As a decade, the 1970s stand out in Americans’ minds for many reasons: Nixon’s resignation, disco, the big blackout, bell- bottoms. But for Jonathan Pontell – then a teenager – the defining moment of the decade came in the classroom. His high school teacher, a full 15 years older than him, broke the news: She was from the same generation as all of the students dutifully sitting at their desks.
“The whole class just burst out laughing,” recalls Pontell, now a sociologist and author. “It was just so obvious that we were not Baby Boomers. We were not the same as people of her age.” (Baby Boomers, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, were born between 1946 and 1964, years when the number of births was substantially higher than in years before or immediately after.)
The memory lingered, and when the media began covering a new generation in the 1980s – a post-Baby Boom generation – Pontell’s ears perked up. But by then the spotlight was now firmly fixed on Generation X – younger, more cynical than Pontell and his age mates. History had skipped “his” generation, he says. So he decided to write a book highlighting this forgotten group: Those too young to be Baby Boomers, yet too old to be Gen Xers. Says Pontell: “It’s not too late for this generation to be found.”
This month, Pontell’s book, devoted to this “lost” generation hits bookstores. His conclusion: Baby Boomers should be defined as those born between 1942 and 1953. Those born between 1954 and 1965 should fall into a new group, which he calls Generation Jones. (Gen X, by his calculations, falls between 1966 and 1978.) The author has spent the last four years researching Generation Jones, poring over data from the Census Bureau and other sources, and analyzing hundreds of movies, television shows, and other cultural artifacts from his formative years. He’s even lined up a list of celebrity testimonials. Talk show host Rosie O’Donnell, comedian Drew Carey, and actress Maureen McCormick are among the celebs who represent the face of Generation Jones.
Certainly, Pontell is not the first to point out that the traditional definition of the Baby Boom is too wide. Many researchers have noted that early Boomers – people born during the first half of the Baby Boom’s 18-year span – and later Boomers, are different in many ways. But where Pontell breaks with conventional demographic thinking is in his belief that the differences that exist among Boomers are enough to warrant the declaration of a whole new generation.
More importantly, there’s the issue of how Pontell groups Boomers and Xers; his reasoning has nothing to do with birth data previously used to define these generations. In fact, Pontell says that defining generations around the number of births in a given year is “a widely discredited theory” – nevermind that it’s a widely-used method within leading demography circles. More than just a question of semantics, the discussion of Generation Jones opens up a wider debate: What defines a generation? Are traditional ways of looking at generation still meaningful in a diverse and ever-changing world? And what does it all mean for marketers who seek a deeper understanding of consumers?
A GENERATION DEFINED Among Webster’s definitions of generation is the following: “a category of people born and living contemporaneously.” Marketers have often defined “generation” as a group of people who share the same formative experiences. These experiences bind people that are born in continuous years into “cohorts” – a group of individuals that have a demographic statistic in common. Most frequently, demographers use birth year as that common statistic, explains Mark Mather, an analyst at the Population Research Group, a demographic think tank in Washington D.C. “Demographers like to package things in a way that’s easy to measure, and date of birth is the easiest way to define generations,” he says. Birth dates don’t change as income, geographic region, or marital status do, and relying on birth dates makes it easier to track a group of people over time.
During the 20th century, the number of babies born in a given year has fluctuated dramatically, explains Louis Pol, demographer and associate dean at the College of Business Administration at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. In the early 1900s, the number of babies born each year was relatively stable. The number of births fell during the Great Depression, and the major wars of the century also pushed the number of births down, as would-be fathers were out of the country. But when the GIs returned, birthrates rebounded. With these dips and surges, the shape of the World War II generation (born 1909 to 1932) and the Swing Generation (born 1933 to 1945) was formed.
After World War II, America was in the mood to procreate. Between 1946 and 1964, roughly 76 million babies were born, and each year there were more babies born than in the year before. After 1964, this trend reversed – hence the Baby Bust, or Generation X. In 1977, many Boomer women decided to have children, and the birthrate began to climb steadily – creating an “Echo-Boom,” or Generation Y.
