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“We are all like a snowflake, different in our own beautiful way.” – Unknown

There are six Generations, not including the “Greatest” (whom much ink has been spilled about already) comprising most of humanity. In order of time spent pondering the existence of aliens, they are: The Silent Generation, Boomers, X, Y, Z and Alpha. Birthdates, demographic context, and cultural identifiers vary slightly for each, but all follow widely agreed upon descriptive qualifiers.

I’ve always found the obsession marketing research has had with them to be particularly pretensive. Dumping millions of people into large theoretical buckets is fascinating at best and, when considering how complex human behavior varies within Generations, fatuous at worst. The idea that we can write a tune about herds of humas and blow it out a flute like the pied piper of products has always seemed to me a bit… spurious. Why for example was the biggest experiment in OBA (online behavioral advertising) conducted on Generation Y (affectionately known as Millennials) while at the same time constantly referring to all 70+ Million of them as if they were a single block of flesh and blood?

People are motivated and attracted by many different things and as groups get larger it becomes harder to deal with them in the same way. “There are a million factors that go into determining the kind of person you are when you grow up, and this arbitrary 15-20 year analytical construct is not one of them. Characteristics often attributed to generations are merely attributes of various life stages”, says Jessica Kriegle, author of Unfairly Labeled.

So, is Liberty Mutual abusing struggling actors, Emus, or Millennials? The Liberty biberty guy, actor Tanner Novlan, is back in recent ads along with Doug and our favorite member of the genus Dromaius family – LiMu. Clearly the butt of the joke, Novlan’s character is a nitwit, toasty mimbo trying to break into acting but can’t even remember his few lines. This time last year, Liberty’s “Pool Party” commercial spoofed ad campaigns aimed at Millennials for the better part of a decade. “Young people having a good time with insurance!”. We have gone from lauding Millennials to mocking them; or at least mocking the campaigns once geared towards them. It is the sum and summary of what Bob Hoffman called the Millennial Hustle in the “decade of delusion from 2010-2020, where it was literally impossible to attend a business meeting or conference without getting an earful of insufferable claptrap about this new species of human. Those born between 1981-1996 have been credited with and blamed for everything that’s right and wrong in contemporary society,” as Hoffman put it. They were savvy consumers, “Digital Natives” who were immune to outdated marketing tactics and could care less about status and materialism. Their sheer numbers (there are up to 31 million less Gen X’ers) made them a force de majeure set to impact the consumer economy like never before. But something happened. The oldest Millennials are now in their early 40’s and according to The San Francisco Chronicle are:

 

“one of the poorest generations ever.”
– “have a net worth of about $8,000…34% lower than other generations.”
– “constitute 22% of US population and own 5% of US wealth.”

All the precision targeting in the galaxy couldn’t turn them into brand ambassadors so the digi’nista needed to move on…and quickly. Just in time, a fresh crop became ripe for the labeling. But how to describe this new group if “Digital Natives had already been taken? The NPD Group describes Generation “Z” as bifurcated; those born from 1997 through 2005 are the “first connected kids” and those born from 2006-2012, the “technology inherent group” (they never really explained the difference). They note that the Z’s are “self-taught, money orientated, entrepreneurial, pragmatic, always connected, diverse and extremely confident”. Who wouldn’t want to sell stuff to this group? Millennials 2.0! “The research industries are now selling us the same bs about Gen Z that they did about Millennials”, according to “Millennial Meltdown” by the Type A Group. But the Z’s admirable characteristics belie a cracked interior. Millennials might be broke, but they are not broken. According to Jean Twenge, a psychologist at San Diego State, “iGen suffers from far higher rates of anxiety and depression than Millennials the same age and higher rates for suicide. Something has changed the childhood experience of kids born in the late 90’s”. Let’s not beat around the bush. Like a marionette dressed as a deranged clown, that ‘something’ is social media and Generation Z is on the other end of the string.  Surely marketers are unaware. For to simultaneously understand the harm its done and be complicit in its proliferation would be reprehensible. But I digress.

Gen X, the cooler, older cousins of Millennials (both are the children of Silents and Boomers) are said to be skeptical and self-reliant amongst other things. These deadbeats, who wore flannel and collectively smoked more weed per day than was consumed during the entire summer of love, were scheduled to amount to exactly zero. Not only that, but their numbers paled in comparison to Millennials, so how could they possibly impact markets in the same manner? Well, according to MediaPost, GenX is being overlooked by AdLand. “Advertisers often lavish attention and money on Gen Z and Millennials, but they may be overlooking a demographic gold mine: Gen X, those born between 1965-1980, account for 27% of global spending and as the older baby-boomer generation passes, stands to inherit $70 trillion”, according to a Wavemaker study. Quick…somebody put the champaign on ice!! Yet still, X’s are nixed in Ad’s. “Only 24% of TV ads feature characters over the age of 50, despite the fact Gen X is attuned to social media and TikTok”, Wavemaker concludes.

