Generational Thinking vs Life Stages: The Complexity of Target Marketing

The Lost Generation, The Greatest Generation, The Silent Generation, Baby Boomers, Generation X, Millennials, The 2K’s. No, these aren’t titles for an upcoming J.K. Rowling book series; but it could be argued that they are titles designed to sell books.

Accurately interpreting young people has always been a chore—ask any parent. But today, that pursuit (and truly understanding anyone with the ability to purchase, “like” or share your brand/product) has become a cottage industry due to the insatiable appetite for information from both brands and agencies. The perceived benefit of these generational classifications is that we can target our message at a specific target group identifiable by distinct and similar attitudes.

The problem is that the far more effective classification system is one based on life stages and events (ex. attending school or immersed in the workforce, single or married, has kids or not, homeowner or renter, employed or unemployed, career stage, etc.). Unfortunately, that doesn’t provide the universal shorthand guide that we crave for today’s complicated and fragmented communication landscape.

What Exactly Is a Generation?

How did we get here? Well, before answering that question, perhaps it would help to start with a simple definition. The word “generation” has been defined as, “the average period – about 30 years – during which children are born and grow up, become adults, and begin to have children of their own.” In other words, a generation is defined by a series of life events and stages—you are born, you grow up, you have a child of your own; and the circle of life continues.

So, who changed this definition? In 1991 Neil Howe and William Strauss wrote their first book, Generations: The History of America’s Future, 1584 to 2069 and set the stage for a fundamental shift in thinking. The elaborate chronicle established its creators as pioneers in a burgeoning field and popularized the idea that people in a particular age group share distinct personae and values by virtue of occupying the same “place” in time as they mature. This line of thinking would not only coin the term “Millennial”, but also affirm the notion that Millennials were a riddle waiting to be solved. Then, in the shocker of 2000 (note sarcasm), Mr. Howe and Mr. Strauss published Millennials Rising: The Next Great Generation, to solve the riddle they themselves had created.

Solving the Generational Riddle

The big issue with these publications is that Howe and Strauss weren’t social scientists; they were an economic policy consultant and a director of a satirical singing group. How did two individuals with a simple love of history become the godfathers of a new form of target market segmentation? Over roughly the same time period, the World Wide Web rose to prominence, and with it, the finite media landscape (that we as marketers continually tried to evolve but for simplicity would occasionally like to bring back) splintered forever.

The web created the perfect mix of opportunity and uncertainty, while shifts in the business landscape (tech boom/bubble, Great Recession, etc.) created the necessary pressure to ignite a movement in the form of ambitious goals that also had to protect the bottom line. Understanding the “why” of human attitudes and behaviors (or at least believing that we did) became more crucial than ever before.

How to Approach Generational Thinking

To accept generational thinking, one must swallow three rather large assumptions:

  1. Our lives unfold in a way that more or less corresponds with our age
  2. Billions of people, born over 20-30 years around the globe, are fundamentally different from people of other age groups, AND
  3. Those same billions of people within an age group are similar to each other in meaningful ways

This line of thinking leads to charts like this:


Seems logical. Let’s put generational classification to the test by deciding which group these people belong to:

Person A: Born in 1976

Person B: Their wife never has to go the ATM because he always has cash in his wallet

Person C: Believes the future is limitless if you’re willing to put in the work

Hopefully you didn’t spend too much time on that because it’s a trick question. Person A, B and C are all the same person – me.

Generational Communication

Let’s look at another way generational classification has been applied to the business world. Here’s a chart describing preferred communication methods across generations (as well as our preferred way to carry business accessories):


Yes, “seniors” grew up in a different technological era than “Gen Yers,” and that delayed exposure led to later adoption. But now that technology has reached the masses, most grandparents are texting and posting to Facebook, while no generation is writing letters or picking up the phone when an email will suffice. Much like our preferences in general, communication methods have very little to do with what generation you’re in.

Should Marketers Look at Generations or Life Stages?

So are we all the same person? For the sanity of brands and agencies, and the people handling their marketing, unfortunately no. But I do believe that life stages and events are a far more effective method of classification than our current generational model. Again, let’s look at a few sample consumers in two groups:

Group 1

Person A: 27 year-old, married, first child on the way, just bought a house, first management role at company

Person B: 45 years-old, married, three kids, owns a home, senior executive at a new company

Group 2

Person A: 35 years old, single, no kids, renting, tech entrepreneur in Silicon Valley

Person B: 35 years old, married, two kids, owns a home, middle management in Omaha

The Generational model would have you believe that Group 2 represents the more like-minded target audience, but I hope you agree that the members of Group 1 represent the real opportunity for a unified target audience. Put simply, the events that truly shape us are our life events, and those experiences don’t happen in the chronological order that they used to.

Complexity Results in Better Marketing

Generalizations are our modern day map and compass, allowing us to navigate a sea of complexity. Palmer H. Muntz, Director of Admissions at Lincoln Christian University, expressed what I often feel when he said, “You can’t just take one stamp and put it on this generation. But it sure was nice when I thought I could.”

Instead, let’s embrace the fact that the complexity that has come with the expansion of our media landscape has also made us more effective marketers; and the increased complexity of determining a better way to segment and target consumers will too.

By Brent Barbour

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