If you work in marketing, you have likely heard about Dan Lyons’ new book, Disrupted. It’s the story of his exploits as a 51-year-old journalist trying to reinvent himself as a marketing guy at HubSpot, the Boston-based company that sells marketing automation software. It’s a funny and insightful look at a clash of cultures (him vs. nearly everyone) inside a tech startup on the road to an IPO. A major theme is the ageism Lyons perceives at HubSpot, which can also be found in the tech business as a whole. Watching the cynical newsroom veteran navigate around jargon-spouting marketers makes for good entertainment and imparts a few lessons, too.
The book shines a light on the obsession with all things millennial. He makes the observation that the young people at HubSpot and similar companies are being manipulated to work long hours for below-market wages. He bluntly calls it as he sees it. The investors and executives of many start-ups have figured they can hire two millennials in exchange for a pricier boomer. And, taking it one step further, they have created a popular narrative that says millennials don’t care that much about making money – they are more into the “experience” and “having a mission” and of course “doing good.” This is in contrast to those out-of-date older people who don’t even get Snapchat.
Lyons calls it out as a scam and part of the “new work” where labor is being exploited in the same manner as sweatshop workers in developing countries where laptops have replaced sewing machines. He is on onto something. The millennials I know and sometimes mentor do care about those intangible benefits, but they also care very much about being paid what they are worth. They are well aware they can’t pay back student loans with free candy, in-house massages or a dog-friendly work place. In some respects, it feels like the generations are being pitted against each other to the benefit of the investor class. This is not to single out HubSpot, a place people do enjoy working, but it is a larger issue in our business. You can find the same dynamic at ad agencies where Kool-Aid is often served instead of raises.
With this intergenerational conflict in mind, AARP has launched a new campaign as part of a larger marketing platform. They are trying to demonstrate to brands that 50+ does not mean old. They want to draw attention to the fact that 50+ Americans have money to spend and they are not getting the proper attention of marketers blinded by millennial-mania.
The latest effort from AARP uses video storytelling to get at the heart of these perceptions or misperceptions. They ask millennials “what is old” and they generally answer “early 50’s.” Then they bring out active and vibrant boomers and pair them up with a millennial and a nice connection is made. It’s touching to watching the pairs interact and try to teach each other something new. Aside from the point about misperceptions, the greater message is about how we can learn from each other. And as they say at HubSpot, 1+1 = 3.
The media and marketing community pays too much attention to generational labels, often crafting campaigns with these generalizations in mind. It is more instructive to think of consumers moving through life stages. There was plenty of hand wringing about Gen X back in the early ’90s. Now we are middle aged and juggling kids in college, saving for retirement and caring for aging parents. Older millennials are having kids and buying homes, and you can bet they want some job stability. Labels make for lazy marketing. Understand the customer’s life stage and motivation if you want to capture their hearts and wallets.