well, if we look at population broken down by year of birth, we can see a spike after the war, and then a bulge in the 1960s (and the bulge comes sooner in the US).
Why? Because after a tough couple of decades, things were pretty good. Rationing was phased out, men were home from war, women were getting used to an unprecedented amount of freedom. The result was a baby boom, and the vast generation it spawned are still known as "baby boomers".
Boomers are the engines of most of the exciting companies in the world at the moment. Steve Jobs is almost the archetypal boomer. Too independent to be content working for other people, boomers start companies. Why are boomers so relentlessly driven, so entrepreneurial, so confident? They were moulded by good times.
Strauss and Howe, the historians most associated with Generational theory, believe that history can be described as a cycle of Crises (happening about every 80 years) and Awakenings. Where you were born in relation to these crises shapes your values, so generations too have a cycle of four archetypes.
The Silent Generation, born during the Crisis of war and depression, conform to the "Artist" archetype. But for the Boomers, war and depression were in the past. Science and medicine (driven partly by war) were delivering faster than at any other time in history. Teenage boomers were healthier, richer, happier and safer than anyone had ever been.
- Grew up in time of affluence
- “You never had it so good”
- Sex, drugs, rock and roll
- Personal gratification
Unique? Not according to Strauss and Howe. The generation born after a crisis fits the "Prophet" archetype. Self-absorbed but idealistic, they change the way society thinks. Utopia was round the corner...or was it?
The lost generation?
The next stage in the cycle is a "Nomad" generaton-Generation X. In many ways each generation is the product of the flaws of the generation "in charge" during its youth. For Xers, that mainly means the Silent Generation. So not only do I not resemble my father, my values are exactly opposed to his in some respects. This accounts for a big part of the cyclical nature of generations.
So what are we Gen Xers like? Well, by and large we distrust authority, we don't expect careers to be spent with one company. We don't believe in paying our dues, we want rewards now (although we are prepared to work hard for them in the short term!). Our defining feature is our need for individuality, cutomisation and self-expression. Brands love Xers and Xers love brands.
- Children of busy (divorced?) parents
- Distrust leaders/authority
- Career insecurity
- AIDS instead of free love
The new boom?
Now we turn to the final generation of people you could broadly descibe as "adults" today. Gen Y, or Millenials, grew up in a post Cold War world of increased optimism and global connectedness. Nurtured and protected in childhood, they can be confident to the point of arrogance. They demand a rationale for any request or instruction ("because I said so" is not going to cut it). Millenials are a "Hero" generation, and we can expect them to be dominant and vigorous like the Boomers (unlike the "Recessive" Gen X and Silent Generation).
- Prolonged youth
- Integrated with technology
- “Because I said so” doesn’t work
So that brings us full circle, back to another Crisis and another "Artist" generation. It's worth thinking, as you watch the news and think about social trends, about the effect events may have on the Generation being moulded by them now. What are we doing to our children? Philip Larkin had something to say [NSFW] about that!
So what does it all mean?
Where does that leave us?The graphic below is a quick summary of the proportion of the adult population made up of each generation, which life stage they stand at right now, and how much disposable income they're likely to have.
The Silent Generation has mostly retired from the world of work, and perhaps we tend to forget about them as customers too? But they're very much still there, and they have siginificant spending power if you can find the formula that appeals to them. Boomers are still on top right now, but they're beginning to move into retirement (major implications for "silver" spend!) and Gen X is starting to take over the reigns. There may not be as many Gen Xers, but we love brands and gadgets and if you can help us to express ourselves you'll be onto a winner. Co-creation is a very Gen X-friendly concept. The key to appealing to Gen Y is to make things social - networks and friends are significant to them...and they love causes.
Generations and behaviour
Let's look at how generational values shape the way people respond to technology. Gen Y have grown up with computers...but being "digital natives" doesn't mean they're tech-savvy, far from it. They probably know less about how computers work than their parents. The difference is that technology is embedded in their lives. They don't "go on the internet" to "look something up" any more than a boomer "goes on" their watch to "look up" the time.
In terms of online behaviour, there's a clear split between Gen Y and Gen X on one hand, and Boomers and the Silent Generation on the other. 50% of Xs and Ys on our panel own a smartphone, only 23% of the Boomers do. Gen X use the internet, like everything else, to express their individuality. Gen Y use it socially, with 3/4 of them on our panel having updated their Facebook status in the last week.
I think the difference between the generations is captured well by some advice I've seen on designing a website. Gen Y want it to be fun, or they'll lose interest. Gen X want it to be customisable, so they can express their individuality. Boomers want it to be useful. The interesting thing is that, at the moment, most sites are designed by Gen X. I wonder if they're factoring in the needs of other Generations? How does this bias feature in product and service design more generally?
Generations in the workplace
What are the implications for the world of work? The first one is that the peak of Gen Y is beginning to make itself felt in organisations. Their filters are more efficient than other generations, and they've been trained to believe that they're special. They're not used to waiting, and they don't see why they should listen to you...unless you can convince them you're worth listening to. That's the trend that everyone's talking about, this alien race of Millenials. But I think the real question is how all generations deal with each other, particularly when it comes to motivations and the management styles that work. Yes it's important to understand that, for Gen Y, you might as well cut off their arm as cut off their Facebook access. But likewise, you need to know that Xers will want to put their own personal stamp on a project.
Generations as customers
What about customers? Well, there are obvious things like preferred channels and forms of address, but there are also more subtle considerations. Our panel research showed a shift in where people turn to for advice on buying products, with older generations more likely to use "authorities" such as Which? or professional reviews. Gen X&Y are more likely to turn to other customers in the case of X, or friends and networks in the case of Y.
Wrapping it all up - how do we use generational theory?
So, time for some final recommendations. In terms of marketing, and research, the most obvious start is to use generations in place of the classic demographic age bands (18-24,25-34 and so on). With that as a basis you can start to explore the impact that core generational values have on the way your customers and employees relate to the business (and each other) and what they want from you. Share this understanding with your staff; put it on the agenda; design products and services with different generations in mind (or be very clear who you're targeting).
Do you need a Gen Y voice on the board? Maybe, but I think it's more important that your whole board has the brains to see that everyone in the world is not just like them. It sounds obvious, but this takes conscious work. It's really difficult to believe that anyone could be so stupid as to see the world differently to us, particularly if we're surrounded by like-minded people. The problem is that the people running companies are mostly one generation, while the people doing the work (and meeting customers) are another. No wonder we all think our bosses/underlings don't get it.
“The philosophy of the school room in one generation will be the philosophy of government in the next”-Abraham Lincoln
Generational theory not only gives you a framework that helps you to understand your customers better, it may give us an insight into the future. Are we just coming into another crisis? Will the next generation be much like my Dad's generation: anti-waste and pro-saving before you spend? It looks like they might be. Generational Theory is powerful not when you use it to spin just-so stories about the past, but when you use it give you insight into what the future might look like.