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What brands should know about 'New Conservatism' and why age is an outdated indicator of attitude and behaviour

Why you can't judge consumers based on age

Youth, rebellion and liberalism have traditionally gone hand in hand. Yet after completing a major new research study it is clear to us that age can no longer be taken as a short-cut to the attitudes, beliefs and motivations of any given age group. In fact, attitudes usually vary within the confines of a single demographic group more than they do across generations.

Marketers may well be forgiven for tiring of the cliché that 50% of advertising spend is wasted, you just don’t know which 50% that is. In fact, our ‘Generation Study’ showed that only 25% of consumers match a traditional age profile; posing the question is 75% of targeting wrong?

At the top of this demographic house of cards is Generation Z (those born in 2001 or later), who according to the research are – somewhat counter intuitively – far removed from youthful rebellion and are in fact the most conservative in living memory. Their attitudes and behaviour starkly defy traditional generational stereotypes.

Over half (59%) of Generation Z respondents describe their attitudes as being between ‘conservative’ and ‘moderate’ on issues including same-sex marriage, transgender rights and marijuana legislation. Look at the data at a superficial level and we conclude they’re a conservative generation. Look more deeply and yes, more than expected are conservative, but plenty are not; some are extremely liberal. It’s also important to bear in mind that they’re currently of an age where they’re exploring their opinions and attitudes, so much could change, very quickly.

So confusingly, Generation Z is conservative but also liberal and changing.

Whilst we uncovered conservatism among Generation Z, we also discovered a much broader group of consumers espousing more traditional values – social conservatism, respect for authority, more conventional media channels, and an emphasis on family and health. While over a third of them are over 65, just under a quarter of them are 35 or under. Lumping Generation Z into one group makes far less sense than grouping people together by attitude.

The research revealed that 26% of Generation Z in fact fit into what we call ‘pragmatic moderates’ in that they are reliable, honest, hardworking, with strong family and community values. Alongside millennials (32%) Generation Y (28%) and Baby Boomers (14%) these consumers prefer order and structure to individualistic exploration and uncertainty.

A flawed system

We face a similar issue when we look at millennials - all too often a one-size fits all label for a myriad of different clichés, which have little or nothing to do with the true motivations and behaviours of this cohort.

The term millennial audience has become a lazy shorthand for some vague notion of achingly cool, social media savvy 20-somethings who are embracing the sharing economy and see authenticity and purpose as the ultimate motivators. However, research showed that in fact many traits traditionally prescribed to millennials span behaviours of the broader population. We identified the emergence of a cross-generational cohort; the ‘Metropolitan Ultraliberals’ made up of 17% Generation Z, 48% millennial, 25% Generation X and 11% Baby Boomer, who hold extremely liberal world views and respect pluralism and diversity.

As Generation Z comes to the fore, all signs suggest that lazy stereotyping is an even bigger issue than we thought it was. For, as the media furore surrounding the fact that young people overwhelmingly voted to remain in the EU, focusing on what divides generations rather than the common bonds that transcend the often false boundaries of age can pay dividends for brands.

For example, research showed that attitudes to technology proved to be a cross-generational commonality. When asked to describe their relationship with technology, just under half of silent generation respondents, those born 1945 or earlier, stated they could not imagine their life without the internet, their laptop or mobile (48%), yet they would not describe themselves as a tech enthusiast. Digital natives Generation Z were most likely to say they ‘couldn’t live without it’ (27%).

From millennials to mindsets

We all want to reach a deeper understanding of the attitudes, lifestyles, motivations and hopes and fears of our consumers. The danger is our industry’s fixation with ‘media sound bite’ consumer classifications, which at their core are age and demographic based, reinforces imagined generational divides that are at best out of date and at worst actively misleading.

At a time of unrelenting change, truly understanding consumer motivations has never been more important. To do this we need to ditch the stereotype of age once and for all and focus on the underlying attitudes. The current model of demographic targeting is no longer fit for purpose.

Andrew Mulholland is managing director at The Gild

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