Behavioural changes have nothing to do with generation and everything to do with technology
The problem with demographics, says Steve Sammartino, is that they were invented by lazy marketers to make life easier. In a world where anyone can buy anything, desire circumvents generation.
This article originally appeared in The Generation Issue, our June/July issue of Marketing magazine.
Apparently I’m part of Generation X. I was born between the years 1965 and 1976 – depending of course on which social researcher or demographer you believe.
This means that I’m part of the ‘lost’ generation, that I’m a latchkey kid, that my parents got divorced and that I grew up watching MTV. Which is all good and fine except that none of these things are true for me.
The thing with demographics, and any attempt to round up groups of humans into behaviour patterns, especially those associated with age brackets and time periods, is that they are invented by us: marketers. We literally invented these things to make our own working lives a little easier.
Sure, generations always existed. We always had babies, children, teenagers and adults. But the definitive behaviour patterns associated with a decade or so of births on Earth, quite frankly, is a bit of a marketer’s fantasy. It’s driven by the desire for simplicity and a herding mentality. I mean it makes a pre-internet mass media planning process much easier to write. Just put ‘Target = Generation X’ on the briefing form.
The problem is that in order to invent groupings of people who seem differentiated, we must look for things that make them different. And while there are differences, they can be particularly misleading, because a mere shift in what happened before is what we see as those differences to previous generations, even if the changes still represent a minority.
Let’s take the Gen X cohort who all lived through the challenges of being brought up in a divorced family – except that they didn’t. Most of us grew up in families that were still together. In fact, divorce rates were never in the majority for any generation, and are currently at one in three, a minority.
None of this generational dissing is to say that there isn’t some value in looking at generational behaviour. Babies will always be babies, teenagers will generally disagree with their parents, and grandparents will always spoil their grandkids. But these are less demographic profiles and more inalienable human truths. They have survived millennia. But, once the mass consumption-shaping shackles got removed, and we then rejected the one-size-fits-all society, the cohorts themselves became less relevant to the savvy marketer.
The problem with marketing to cohorts is that we use the facts of a minority to market to the majority. In so doing we end up shaping our generations instead of serving them. Traditionally, the entertainment we served up, the buying options at store level and even the way we communicated with generations was based on perceived similarities, which probably didn’t exist, but we got away with it because consumption choices were
But in a world where anyone can buy anything, from anywhere, watch anything globally in real time and be influenced by anyone or any company, then desire very quickly circumvents generation.
Technology and its borderless attitude are shaping society more than generational time stamping ever did or ever could. A better question marketers can ask themselves in times of technological revolution isn’t what attitudes people have at ages, but how technology can reshape life stages themselves.
Let’s start with a radical thought: some of the world’s leading scientists believe we will be the last mortal generation. To modern technologists, death isn’t an inevitable reality, but a technical problem that we can and should solve. While this sounds crazy in isolation, the number of technical human operating system problems we’ve solved through medicine and health-tech that used to result in death are uncountable.
Google even launched a company called Calico, the stated mission of which is to solve death! At a more grounded level this statistic from the World Health Organisation is telling: in the past 15 years life expectancy has increased one day per three days. It means that retirees aren’t someone marketers should be thinking of to sell insurance, Pacific cruises and village living to, but vibrant people we may be doing business with for another 50 years.
Increasingly, how they spend their money will be less about their physical capabilities and more about what they like doing, which may just be the same things they were doing at 45, or even as teenagers.
Speaking of which, we should stop expecting that teenagers of tomorrow will ever buy a first car, or even get a driving licence. But rich kids, well, they’ll get their first car for their 13th birthday – given no licence is required – and show it off at school the next morning. It’s easy to think that people won’t buy cars in the future because we can share cars, but marketers need to be savvy enough to remember the global corporations who make these vehicles will need and want to sell cars, and people will buy them.
Even if they don’t need personal transport, they still need status symbols. As for teenagers who aren’t as financially endowed, it will be far more economical to get picked up or use Mum and Dad’s self-drive car. This way they can keep their eyes glued to the screen. Driverless vehicles will usher in a new era of R-Commerce (rolling commerce) for which new industries and, maybe, globally dominant corporations will evolve to leverage the new hours of attention while we roll around.
It’s a good thing most teenagers won’t buy a first car. Their after-school job prospects are in rapid decline
as flipping burgers and stacking shelves is expected to be done by ‘soft teachable robots’ like the blue collar Baxter robot. But fear not. Some new form of low-end labour will emerge to keep our teenagers busy and fill their pockets. Technology has always been a net job creator.
But car insurers will have a new challenge: they’ll have to think of another way to rob blind younger drivers with higher premiums on cars that don’t crash and can’t get stolen! Or they may instead prey on older car owners who fear the unlikely prospect of their car being hacked and driven over the cloud by some bad actor.
The hottest industry of all will become privacy and security – as everything in our emerging world, for all generations, lives in the meta structure of the cloud. Operating Fear is one of the best selling products ever invented. We’ve been genetically programmed to give more attention to potential problems than upsides.
Smart marketers will start charging a premium for privacy and realise that there is another pot of money through protecting people’s data instead of harvesting it. As people start to realise the value of the information they give away daily, new products protecting it will be profit engines.
This is something the banks may start to consider. For the first time since the industrial dawn, kids being born today may never have a bank account. There’s a good chance that they won’t graduate from a Dollarmite account to a lifetime of lazy unchanged banking for generations, and instead entrust their currency to the block chain.
While they’re at it, they’ll probably crowd-fund their first house, or some other collaborative living arrangement we haven’t invented yet.
All these changes have nothing to do with generations, and everything to do with technology. If we as marketers want to be able to participate in a valued future of anyone, we’re far better off looking at how technology changes possibilities, rather than predicting contrived similarities in attitudes.
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