Hardly a day goes by without a blaring news story on the devastating impact of the millennials on the economy or how HR departments are challenged in dealing with Generation Z-ers. In Poland we have adopted, rather uncritically, the generation narrative, downplaying the importance of other factors that influenced adolescents in the 1980s and 1990s. Clickbait titles are just the top of the iceberg. Lying under the surface is a whole raft of research (not only quantitative) and marketing strategies based on generational insights, which can lead us down a blind alley. Fortunately, anthropology with its sensitive tools can be helpful to bridge the growing gaps between generations.
Why is the generational narrative so prevalent? Because it is a traditional model that has been around for a long time. According to anthropologist Margaret Mead, our industrial society has developed a configurative culture where both children and adults learn from their peers rather than from their seniors. Seniors in this culture play a primary role by defining the limits in which changes can occur. In her 1978 publication, Mead also described a pre-figurative culture, which was her vision of the future. In this culture, parents learn from children. Sounds familiar? We live in a time when children know how to operate touch screens and teenagers are technology mavens at their homes ‒ Margaret Mead’s future is starting to unfold right before our eyes.
Some say that technology does not determine culture but its impact on it is growing. Many experiences of young people dealing with digital technology have no counterpart in the experience of their parents and grandparents. Older people are losing control over youngsters, different generations find it difficult to communicate with one another. Here the classification of new generations steps in. As behavioural economics teaches us, people prefer simple solutions. Simple descriptions of the factors that make a given generation so-and-so. This is where things get tricky. First, generational segmentation was developed in the US and reflects American realities. Technological changes are commonplace, that’s for sure, but the history and experience of capitalism are not necessarily so. And even in the US, members of individual generations do not fully identify with the segments. New descriptions and ideas proliferate. Recently, there’s has been more and more talk about Xennials, who should be placed between X-ers and Y-ers. The birth years that define each generation are also moot. Who has not seen at least a few different brackets that are supposed to define Generation Y or Generation Z? In Poland, where we have to factor in communism and other factors, it is very tricky to apply the same generational logic, even if we shift the relevant generations in time and allow for the differences in mass culture, or rather in the process of shaping it, which only accelerated with the development of Internet access.
Of course, simple generational segmentation helps marketers on a daily basis in designing new products and planning Employer Branding strategies. Journalists also like to use the generational categories in their stories. However, we need to move beyond seeing generational groups only in terms of tabular data. If they form a sketchy social network without very clear outlines in the minds of communication specialists, that’s fine, especially in view of the typical human tendency to belittle younger generations, their attitudes and achievements. This might explain why all blaring research findings tend to be so well received. They fit in well with the not-so-new adage ‘O tempora, o mores!’. ‘Our civilisation is doomed, if the unheard-of actions of our younger generation are allowed to continue’ ‒ this sentence, etched into a 4,000 years’ old tablet discovered on the site of the former biblical city of Ur, could be said today. This only confirms the old truth that old people will always complain about young generations. As they get older, they wax sentimental about their own experiences and memories, and value them much higher than that of young people.
Three years ago, in ‘The 2015 Deloitte Millennial Survey: Mind the Gaps’, Delloite drew attention to the importance of intergenerational misunderstanding in assessing millennials’ as employees. Likewise, it is also easy to fall prey to misunderstanding when developing generation targeted marketing strategies. Data Tribe research experience shows that while it is difficult to make generalisations about Generation Y, general attitudes, such as the need for authenticity and honesty in communication, are quite important for Y-ers. Also important is the tendency to look for ‘something more’ ‒ a stronger emphasis on the social dimension, relationships with friends and on free time, and less on the career, but these are sensitive factors that are difficult to get right. The strictly technical dimension, the digitization of relationships, cannot be overlooked. However, it is also easy to stumble into a pitfall here, because by applying a simple logic one could think that since social media are very important for Y-ers, they should be an absolute must for Z-ers, a thing they can’t live without. The true fact, however, is that, according to a report by Origin, an in-house research outfit for Hill Holiday, 34 percent members of Generation Z have given up social media for good. Another example that shows the degree to which the generational picture has become an imagined construct is a study involving 18 thousand participants ‒ employees and students from 19 countries representing three generations (X, Y, Z) ‒ which was carried out by the INSEAD Emerging Markets Institute, Universum and the HEAD Foundation. Its findings indicate that members of different generations (more than 70% of them) share the opinion that flexible working conditions will create significant opportunities in their professional lives over the next 10 years. The approach to becoming a leader was also quite similar across generations, with 61 percent of Generation Y and Z respondents and 57 percent of the X-ers saying they find it important. It turns out that in many cases the country of residence is a more differentiating factor than that fact of belonging to a given generation.
Increasingly often, millennials research turns up conclusions that generations need to be broken down into groups, attitudes and consumer preferences. This approach was taken by IQS in their report called ‘The World of the Young’, where the 16‒29 demographic is divided into five tribes: homies, homealots, life hackers, shut-outs and hipsters, with the share of hipsters, which the media often represent as model millennials, estimated at 12 percent. This segmentation, which is strongly embedded in the local context and uses ethnographic tools, shows the diverse attitudes and needs of the generational groups that are often uniformly perceived. At the same time, research is still being done based on simplistic categories, which only contributes to ‘pumping up the balloon’ of generations in the media and in marketing communication. This provides fertile opportunity for comments such as the widely quoted suggestion of a certain Australian businessman that young people can’t afford to buy flats because they spend their money on avocado toast. Such superficial insights into customs, deprecating interpretations and tendency to generalise are the paradigm of thinking in terms of clearly defined generations. As the comments made in response to the interview show, this attitude can be successfully traced back to a distant past. Someone sent a tweet comparing this misjudged statement to the famous quote from Marie Antoinette, who allegedly said: ‘They have no bread? Let them eat cake!’. Both statements might have not been cases of generational assessment but assessments of the less wealthy by the very rich. However, the key thing was a misunderstanding of the members of another group, which is very characteristic of the comments typically levelled at Y-ers and Z-ers.
In sum, when drawing on the research findings and analyses of generational segmentation, you might want to set your sights on understanding, which anthropologists should find particularly easily to do. We should look at generational differences like a traditional ethnographer looked at an alien culture in order to understand it without undue valuation or excessive categorising. Soon, this approach might help replace the dominant notions with valuable insights.