Disrupted: Do Generational Labels Matter?

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 This is in contrast to those out-of-date older people who don’t even get Snapchat.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.

3 comments about "Disrupted: Do Generational Labels Matter?".
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  1. Neil Mahoney from Mahoney/Marketing, May 9, 2016 at 12:27 p.m.

    I'm surprised that an automated-marketing business would not see the importance of taking the extra step of delving more deeply into what appears to be the top-market opportunities to determine the key prospects within those markets.

    Assuming they do that, most don't fine tune the Value Proposition to succinctly set them above and apart from the competition.

  2. Anglyn Hays from Free Lance Writer Hire Me!, May 9, 2016 at 4:11 p.m.

    Generational labels matter because that's how age and spending habits are analyized, and have been analyzed oevr the past 70 years.  If baby boomers hadn't insisted on it, the rest of us might have let it go, but it's too late for that now.  Intergenerational justice might be a term you haven't heard before, perhaps it is time to ask a few questions of those born after 1965.  They are in fact the largest group of buyers with money in their pockets.  That may come as a shock to you, but that's also why you are failing in your career. (Hint, hint.)

  3. Amy VanDeVelde from The OASIS Institute, May 17, 2016 at 10:45 a.m.

    As a nationally recognized provider of services for people 50+ we have danced around this issue for decades. After hearing Ina Jaffe's second report about the issue (February 6, 2016 report we are currently surveying our nationwide participant base. We asked a random sample "How do you feel about these terms to describe the OASIS audience? Elders, Senior Citizens, Older Adults, Mature Adults, Seniors and Adults. When our participants did respond mostpreferred 'Adults'--'Seniors' was a close second. As I received paper surveys, I found it interesting that many of our respondents wrote a reply suggesting that they either didn't find a label necessary or they did not understand why we would ask the question. A broad label like adults won't help us attract the people who are most interested in our services. If someone could come up with an agreed upon and empowering label it would help this group and the organizations that wish to attract it.

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