In my last post, I discussed how age cohorts may have a major impact on the future of baseball in America. As a result, I’ve paid more attention to cohorts (Generation X, Millennials, etc.) in my daily peregrinations.
Enter Count Leo Tolstoy, whose War And Peace I’ve been reading. (Yes, I’m reading a hoity-toity classic; it’s cheaper and has a greater chance of being worthwhile than trying my luck with new books.) This quote stopped me in my tracks:
…mentioning “our days” as people of limited intelligence are fond of doing, imagining that they have discovered an appraised the peculiarities of “our days” and that human characteristics change with the times. (translation by Aylmer Maude; emphasis by me)
In other words, Count Leo considers a fool anyone who believes that generations differ fundamentally from one to the next. Should we agree with him?
I can’t tell you how many white papers, presentations, videos, infographics, articles and other pieces of content I’ve seen about The Greatest Generation, the Silent Generation, Baby Boomers, Gen X, Gen Y/Millennials and segment-to-be-named-later (Gen Z seems to be the lead if uninspiring choice). Hell, I may have even contributed to a cohort POV at some point.
Obviously, times change and people change with them. Kids don’t wear poodle skirts anymore, except maybe in Bushwick or whatever former hellhole they’re gentrifying in Kings County. Baby Boomers didn’t play Angry Birds growing up because, of course, it didn’t exist then.
OK, Betty Draper played Angry Birds, but she was a Silent Generation kid
However, how many times do you need to read an article with the lead sentence “[generation of the moment] aren’t like their parents?”
Here’s the problem: marketers tend to focus on a generation when they start to amass substantial buying power. This milestone generally happens in their early to mid teens and continues to grow for another 20-30 years.
Probably the last time I’ll post anything from the Brookings Institute, but you never know
Of course, marketers generally stop paying attention to a cohort when they reach their late 20s or early 30s because, conventional wisdom holds, they’ve made up their minds on brands forever by then. Conventional wisdom doesn’t work anymore, but that’s a topic for another time.
However, consider for a moment what else happens to people in the mid teens to late 20s. At this age, people tend to define themselves as individuals. And how does someone define himself or herself? Chiefly, by differentiating himself or herself from one’s parents and other adult authority figures.
In short, every successive generation seems weird and different to its predecessors’ generations because of this differentiation. Boomers questioned the authority of the Greatest Generation. Xers came to the sullen conclusion that authority didn’t work for them. Millennials demanded that authority let them bring their dogs to work. Or something like that.
Of course, attitudes do change over time. After all, women vote, Madonna doesn’t wear the cone bra anymore and sometimes we let gay people marry. However, people still have a reasonably constant set of needs: food and shelter, comfort and self-determination. OK, maybe you have a better construct than Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, but I don’t.
Putting excretion last in terms of physiological needs implies that Maslow was in his 20s when he came up with the idea
So do we need a Thunderdome-style face-off between Tolstoy and Maslow?
Let’s not get crazy, even if that would be wicked cool. As a sensible starting point, brands probably would benefit more from understanding how they can align with young consumers’ need to assert their identities than from understanding whether a given age group likes to drink beer or alcopops.
In other words, focus on the context in whic a given cohort builds identity rather than focusing on transient fads.
It’s worth noting that Tolstoy wrote his great novel during the mid-19th century when he felt a deep cynicism about Czarist Russia. He saw the aristocracy’s tepid embrace of Western ideas as too weak to keep Russia from falling apart. In cohort terms, those toffs realized too late exactly how much the next generation of peasants would reject authority.