The theory of generations has proven to be extremely popular in the mainstream media and with pop psychologists who have picked up on labels like Baby Boomers, Generation X and Gen Y as convenient ‘sound bites.’ Of course, common sense tells us that we live in a diverse society – a broad label could never accurately describe an entire generation. Thus, the more these labels are hyped, the more suspicious we become of how generational labels can be practically applied in business. This suspicion is well founded and ultimately has resulted in the generalisation of generations. In a business context it would be wasteful to use generations in a generalised manner.
To make a valuable impact to your business generational theory needs rigourous application and in-depth understanding and insights. A generation is defined as “the average interval of time between the birth of parents and the birth of their offspring.” This makes a generation approximately 20–25 years in time span. While in the past this may have served sociologists well, for marketers, using these parameters would be ineffectual. Unlike the definition sociologists use, TomorrowToday defines a generation as a group of people who:
– Grew up during the same economic, educational and technological times
– Were shaped by the same social markers and events.
– Now share the same life stage
– Share a common worldview / set of values
Using this definition, companies can identify key events (globally and locally) that were shaping and forming the mood in society during the formative years of the customers they are targeting. This makes the use of generations in business a far more effective and valuable marketing tool
The most important aspect in using generations as an effective marketing framework is to make generations “local.” This may seem obvious and yet we come across countless examples of companies applying generational frameworks in the UK using the more widely known American framework and dates. Doing this makes the application of generations irrelevant. As with any business and marketing tool, generations can only deliver value when supported by rigorous application and in-depth understanding of your local customer base.
When the media and most generational theorist use Generations they invariably use data and research coming out of the United States – Baby Boomers in the US are defined as people born between 1943 and 1960. Consider Bill Clinton, born in 1946, is the first Baby Boomer US president. He is a quintessential Baby Boomer – ambitious, driven, successful, image conscious and larger than life. Now compare him with Gordon Brown born in 1951. So is Gordon Brown also a Baby Boomer? Using the American dates for Baby Boomers the answer would automatically be yes, but this assumption fails to take into account the local events shaping and forming UK society in the early 1950′s. Our research shows that Gordon Brown actually displays values more closely aligned to the generation before the Boomers, the “Silent Generation”. The
reasons for these differences becomes clear when we look at the forces shaping society in the UK. Immediately after World War 2, economic prosperity and great optimism became the prevailing social mood and reality shaping personal and society’s values in the United States. In Europe and the UK the sense of euphoria following Victory in Europe was quickly replaced by the reality of rebuilding a war-ravaged continent. Rationing remained and it wasn’t until 1952 that the benefits from the Marshal Plan, which pumped over $13 billion of economic aid into European countries was felt. Our research shows that in the UK and Europe, only people born between 1953 – 1963 display what is considered typical Baby Boomer values. These were the cohort of people shaped by London in the swinging sixties. So when marketers talk about Baby Boomers retiring they are correct in the US but not in the UK. The UK is characterised by two distinct groups of Boomers those born during the post war-rebuilding Europe period of austerity 1945-1952 and those born into the post war economic boom period 1953-1964. The first group of Baby Boomers in the UK are very different to Baby Boomers in the US. Only UK Baby Boomers born after 1953 display values in line with those of US Baby Boomers. Point in case Tony Blair was born in 1953, has more in common with Bill Clinton than Gordon Brown.
These differences can be further explained when we include the concept of cuspers in the mix. A cusper is someone born during the change over period between one generation and the next. Social values and attitudes do not change immediately. Sometimes the change can be dramatic, but at other times social values change more slowly. In addition to this, some countries lead the social change and others lag behind.
The UK Baby Boomer cusper generation lasted longer than it did in the US and their values were shaped and formed by different events to their US counterparts. As a result of local events, the UK has a different type of Baby Boomer. Using the traditional US generational dates for both the UK and Europe makes absolutely no sense to companies working in Europe – or elsewhere around the world.
Dean van Leeuwen is a co-founder of TomorrowToday International a dynamic organisation that shows companies how to create workplaces where employees love to do their best work and customers love to do business. Dean is a highly sought after presenter and recognised expert on customer experience strategies and employee engagement. He is available to speak on this and other topics. Quote this blog and receive a 20% discount