I’m sure you’ve heard that Millennials are entitled narcissists (or mold-breaking visionaries) and Gen Z expect instant gratification (or they have the most integrity of any generation yet). Of the companies pouring millions of research dollars into generational research, who’s getting it right? Well maybe nobody.In fact, we can’t even agree on where one generation begins and the other ends. Millennials are generally considered those born between 1980 and 2000, but there’s disagreement over the exact years—some say it’s as loose as the mid-1970s to the mid-2000s while others say strictly between 1980 and 2000. When you’re comparing mid-1970 to 1980 and 2000 to mid-2000, it’s not a huge discrepancy. However, the point is that there is a discrepancy. And with growing interest in the emerging generation (Gen Z, “Post-Millennials”, "iGeneration", "Plurals"), once again we face an arbitrary age designation and battle over who best understands these future consumers.
As a market researcher myself, I'm the first to admit that researchers will be tempted to define and assign attributes to Gen Z early on because of our natural tendency to categorize and bucket into mutually exclusive groups. However, in our need for clean groups with labels, we forget that some groups aren’t mutually exclusive, and different groups (or in this case, generations) might share some overlapping qualities.
What’s more, generations aren’t as homogeneous as we’d like to think. While normally there are overarching behaviors and attributes assigned to each age group, there can be room for variations among the cohorts. For example, we released a report where we found a segmentation of Millennials revealing five distinct personas with various preferences, attitudes, and behaviors. Our self-funded study focused specifically on financial behaviors, but it can serve as a microcosm for the rest of the generation. You can learn more about it here. This research underscores the potential for inaccuracies that can result from defining a generation too narrowly.
There will always be a place for analysis by generation, but we have a lot more data to consider today than ever before. In his 2013 book "Buyographics", Matt Carmichael reaffirms the importance of demographics, but emphasizes analysis shouldn’t stop there. He explains, "Demographics drive consumer behavior, and that's as true today as ever. We just have better means, thanks to more data sources, of measuring those behavioral impacts and targeting around them. All data needs to be considered through a broader lens and put into context."
Cuts by generation alone ignore the impact of geography and make assumptions about how age influences behavior and psychographics. For example, we often find our psychographics (e.g. our attitudes and aspiration), regardless of age, are good indicators of who we are and who we want to be. In fact, these aspirations (e.g. Who do I want to be?) are strong motivators of brand consideration and loyalty. This means if two people from separate generations can identify with the same type of person, they'll likely share an affinity for the brand because of that identification, not their age.
We'll hear a great deal about who Gen Z is in the next few years until they are eclipsed by the next group. But researchers, advertisers, and marketers should take heed against categorizing Gen Z—and the ensuing generations—solely by their date of birth. Without a multi-faceted approach to understanding consumers (considering demographics, psychographics, etc.), we'll continue to yield narrow insights that may result in marketers producing ads that alienate their target audiences.
Reed Guerino is a Data Manager at CMB who is an entitled millennial on the side and is bitter he missed being the “mature and in control” generation by 1-5 years.