The “America’s largest generation” ping pong game
For a few years at least we knew the birth years that define the Millennial Generation.
In 2015, after a decade of confusion and conflicting opinions, the U.S. Census Bureau stepped into the debate and settled on people born 1982-2000. That made the Millennials America’s most numerous generation. The press release sent sales of celebratory avocado toast and soy lattes soaring …
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE JUNE 25, 2015 –Millennials, or America’s youth born between 1982 and 2000, now number 83.1 million and represent more than one quarter of the nation’s population. Their size exceeds that of the 75.4 million baby boomers, according to new U.S. Census Bureau estimates released today.
But earlier this month, along came The Pew Research Center with a new take.
Instead of 19 birth years the Millennials were reduced to 16, now pegged by as Pew as born 1981-1996. Like other generation trackers, Pew uses seminal events as touchstones to derive definitions – awareness of the 9/11 terrorist attacks (2001) was an important factor in their new assessment.
After grabbing former Gen Xers born in 1981 and lopping off those born 1997-2000, the Millennial Generation shrank by 12 million members.
For Boomers, this was a cowabunga! moment: at 74-75 million, they now outnumber the Millennials (71 million) and reclaim their bragging rights as the largest U.S. generation.
” Yo, Windsong, put a shot of Boone’s Farm Strawberry Hill in the Maalox tonight. Make it two, we’re celebrating.
Generation X defined: at last
These gyrations have important implications for Gen Xers; although the Boomers birth years have been long set in stone (1946-1964), they were allocated constantly changing names and age ranges.
Broadscale media and marketing use of generational labels didn’t hit a tipping point until the mid-1980s; the youngest Boomers had just entered their twenties, those at the midpoint were around thirty and the oldest turned forty. Boomer star power was – still is – so strong, so cool and/or so annoying that it hogged the national conversation for decades, throughout what should have been Gen X’s time to shine, right up until their rebellious Millennial kids shoved their way into the clickbait spotlight.
Trapped in a definitional no man’s land, until the Census Bureau’s 2015 pronouncement, the only Gen X certainty was that they arrived in 1965, the year after the last Boomers were born. The generation’s end point skittered around, determined by the various birth ranges du jour allotted to the trendy Millennials by a small army of competing gurus hustling for headlines.
Here are a few previous Gen X age ranges lurking in Google’s attic; in some cases they barely transitioned from Barbie, G.I. Joe and training wheels to a Stingray before being canned:
- 1965-1974 (The New York Times)
- 1965-1976 (J.D. Power)
- 1965-1976 (Pew Research Center, 2010)
- 1965-1981 (Strauss and Howe, authors)
- 1965-1984 (The Harvard Center)
The bottom line in this checkered history is that, thanks to Pew, Generation X finally has clarity: born 1965-1980 they are allocated 16 birth years, the same as the demoted Millennials (1981-1996).
But victory is fleeting.
Just as they achieved their own place in the socio-cultural timeline, Xers are being kicked off brand targeting schedules as they turn 50. On Madison Avenue, where the 18-49 demo is golden and barely 5% of agency staffers survive to 50 themselves, they are officially “too old” to adapt and too scary to feature in advertising.
But they can take comfort in the fact that the Millennials who elbowed them aside in the past are also being shoved to the sidelines.
A new squad of enfants terribles has arrived. All hail Generation Z.
Millennial men: Generation Alfie as cute new Z kids arrive?
Its youngest members are still spraying Lucky Charms across the breakfast table, but Generation Z is fast-becoming adland’s shiniest object. Already, the business press has profiled precocious pre-teens, hyped hip high schoolers and slobbered over college sophomores for their alleged adolescent acumen.
A fig leaf of rationality for this silliness is that at least some of these ingenues have entered the 18-49 audience. Thanks to Pew reassigning 16 million former Millennials born 1997-2000 to Gen Z, in 2018 there are around 20 million of them age 18-plus.
That’s a lot of clickbait.
Maybe it’s time to rename “aging” male Millennials as Generation Alfie after the movie of the same name (1966, remake 2004).
When freshly dumped 30-something Alfie confronts his affluent older, er, patron about her new toy boy flame with what’s he got that I haven’t? she lays it on the line: he’s younger than you.
It’s a familiar scenario to Boomers and Xers. Alfie’s comeuppance is nothing new. It’s nature’s way.
The penalty for dumping 50-year-olds for low income newbies
Brands pay a heavy price when they drop 50-year-olds from targeting in favor of cute 18-year-olds on a shoestring budget, saddled with college debt or struggling to become established in low-paying jobs.
And it’s not as if this is a unique Gen Z discovery: the same is true – and continues to be true – of the Millennials since the 2008 recession took hold. In The Next America (2015) AARP’s Paul Taylor points out:
“As the national economy has begun to recover, Millennials have led other generations in shedding debt … but even this happy statistic has a dark side. The biggest reason the Millennials have less debt is they have fewer homes and cars than their same-age counterparts had in the past. They downsized their lifestyle.”
Now that Gen Z is following in the Millennials’ footsteps, its worth noting college debt isn’t the only barrier to consumption: the truth is they don’t earn much money.
Swapping out 4 million peak-earning 50-year-olds every year in favor of 4 million of cash-strapped
kids 18-year-olds makes no sense except on youth-obsessed Madison Avenue.
The annual tab for romancing 18-year-olds versus 50-year-olds amounts to $120 billion in lost wage-based spending power (Bureau of Labor Statistics).
It works like this:
Welcome, 4 million rock stars age 18 of whom 55% still live with their parents and only 39% are employed = annual wages $2B
- 517,000 work full time for $408/week and 1,057,000 work part time for $200/week
Outa here, 4 million has-beens age 50 of whom 75% are employed = annual wages $122B
- 2.58 million work full time for $866 weekly (median) and 400,000 work part time for $302 weekly (median) = annual wages of $122.46 billion
Upshot: incurious conventional, comfortable wisdom costs incurious conventional, comfortable brands access to $120 billion in consumer wages every year.
They believe smarter competitors won’t grab market share from them. And their ad agencies believe smarter more creative shops won’t steal the business.
Now, about that bridge in Brooklyn that’s for sale …
Boomer World – far from the madding crowd
Too many brands have forgotten that the 50+ demographic is the sweet spot in virtually every category. Thanks to Madison Avenue’s fad-focused fixation on youth, it is a quiet and uncontested place where curious and persuasive brands prosper under the radar.
The 110+ million consumers who make up this huge market represent the third largest economy in the world. They own two thirds of U.S. homes, buy over half the new vehicles sold in America and generate around 60% of the nation’s retail sales.
- Dominated by the Boomers, the 50+ space is also home 12 million members of the Boomer-Plus generation™, the Boomers’ older sibling born 1940-1945 and 13 million Gen Xers who grew up in vibrant Boomer World.
We are here for brands willing to learn the hidden socio-cultural pathways of the generations that live and consume in the immensely profitable 50-plus arena.
For the rest, there’s always those cute, penniless Z kids.