Commentary

Segments And Shifts

In the current marketplace maelstrom, it's a challenge to identify the opportunities from the pitfalls. A natural reaction to chaos is to develop a structured framework that takes messy markets and sweeps them into tidy little piles or segments. Market segmentation is a terrific antidote to the feeling that you can't quite seem to get your arms around something, and dividing the 300 million members of the U.S. population into generational units is a great place to start. According to the work of Howe & Strauss, the six current generations within the U.S. and their birth years are:

The GI Generation: 1901-1924
The Silent Generation: 1925-1942
The Boom Generation (Boomers): 1943-1960
Generation X: 1961-1981
The Millennials (a/k/a Gen Y): 1982-2004, and
The Homeland Generation: 2005-????

The great news is that dividing the entire marketplace into these six distinct and addressable segments is really helpful. Generations share characteristics and attitudes that make them easier to communicate with as well as target.

Generations are not monolithic. My first statistics professor liked to say that while you can accurately describe a lake as having an average depth of three feet, a six-foot man trying to cross it would surely need to swim at some point. There are subtle nuances within a generation that, thankfully, make it necessary to abandon averages and dive into the variation.

The largest shift that we've witnessed within Gen Y is an accelerated use of mobile. In our recent syndicated research on Back to School shopping, we were amazed to see that high school students were twice as likely to have been aware of summer mobile marketing campaigns than college students. They were also much more comfortable making a purchase on their mobile device based on these campaigns.

Just as social networking hit early members of Gen Y at an opportune and impressionable time, mobile capabilities are hitting later members of Gen Y at the early onset of their marketplace consciousness. While Facebook is by no means under siege from any current competitor, its long-term prospects depend entirely upon its ability to get in front of an intra-generational shift to the mobile web.

Another difference between early and late members of Gen Y presented itself to us in the past week as we were studying data that we had collected both before and after the mid-term election on Gen Y's participation and engagement. While political analysis focuses on participation amongst those aged 18+ in general and those registered to vote in particular, we conducted a nearly identical survey among a representative sample of 1,000 members of Gen Y that had reached voting age as well as among more than 300 kids aged 13-17, probing their thoughts on the political landscape.

Here, too, we found a fascinating intra-generational inversion. In answer to the question, "In general, do you approve or disapprove of the job that Barack Obama is doing as president?," a slight majority of Collegians (51%) approved of Obama's job performance, compared to slightly more than a third (35%) of high school students. Similarly, in answer to the question "Do you generally approve or disapprove of the job that Barack Obama is doing in handling the economy?," only two-thirds as many high school students (27%) than collegians (41%) approved of Obama's economic stewardship.

What's driving these differences is twofold: for high school-aged members of Gen Y, the election of president Obama was a pseudo-event, witnessed on the web and on TV. For those members of Gen Y aged 18 and older in 2008, the Obama campaign was a visceral activity in which they were actively involved. While this heightened level of involvement has made it that much harder for older members of Gen Y to set aside their dreams of hope and change, their disappointment with how little things have changed in the past two years was evident in their lack of participation at the polls.

Another important consideration is that younger members of Gen Y still live at home and are therefore much more influenced by how their parents think and feel. While we can see a slight shift to the right between early versus late members of Gen Y, intra-generational differences quickly evaporated across a number of other issues such as what issues they found most important to them, where they seek out information and how they share that information with others.

One tempting reaction to variance within a generation is to "call a new generation"; however, identifying differences between early versus later members of Gen Y is in no way a repudiation of the integrity of the generational theory that declares those born between 1982 and 2004 to be a distinct unit. In the end, efforts to divide the world into smaller and smaller addressable segments based on common characteristics are an imprecise art and, while one can always find reasons to re-draw the lines on the generational map, moving the goalposts doesn't serve us well as we attempt to understand the markets that we serve.

What is helpful for us as marketers is to understand that new technologies as well as critical events will shape and sometimes redirect the flow of the generational stream. Our jobs would be a lot less interesting if it were otherwise ...

3 comments about "Segments And Shifts ".
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  1. Carol Phillips from BrandAmplitude, LLC, November 12, 2010 at 1:21 p.m.

    Dan:

    Great article as usual. I agree with your view that generational generalizations are useful, even though they are broad. Intra-generational differences do not require new generational labels, they are subsegments of a larger universe. As this cohort ages, the lifestage differences will matter less and less.

    Carol

  2. Carol Phillips from BrandAmplitude, LLC, November 12, 2010 at 1:23 p.m.

    P.s. I hadn't heard 'homeland generation' yet as a name for those born after 2004. Mintel is calling them 'matrix generation'. I nominate 20/20 Generation as the first of them will turn 20 in about 2020.

  3. Daniel Coates from Youth Pulse, Inc., November 12, 2010 at 1:37 p.m.

    Hey Carol, thanks for the kind words. Neil included a fairly light treatment of Generation Homeland (or Homelanders) in his recent book: Millennials in the Workplace. You can only buy this recent book from his website at: store.lifecourse.com.

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