GraemeDr Graeme Codrington suggest that traditional segmentation models aimed at understanding the youth market fall short because they fail to see the impact of generational value shifts. In fact, he goes further to suggest that by combining lifestage theory, socio-economic indicators and generational overlays, you are able to gain insights into your market that would otherwise have been hidden. Sound complex? It’s actually remarkably simple.

When marketers and brand managers speak of the “youth market�, they often have the wrong thing in mind. No matter how complex their segmentation models are, if they do not take into account recent dramatic shifts in societal values, they are missing a vital ingredient for success.
Today’s young people are not just younger versions of their parents, nor are they 21st century copies of the 1960s or 80s teenagers. It is critical to accept that just because you were young once doesn’t mean that you understand today’s young people – they are from a different generation, and are young in a different century. They have access to different technologies and opportunities, have different stresses and expectations on them, a different outlook for the future, and a different set of values guiding their attitudes, motivations and behaviour.
Clever marketers use multiple segmentations to develop an holistic picture of their market. Increasingly, they are recognising the value of a generational view of their market. Generational theory is an underutilised but essential part of the toolkit for a correct understanding of young people, especially when looking at the youth market and assessing how young people respond to brands and communications.

Youth are the same as they’ve always been

Of course, traditional segmentations, based either on age or lifestage, are important. At one level, it’s true that children have always been children. And, as one of my marketing lecturers used to say, “you can always sell pimple cream to teenagers�. It is important not to discount issues to do with physical, emotional, mental and even spiritual development stages of life when dealing with young people, and understanding that all young people of all eras must go through them.
Consider this view of young people: “The children now love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for authority, they show disrespect to their elders…. They no longer rise when elders enter the room. They contradict their parents, chatter before company, gobble up dainties at the table, cross their legs, and are tyrants over their teachers.â€? Who said this? Your country’s Minister of Education, last week? Or an inner city preacher or parent from the 1960s? Actually, it is attributed to Socrates (470-399BC), bemoaning the young men of Athens, nearly 24 centuries ago.
Young people throughout the ages, it seems, have been an enigma to adults in general, and the cause of headaches for their parents in particular. This has become more and more of an issue for companies over the past few decades as they try and understand an increasingly important market space. Capture the hearts and souls of young people, and not only do you tap into an increasingly lucrative market with amazing amounts of cash to spend, but you also potentially create loyal customers into the future. It’s no surprise that marketers are keen to understand, model and exploit the youth demographic.

Youth have never been more different

As much as it is true that young people go through predictable stages of development, it is equally true that over the past hundred years or so, globalisation has caused social values to be “traded� between cultures around the world. The democratisation of publication, most recently through webpages, blogs and the ubiquitous text message, has allowed young people to develop values that are different from their parents. No longer are families the primary purveyors of cultural values – that task now rests progressively more with schools, magazines, movies, television, media, the Internet and diversity-rich friendship circles.
The best model to explain this shift in values is generation theory, which states that the era in which a person was born affects the development of their view of the world because our value systems are shaped in the first decade or so of our lives. In the past century, global forces were at work like never before, and therefore many people throughout the world have had similar experiences or have had to face similar situations at the same time. People of a similar age therefore share similar worldviews.

The Generations

Very simply put, generational theory views today’s work force as being made up of four distinct generations – the Veteran (or ‘Xuma’) generations (GI generation born 1900s to 20s, and the Silent generation born 1920s to 40s), the Boomers (or ‘Luthuli’ generation) (born late 1940s to 60s), the Xers (or ‘Uprising generation’) (born 1960s to 1980s), and the Millennial (or ‘Born Free’) generation (born late 1980s to present).
Veterans, especially Silent generation: Having experienced the tough times of the Great Depression and World War II in their defining youthful years, its no surprise that this generation is conservative, loyal, dedicated, put duty before pleasure, are respectful of position, cautious and frugal, amongst other qualities. In their youth, they were looking forward to finding a good job in a big company and staying there. The expectation was that the system would provide. Many of them left school to get menial jobs, and they have remained loyal to the products and companies they connected with early in life.
Boomers: Baby Boomers were told from an early age by their parents that they wanted them to “have all the things that we never had�. They were brought up to believe that they should change the world, have a vision and chase it, be bold and idealistic. Boomers have done just that. They remember youth as a glorious time of rebellion, freedom, vision and novelty. And they still think of themselves as “the young people�. They feel 22, even though they’re in their 40s and 50s, and they’re trying to give today’s young people all the things they wish they had had when they were young. It is both distressing and irritating for them that today’s young people don’t seem to want their stuff.
Gen Xers: Born during the globally chaotic 1970s and 80s, these young people soon realised that the adults really didn’t know what was going on in an age of political, economic, technological and social flux. It was obvious that the idealistic vision of the Boomers was showing cracks, and most Xers worked out early that the only person who can look after me, is me. The demand choice, need constant change, are not just cynical of authority but actually dismissive of it, and are thrill-seeking, experience-chasing, immediate gratification survivors.
Millennials: There has been a shift in recent years to children who are confident (so much so that they are arrogant), techno-savvy (they’re the Chief Technology Officers of their homes), street smart, and ambitious, with a civic mindedness and high esteem, and already well versed in networking and negotiation skills.
It is critical to understand that today’s young people, whilst still being youth, are nevertheless not the same as the youth of previous decades. Its not just that their music and clothing styles have changed, or that airtime is the new “parental briberyâ€? currency, or that they are more savvy and more connected than before – it’s that they actually have a new set of values.
They’re not just going through a phase. A new world is producing a new set of human beings, with new values. Across the world, people are beginning to see the impact of these new values in everything from the battle to get young people interested in politics and voting in elections, to attracting and retaining talented young staff, to successfully connecting with these cynical young people with your marketing communication and creating loyalty in them as customers.

A Three Dimensional Model

It might be helpful to conceptually integrate different segmentation approaches into a three dimensional cube. On one axis, picture socio-economic status (purchasing power as measured by indicators such as LSM groups). On the second axis, consider ethnographic characteristics, including lifestage and culture. On the final, third dimension axis, consider generational theory and the impact of societal shifts on the other two factors.
The use of such a model during the process of analysing any market segment, especially the “youth market� can be exceedingly helpful, as it assists one to confront some of the complexities of living in the reality of a world in constant change. As with any segmentation model, it over simplifies in order to be useful. Equally, it can be abused. A multi-faceted market segmentation model should be a servant, not a master. If they’re honest, most marketers will admit that there have been times when they have commissioned market research simply to cover themselves, and have “proof� for something they knew they were going to do anyway.
Generational theory provides a researched framework “overlayâ€? – or another dimension – to existing segmentation models. This is especially important when looking at the youth market, since it is in young people that generational shifts are most starkly noticeable. Building this sort of complexity into our view of today’s young people will keep us from making some huge errors in connecting with this critically important market segment.


Dr Graeme Codrington is the Head of Intellectual Capital at futurist consultancy,, and the author of best-selling, “Mind the Gap� (Penguin, 2004), an introduction to generational theory at work and home. He can be contacted at

TomorrowToday Global