By Mark Ritson
This generational mumbo jumbo is a fairy-tale built from simplistic stereotypes and lazy thinking … and it’s proving an uncomfortable fact for marketing ‘experts’.
For as long as mass media has existed, it has been segmented by demographic cohorts. Marketers are obsessed with these groupings, especially the younger ones, and invariably divide the world into four distinct cohorts.
There are the Baby Boomers — born before 1964 — who are loyal, hardworking and dutiful. Then comes Generation X — born between 1965 and 1979 — who are more cynical, individualistic and disaffected. After them are Millennials — born between 1980 and 1996 — beloved by marketers because they are younger, cooler and more digital than their predecessors. Finally, there is Generation Z — born after 1996 — who seem to be anxious, hyper-connected and unsure of their place in society.
It is hard to explain just how wedded the marketing world is to these demographic cohorts. Tune in to the next virtual marketing or media conference and the terms “Millennial” and “Gen Z” will come up a dozen times an hour. The high priest of generational thinking, Simon Sinek, can talk for hours about the challenges of Millennials in the workplace and the reasons why they are so different from the rest of society.
But there is one slight problem with this kind of generational division and analysis: it is complete and utter nonsense. A fairy-tale built from simplistic stereotypes and lazy thinking. And a new study from British advertising researchers BBH Labs is proving uncomfortable reading for all those experts who have spent the last five years making money advising companies about “marketing to Millennials”.
For a market segment to exist it must pass two inherent tests. First, that small group must display attitudes and behaviours that are distinct from the rest of the population. Second, within that group those attitudes and behaviours must be relatively homogenous. Similar within, and different to those outside.
It should be apparent that clustering a group of people on the basis that they were born within 15 years of each other is a ridiculously simplistic approach to segmentation. There are roughly seven million Australian Millennials, for example, and any attempt to suggest this cohort possesses similar characteristics is clearly bogus. Would we really expect Michael Hooper, the current captain of the Wallabies, and pop idol Delta Goodrem to share the same world view and fundamental behaviours?
In theory they should because both are card-carrying members of the Millennial cohort.
The BBH Labs study, published last week, provides the empirical dynamite to finally blow up the whole demographic cohort nonsense once and for all. The agency looked at a giant sample of British consumers and their agreement with more than 400 lifestyle statements. These statements ranged from the mundane: “I use refillable water bottles most days”, to the profound: “There is little I can do to change my life”.
The agency then looked at how much agreement there was across these statements — what they term the “Group Cohesion Score”. The whole of the sample — so, the general British population — had a cohesion score of 48.7 per cent. That means that on average the majority opinion about each question was held by almost exactly half the populace.
The point of market segments is that they should have different attitudes to the general population and that on those attitudes they should be significantly more cohesive too. People who read the Financial Times, for example, had a cohesion score that was 8.3 points higher than the total population because reading the FT is indicative of all kinds of differences from the general populace and similarities within the group. A segment, in other words.
But when the researchers looked at how cohesive the generational cohorts were, they were in for a shock. Millennials only score a 2.1 per cent cohesion score greater than the total population — hardly indicative of the massively different mentality that we have been told to expect from this group. Boomers at 1.6 per cent were even less cohesive, Gen X at 1.3 per cent were less unified still. Generation Z at 0.2 per cent is almost no more cohesive than the whole population.
People born between 1997 and 2013 have no stronger connection to each other than they do to a random member of the population born on any other year. And people who like drinking Orangina (+4.5 per cent), eating nuts every day (+3.8 per cent) or flossing their teeth (+2.9 per cent) are all far more cohesive as a group than any of the demographic cohorts the marketing industry has been so wedded to for so long.
The researchers conclude that “passions, habits and temperaments unite us, not generational groupings”. They also note that the entire industry that sprung up to provide marketers with insights into the new, challenging Generation Z consumer is — and I quote — “complete bollocks”.
And there is something else wrong with all this generational mumbo jumbo. It is not just empirically ridiculous, it is also politically incorrect. If I started writing columns proclaiming that people born in Africa were more likely to cheat on their spouses or that women were more unreliable employees there would be an entirely justifiable uproar. But anyone can make a broad demographic sweep across a massive swath of the population and — based only on birth year — stereotype millions of people using nonsensical and unwarranted labels. Judging someone by their age is just as heinous as doing so based on gender, race or sexuality.
Clearly an 18-year-old will have different priorities and activities from a 60-year-old but this is caused by life stage, not some enormous difference in how alternate generations perceive the world.
Millennials do not have a completely different mindset to their parents or grandparents. They are simply exhibiting a phenomenon sociologists sometimes refer to as “being young”. Mind you, this column is written by a Gen Xer. And you know how cynical and regressive they can be.