If Brands are blowing off GenX – then they are oblivious to Boomers. While Millennials were being targeted by mega corporations who totes understood how different, unique, and special they were, Baby Boomers were quietly amassing a stockpile of wealth and currently, according to the WSJ, are “The US Economy’s Secret Weapon”. Millennials are putting off big financial events like weddings, cars and houses while Boomers account for 22% of spending. Those over aged 70 hold 26% of household wealth, the highest ever recorded according to the Federal Reserve. Despite being flush with mula: the net worth of over 50’s (that’s roughly 8 years of Gen X + all the Boomers) control 70% of US wealth, but are the target of only 10% of advertising. There seems to a be an inverse correlation between cash on hand and canceled in ads. I’d like to think Jimmy Buffet was right when he said of his generation, “we are the people they still can’t figure out”, but it’s probably not the reason for their blacklisting in ads. See, Boomers spend less time cracking out on a screen and more time living the dream. Overemphasizing the need to reach cash strapped, unestablished youngsters keeps ad dollars from being redeployed into more traditional mediums.

Aside from their stardom in ads, have you noticed how similar the Z’s are to their Grandparents?  Consider this:

What Kantar Futures said of “Z” in 2016:

“This Generation has realistic expectations.”

“This Generation gives others permission to be different.”

“This Generation enjoys and celebrates life.”

 

What Time Magazine had to say about Boomers in 1966:

 

“This Generation has no fantasies.”

“Today’s youth appear more deeply committed to decency and tolerance.”

“What this Generation possesses is a keen ability to sense meaning on many levels.”

 

Realistic” … “no fantasies”. “Permission to be different” … “tolerance”. “Celebrates life” … “senses meaning”. They may be a chip off the ‘ol block, but there is one small thing that sets Z’s (Millennials too) and Boomers apart: the economy. According to Forbes, “Baby Boomers were in the right place at the right time. Following World War II, this generation experienced immense economic growth and prosperity. You didn’t need to enter six-figure debt to earn a college degree. Home prices were affordable. This cohort greatly benefited from an unprecedented 40-year rally in stock and housing prices”. A large majority of Gen Z reports changing spending habits to save money in the current inflationary period. “Seventy-three percent of Gen Zers say they’ve altered their spending habits in the past year, including by cooking at home more frequently (43%) rather than dining out; spending less on clothes (40%); and limiting grocery purchases to the essentials (33%)”, according to Bank of America’s most recent Better Money Habits survey.

Time magazine first used the term “Silent Generation” in a November 5, 1951, article titled “The Younger Generation”, saying “the most startling fact about the younger generation is its silence. By comparison with the Flaming Youth of their fathers & mothers, today’s younger generation is a still, small flame. It has been called the Silent Generation.” Why were they so? My half-baked theory is because they were huddled en masse around OTR. Old Time Radio (acronyms don’t only apply to Digital Media) or the Golden Age of Radio, hit 83% adoption in American HH’s by 1940, putting the ‘Silent’ teens smack in the path of the most transformative and entertaining Media ever invented. Americas youth sat glued to their favorite broadcasts which in turn were touchstones of everyday conversation. Fortunately for them, Radios were not making them feel terrible about themselves, like Meta does to their grandkids. They were silently entertained, not secretly crazed. (Help is finally on the way in the form of a 42 bipartisan attorney lawsuit alleging that features on its Facebook and Instagram social media platforms are addictive and includes features that negatively impact teens’ mental health, says CNBC.)

Currently, Alpha’s are still being born! I’ll steal a page from the NPD’s Generation Z playbook and subcategorize them, starting with the “Algorithm Assisted” group. Those born between 2013-2019 have access to information and opportunity like no other generation before them. 2020-2024 is the “Ambient Collective” cohort that has taken this knowledge and reverberated it in a hypersonic feedback loop of AI powered social connections. The youngest Alpha’s will be born between 2025-2028. The “Orchard of Esoteric Knowledge” will grow up during the dawn of sentient cosmic awareness. Good luck marketing to these wizards! They will be to Digital Media as Millennials were to those “outdated marketing tactics” and carry the torch of their parents’ disinterest in status and materialism all the way to the finish line. They have no use for Brands as their egos dissolve into the collective and self-expression gives way to the advancement and betterment of the hive.