Spotting the difference between a Baby Boomer and Generation Z – and why it matters for marketers

Hamish Pringle is strategic advisor at 23red, former IPA director general, and has had five successful business books published. With an agency career spanning 26 years, he’s worked on more than 50 brands.

I don’t know about you, but I find the life-stage segments of Generation s X, Y, Z, and so on – not to mention the Generation Y vs Millennials debate – confusing.

Every so often I read an article binning the term I’d got used to and lauding a new one. Currently ‘Generation Z’ is all the rage. And clearly it’s important to understand each new wave of people and draw inferences for their likely behaviour as customers and citizens. In particular it’s helpful for us to appreciate these evolving viewpoints, and consider how best to engage with them.

On reviewing history I was struck by the variations in the allocated timespans of these generational segmentations. Perhaps this isn’t surprising as these are marketing constructs based largely on research and insight. But I wondered if there was an underlying driver? If one could discern this, it would help us understand what has conditioned the up-bringing of the latest ‘Generation Z’, and thus their likely attitudes and behaviours.

Though not an exact science, overlaying the accepted generational segmentation on the long-term trend in UK GDP, we see a pretty good fit.

It seems that each generation’s world view has been affected strongly by the prevailing economic circumstances during which they were born and came of age. Clearly there are also other factors at work such as technological, social, and political developments, but the economic ones are more significant in shaping generations. For example, if young people are brought up by parents during tough times and there’s an increased chance of unemployment, then it’s likely to have a formative effect on them.

However, in order to make the case it’s important to run through the accepted generational segmentation since the Second World War and trace this ascent. In so doing, I’m indebted to William J. Schroer, author of ‘Generations X,Y, Z and the Others - Cont'd’, and Lucy Carlson, operations manager at 23 Red, amongst many other sources for input into this brief guide.

Post-War

Born: 1928-1945

Coming of Age: 1946 - 1963

Age in 2015: 70 - 87

  • Enjoyed opportunities in jobs and education during the beginnings of the post-war economic boom in the US and Europe.
  • However, the Cold War meant uncertainty. As a result they value security, comfort, and familiarity.
  • This generation witnessed the birth of the radio and TV era with the BBC having been founded in 1922, and ITV in 1955.
  • Many of this generation in the UK are sitting on significant property assets and have high levels of disposable income.

Baby Boomers 1

Born: 1946-1954

Coming of Age: 1964 - 1972

Age in 2015: 61 - 69

  • Consumerism really took off buoyed by the expansionist US economy and globalisation of many big US corporations.
  • Thousands of brands established: many still lead their categories.
  • Dramatic social change with the Vietnam War and Civil Rights protests, the hippy movement, drug culture, and the rise of feminism.
  • Elvis and The Beatles led a new era in popular music fuelled by Radio Luxembourg (1933), Radio Caroline (1964), and BBC Radio 1 (1967).
  • This dominant generation has in many ways defined the course of economic, social, and technological history ever since, and is only now beginning to run out of steam as it ages and retires.

Baby Boomers 2

Born: 1955-1965

Coming of Age: 1973-1983

Age in 2015: 50 to 60

  • The second segment of Baby Boomers is somewhat of a misnomer as they came of age in the recession of 1973-75, the ‘Three Day Week’, the Arab oil embargo, and the era of ‘stagflation’.
  • They still enjoyed the economic recovery of the late ‘80s but then were hit by ‘Black Friday’ and the property crash of 1989.
  • Commercial radio was born with over 100 licenses including Capital and LBC (1973). In 1983 the DynaTAC 8000x became the first commercially available mobile phone.
  • This generation reacted against the optimism of their predecessors and became more cynical as a result of political scandals like Watergate (1972).

Generation X

Born: 1966-1976

Coming of Age: 1984-1994

Age in 2015: 39 to 49

  • Their ‘Boomer’ parents both worked full time and often focused on their causes as much as their family. Divorce rates increased and single-parent families become normalised.

  • These ‘latch key’ children were educated within a strict ‘pass or fail’ culture in which parents usually sided with the school.
  • This led to this generation being independent and self-reliant, believing they have to work hard to reap rewards, but often lacking self-esteem.
  • They passed on this conscientiousness to their kids, who also inherited the birth of the World Wide Web in the early ‘90s.
  • In 1987 American Express registered ‘cause-related marketing’ as a trade mark, and cancelled it in 1993 as a gesture of goodwill.

Generation Y

Born: 1977-1994

Coming of Age: 1995-2012

Age in 2015: 21 to 38

  • Confusingly also referred to as ‘Millennials’, their parents still often both worked full time, but had much more focus on their children - ‘helicopter parenting’ is a new phenomenon.
  • Education is much more flexible and ‘everyone wins a prize’ is the new culture. This generation is nurtured, used to attention, and believes anything is possible: they have high self-esteem.
  • They are the online and social media generation: Amazon (1994), eBay (1995), Google (1998), Facebook (2004), and Twitter (2006).
  • As early adopters they are educating their parents and have become increasingly involved in research for family purchasing decisions.
  • They are concerned about the environment, gender equality, and other pressing social issues.

While there are any number of factors which could provoke another financial crisis, we can envisage a growing UK economy with improving employment prospects. This is the context in which those born between 1995 and 2012 are coming of age at 18, and we can already discern some likely characteristics as set out in the panel below.

‘Generation Z’

Born: 1995-2012

Coming of Age: 2013-2030

Age in 2015: 3 to 20

  • Have been ‘helicopter parented’. They have been insulated, scheduled, supervised, and supported (indulged?) to an unprecedented degree.
  • True digital natives they live in the media flow with unprecedented access through new technologies such as iPhone (2007).
  • They can invent avatars and try out personas via social media, gaming, virtual reality, live experiences and festivals.
  • They have learned they can’t rely on institutions for protection against terrorist attacks, financial crises and crimes, or environmental disasters.
  • They are coming of age in the sharing economy of brands like Airbnb (2008), Uber (2009), and in the era of the internet of things: Nest Learning Thermostat (2011), Whirlpool Wi-Fi Smart Appliance (2013).
  • Many are likely to be ‘caring capitalists’ combining entrepreneurial flair, with low cost digital means of production, and ethical concerns.
  • They care about brands that care.

Like the earlier cohorts, it’s probable that an increasing proportion of Generation Z will, in Maslow’s terms, seek ‘self-actualisation’. If so, then marketers can add the premium values and create engagement through genuine corporate social responsibility, and sincere cause-related marketing programmes.

Their rapid adoption of new technologies favours those brands which either innovate in these arenas, or harness the platforms and devices to communicate more effectively with Gen Z. Marketers can also relate more effectively to previous generations by appreciating the formative economic influences upon them, both as children and parents.

Hamish Pringle is strategic advisor to 23 Red

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