Adherents of “generational marketing” take this pure statistical analysis a step further, and overlay major world events that occurred during a generation’s formative years, to construct a picture of a generational personality. Historians Neil Howe and William Strauss are well-known for linking cohorts with historical and cultural events to define generations as far back as 1584. But to do this involves a subjective assessment of history and its impact. This moves the concept of “generation” out of the cold reality of numbers and into the murky depths of a social science. It is what opens the door for Jonathan Pontell and the idea of Generation Jones.
MERITS TO THE GEN JONES ARGUMENT The 18-year span of the Baby Boom, as defined by the number of babies born each year, encompassed a period of rapid change in American history. An early Boomer, born in 1946, came of age and entered the workplace during the 1960s, whereas the latest Boomers, born in 1964, came of age and entered the workplace in the mid- 1980s – as different as two eras separated by just two decades could possibly be, points out David Stewart, deputy dean at the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Marketing. Here’s a simpler comparison: Early Boomers had Vietnam and Woodstock, later Boomers had AIDS and personal computers. “Generation Jones is an accurate realization that the Baby Boomers are really not a homogeneous group. There are some big differences, and indeed, huge differences between the leading edge and trailing end of the Baby Boom,” says Stewart.
These differences are at the heart of Pontell’s argument for Generation Jones. “Generation has everything to do with cultural mood and shared experiences, what impacted you, and your feelings of trust,” he says. Yankelovich Monitor teased out some of these distinctions in its 2000 study “Dissecting Boomers.” The company found three distinct Boomer segments: 23 percent of Boomers fall into the “Leading Boomers” category, born 1946 to 1950; 49 percent are “Core Boomers,” born 1951 to 1959; and 28 percent are “Trailing Boomers,” born 1960 to 1964.
Yankelovich found different attitudes and priorities among these different Boomer segments. Trailing Boomers were the most likely to say they like to plan 5 to 10 years ahead (66 percent) compared with 49 percent of Leading Boomers. And, while 75 percent of Leading Boomers say they’re better off than their parents were at their age, just 54 percent of Trailing Boomers believe that’s true. Yet, Trailing Boomers aren’t exactly lagging in the quality of life department: 46 percent say they plan to take a special vacation this year, compared with just 33 percent of Leading Boomers.
If the attitudes of the youngest Boomers seem familiar to marketers, that’s because many of the attitudes that younger Boomers hold are similar to those typically associated with Generation X, observes Cheryl Russell, demographer and Baby Boom expert, based in Ithaca, New York. “It was once predicted that times would be good for Generation X because they were a small generation replacing a large generation,” she says. But older Boomers got the best education, housing, and jobs, and “their shadow fell far down into the age structure, making things difficult for those even 10 years younger than the youngest Boomer,” she says.
The long shadow of the older Boomers, and the differences in attitude between leading and Trailing Boomers are the core reasons why Pontell believes that the traditional definition of Baby Boom from 1946 to 1964 should be scrapped. “The fact that the Baby Boom generation was pegged to the rise in birthrates was `just a historical accident,'” he says. “It’s just a blatantly inaccurate way to determine who a generation is, to base it on something as random as birthrate. Why not base it on how many rainy days there were in a year?”
SIZE MATTERS To marketers, the number of births in a given year does make a world of difference, especially those interested in projecting market size. “Imagine if you were in the diaper business in 1945, how your business would change by the size of the cohort born from 1946 to 1964, and how it would change again in the mid-60s and the mid-70s,” says Pol of the University of Nebraska. In fact, the number of births in a given time period is one of the best indicators of what the economy is going to look like 10, 20, even 30 years from now, says David K. Foot, an economist at the University of Toronto, and the author of Boom, Bust, Echo. If you marry knowledge of fluctuations in the birthrate, with an understanding of how consumers tend to act at different stages of their lives (buying a first car in their 20s, traveling in their 50s), you can get a rough picture of the market challenges and opportunities that lie in your future.
But how can the number of births impact a generation’s personality? “Simply put, the Baby Boom generation experiences crowds wherever it goes, whatever it does. That is what defines the Baby Boom – sheer numbers,” says Russell. “Early and late Boomers share a common child-centric time of upbringing,” observes USC’s Stewart. “That was not the case for Xers.”
Besides size, there are other similarities among Boomers that transcend the differences, points out Stephen Kraus, a partner at Yankelovich Partners in San Francisco. For Boomers of all ages, the classic elements of the Boomer mindset are all present: “Individuality; emphasis on youth; emphasis on, for lack of a better word, self-absorption, are all there,” he says.
