Marketers chase Millennials, but Gen X is where the money is

The lost generation that came of age in the ’90s is a cultural and economic force, but marketers ignore them still

 
Kurt Cobain taping MTV Unplugged: Nirvana in 1998

Kurt Cobain taping MTV Unplugged: Nirvana in 1993. Gen X is still unjustly ignored by marketers. (Frank Micelotta/Hulton Archive/Getty)

Emojification. Apparently, this trend of substituting tiny pictograms for actual words is “taking over the marketing world”—at least, according to the breathless prose of one industry blog. I’ve decided to skip being emojified, tempting as it sounds, and wait for next week’s trend. Like six-year-olds chasing a soccer ball, the “marketing world” seems to careen from fad to fad these days, pursuing the fickle millennial consumer as though its life depended on it. That can be fun, but it’s tiring. And besides, it might just be taking our eyes off the only generational ball that really counts right now. It’s time we faced it: In every sense that matters to business, generation X is ascendant.

I’ll confess to having a soft spot for gen-Xers. Besides being married to one, I remain grateful to them for saving me from the ’80s. All that plaid flannel and under-produced guitar terminated the neon plastic of the preceding era to my great relief (even if it took a deep recession to inspire all that slacker angst). But the kids who entered adulthood in the ’90s had more important work to do than rescue us from Milli Vanilli. The first generation of babies that people actively tried not to have were about to invent the future. Now they’re in charge—and it might be a good idea for marketers to show them a little respect.

The business foundation for this argument is simple: There are a lot of gen-Xers, and they spend money. Born roughly between 1960 and 1980 (the precise years are the subject of endless hairsplitting), they’re now at an age when they have families, homes, mortgages, cars and maybe even investments, with the oldest of them in their peak earning years. Though they’re not quite as numerous as millennials, the delta isn’t as large as you’d think. In Canada, which cohort is bigger comes down to how you choose to categorize those born in the early ’80s.

Regardless of your definition, it’s flat out crazy to ignore gen X, unless you think it isn’t a distinct tribe, as many marketers do. It’s understandable, given that generation X prepared the cultural buffet that millennials grew up on. But from The Simpsons to the web, much of what the latter claims for their own actually made its way into popular culture through a group of young people with an altogether different world view from the idealistic, perennially frustrated young consumers that obsess marketers today. The two cohorts may seem the same, give or take a few grey hairs, but they’re not.

In stark contrast to the pressure to succeed that plagues young people today, gen X was raised on criticism and low expectations. The last generation to declare itself with art instead of technology grew up tough and alienated. As William Strauss and Neil Howe put it in their seminal book Generations (almost anybody pontificating about generational cohorts is channelling Strauss and Howe, even if they don’t realize it), “More than anyone, they have developed a seasoned talent for getting the most out of a bad hand.” Now they’re running households, businesses and for election.

As distinctive as gen X’s world view is, the differences between them and their younger cousins also extend to matters more practical to the marketer. Most credible research suggests that while they’re tech-savvy, Xers relate to technology differently, more like people did when the digital revolution began. They’re less likely to interact online and more so to use the web as a resource. They still use email to communicate asynchronously, and they still watch television on a TV, if the content is worth the trouble. They’re still digital, but they’re a little more Negroponte and a little less Shingy about it.

For such grown-up, hard-nosed consumers, there is no magic marketing bullet. Generation X is an economically significant, culturally distinct market that isn’t clamouring for attention but might be worth it anyway. It will just take a more direct approach to get any in return. Gen-Xers may have fallen silent in this new century, but their provocation still stands: Here we are now. Entertain us.

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