Stop the Generation XYZ baloney!

Stop the Generation XYZ baloney!

Product/service developers and marketers—listen up!

Google “Generation X’ and you’ll get over 300 million results.

I think this way of thinking about people is nonsense. And so does Clay Shirky.

“One of the weakest notions in the entire pop culture canon is that of innate generational difference, the idea that today’s thirty-somethings are members of a class of people called Generation X, while twenty-somethings are part of Generation Y, and that both differ innately from each other and from the baby boomers. The conceptual appeal of these labels is enormous, but the idea’s explanatory value is almost worthless, a kind of astrology for decades instead of months.”
—Clay Shirky, Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age

Shirky goes on to say that those who like to dramatize these generational differences are making a fundamental attribution error; mistaking new behavior for some kind of change in human nature rather than a change in opportunity. Much of the “difference” between “generations” is in fact caused by a change in that generation’s environment or circumstances.

Stop the Generation XYZ baloney!

Rather than start with supposed generational differences, dig deeper into the causes for changes in behavior. Instead of marketing driven by statistical analyses of differences in behavior, concentrate on understanding why behaviors have changed. (Or haven’t.)

Then develop your products, services, and marketing around your understanding of relevant human behavior and the changing environment.

Remember, people don’t change that fast. But their environment and circumstances can.

That’s what you should focus on.


P.S. If you haven’t already, read Switch by the Heath brothers for a great practical approach to changing people’s behavior.

7 thoughts on “Stop the Generation XYZ baloney!

  1. If we’re reading this right, you’re not denying that there IS a difference, right? Things change so much between generations, but the people themselves react to that change, not the other way around. Definitely need to address the environment of change itself…

    1. Yes, that’s what I’m saying. While noticing that there are differences is better than being oblivious, it’s much better if we explore and understand how those differences have come about due to environmental/cultural/technological changes over time.

  2. Clay Shirky is my idol, so I’m kind of bummed that he comes out against generational differences (I think they exist and they matter), but I will point out that at the end he says their “explanatory value” is worthless. That is true! You can’t take generational differences and use them to explain why an individual feels something or exactly what marketing language you should use in your email. They don’t give you the answers.

    But Strauss and Howe offer some compelling theoretical explanations as to how different generations are formed, so I wouldn’t just dismiss them as astrology either. they are big picture, socio-historical trends. It makes sense to me that people who grow up in different cultures are different, and growing up in the sixties was different than growing up in the 80s. So I do think we should understand them. But they don’t really explain things. They are simply a piece of the conversation about what we need to do next and how we need to do it. And if we’re not aware of them, and we have a bunch of senior managers who are all in one generation, you do run the risk of creating things that seem right to a particular generation but puzzle people from the others.

    1. I’m a big fan of Clay Shirky too (and you, Jamie). I’m not sure you & I disagree that much. Do we see statistical differences between different generations? Yes. But should we start with these differences when thinking about marketing? I don’t think so. I think it’s more useful to look into the environmental/cultural/technological changes that have occurred, attempt to determine what factors are relevant, look for correlated indicators for these factors, and target the resulting population (which may or may not correlate to a “generation”).

      Example: I am 60 years old and have 3K+ Twitter followers (coincidentally, the same number as you, Jamie). I’m an outlier on the baby boomer generation demographics. It might make more sense to target people like me through specific data (3K+, perhaps he’s an “influencer”?) rather than go after, say, Generation Y.

      Finally: yes, senior managers who are all in one generation might be more likely to view things the same way, but any organization is susceptible to groupthink. In my personal experience with hundreds of organizations, groupthink doesn’t seem to correlate with one-generation management; it’s generally much more prevalent when certain management styles dominate.

  3. Adrian – Thanks for this post. While I agree that there are differences, I do not think they are as drastic as some people say. We have more that unites us than divides us. I am in the middle and I see people as people.

    1. Thom, I agree; I think seeing people as people and not as some abstract members of a class is key. I also think that age is a poor single-statistic measure to use for marketing the vast majority of products and services.

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