Ken Dychtwald, president of Age Wave LLC, in Emeryville, California, and one of the nation’s leading authorities on the Baby Boom, likens the similarities and differences among Boomers to a group of individual trees that share the same root system. “Boomers are an extremely diverse generation, extraordinarily complex yet individualistic collection of men and women,” he says. “But under the surface, we’re a generation with many, many common values and experiences. We’re bound together by deeply rooted values.” Among the values Dychtwald lists are a belief in a meritocracy, respect for knowledge, and a lack of respect for authority.
In fact, Ann A. Fishman, demographer and president of Generational-Targeted Marketing Corporation in New Orleans, believes that when Pontell carves a new generation out of the Baby Boom, he’s acting like a true Baby Boomer. “Baby Boomers tend to be a self-absorbed generation – these were the most parented children in our history,” she explains. “When you get that kind of parenting, and you have to compete with a great number of people, you tend to get self-absorbed.” Their “me generation” nickname reflects that, she says.
“Within this self-absorption is a need to be treated special, an expectation of being treated special,” Fishman says. “What to Generation Jones seems like an extreme difference, is actually just a transition to Generation X. It’s Boomer hubris, and I hate to say that, but I don’t know what else to call it. They’ve made a special generation just for them. The other characteristic is the focus on youth, and by becoming a Gen Joneser, they’re identifying themselves as younger than the other Boomers. These characteristics are very Boomer-like.”
AGE-DEFYING DEMOGRAPHICS Should Americans born between 1954 and 1965 be classified as their own generation, or is Generation Jones nothing more than just a snazzy way of saying “Trailing Boomer?” For marketers, it depends on whether you’re trying to understand demographics or psychographics. If you’re trying to understand the attitudes of people born in the latter years of the Baby Boom, then Pontell’s analysis of Generation Jones is an excellent supplementary guide to the culture and events that formed the perspectives of those consumers. But if, on the other hand, you’re trying to forecast market size, stick to demographic estimations of generations.
For Age Wave’s Dychtwald, the bottom line is that Jonathan Pontell has asked the right question, but has come up with the wrong answer. “If we’re going to agree that we can’t over-generalize about Boomers, and that Boomers are not one big monolithic group, then we need to scratch our heads and do some deep thinking about what the ideal segmentation should be,” he says. Rather than relying on birth year at all, Dychtwald believes that the most valuable re-segmentation would be based on psychographics – and that the segments would not need to be pegged to birth years.
In fact, given the sophistication of market-segmentation tools today, and the rapid pace of change, marketers will find themselves turning away from generational identity as a marketing guide, says Dychtwald. “Modern men and women are exposed to such depth and breadth of ideas that they aren’t quite as intellectually landlocked as the other generations were,” he says. “Beginning with the Baby Boom, defining people by their birth date is going to become increasingly useless. That measuring stick is no longer potent. People will be marketed to by their lifestyle, life stage, and health stage more than their generation,” he adds.
As social researchers start to make sense of that change, marketers should get ready to hear about “niche generations” – increasingly smaller groups of people that share common experiences. “It’s going to get harder to talk to people who are shaped by the same experience, because our society is becoming so much more diverse, people aren’t really sharing the same experiences even when they’re born in the same year,” says Bruce Tulgan, principal of Rainmaker Thinking, a consultancy that studies post-Boomer generations.
And while major global events and trends will continue to shape cohorts, “Generation will be only one of many, many factors influencing consumer behavior, whereas in prior generations, it would have been the defining factor,” concludes Stewart. To some demographers, Pontell’s argument for a “new” generation may be flawed, but his timing is impeccable. The author’s reasoning for Generation Jones may not be “demographically sound,” but it comes at a time when marketers are seeking deeper answers into what drives consumer behavior – and how they can tap into psychographic reasons to sell products. By placing a sliver of the Baby Boom under a psychographic microscope, Pontell has made some noteworthy observations. And he’s taken the important step of giving the first “niche” generation a name. As the pace of change continues to accelerate, and as America becomes more diverse, one thing’s for certain: Generation Jones will not be the last niche generation to generate a buzz.
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