The generational anomaly
The current generational model that many pop-sociologists, newspaper columnists and marketers cling to may be a convenient framework, but it is one that is not fit for purpose in an ever shrinking, ever fracturing and more complex world. The most robust academic work in the field, the grandly titled Strauss-Howe generational model is, even to its champions, an Anglo-American-centric tool for historical framing and to its critics, a vast generalisation with little empirical evidence to support its core thesis. As appetising as an academic deep-dive on this may be, I shall limit this to thinking about recent generations and their utility (or otherwise) as a tool for understanding people and cultures from a brand perspective.
The idea of these 20-year mono-cultural blocks in human time were born out of the post war baby-boom, particularly in the united states and were the beneficiaries of the post-war American high; rapid growth of mass culture and mass consumerism as well as a marked increase in living standards and leisure time. They were also the first group to be dissected from the outside by marketers, and in many respects the reinforcing messages made the idea of a ‘generation’ and its particular spirit and outlook a self-fulfilling prophecy.
That the ‘Boomers’, and the later Gen-Xers in the US were the two most convincingly coherent cohorts may be no coincidence. Not just because they were researched, written about and sold to in a way that moulded them into a coherent whole, but also, economically speaking, in the west, they were more ‘whole’. On the soft side you have a golden age of mass broadcast media and on the hard side you have, what is in the long history of pre-industrial, industrial and post-industrial capitalism, an anomaly – a decrease in inequality.
Now, not to get all Piketty about it, but with good working class wages and earnings doing better than assets, there was a chance for people of the same age across a broadly similar cultural backdrop to have similar experiences, and similar possibilities open to them, socially, professionally, educationally. Historically, this is an aberration, as the young country squire and the young peasant would have never felt part of a similar generational identity, but with decreasing inequality, relative prosperity, mass media and a world that still felt big and un-PC enough to forget about those defined as the ‘other’ – non-capitalist, non-white, non-EU/US – we could lull ourselves into thinking that this was a world where neat 20-year blocks of people could be in it together.
Of course if we had of taken a global view in the 70s when the idea of the ‘Boomer’, the first marketable generation, was being popularised we may have seen the fallacy of that, but we didn’t, it stuck and now in an ever-shrinking world we can somehow post-rationalise the theory because we all have smartphones. Of course, we can’t, and in fact, everyone doesn’t have a smartphone at all. The world is smaller for those who can afford to shrink it, which is a self-selecting and self-confirming sample. The reality is, birth year is a very poor proxy. A 24 year old urban Jakartan versus a 24 year old in an agricultural area of Sumatra will be very different. The Jakartan may have a lot in common with a 24 year old in downtown Sao Paulo, but he may also have a lot in common with a digitally savvy 53 year old in Berlin. Likewise the ‘our son or daughter of the soil’ in Sumatra might have more in common with a middle aged Bavarian farmer.
An age based monocultural theory works in a monoculture, as the post-war US was to a large extent. So what was age acting as a proxy for in that self-selecting blinkered process? What are some of the key axis, the indicators that can allow us to start forming some useful cohorts, that we can map against populations?
Urban versus rural
A key indicator which has a huge bearing on your views, outlook and interaction with the world – shapes the kind of influences that you are exposed to, the amount of risk and reward available to you and the kind of stimulus you have to shape your view. A rapidly urbanising world offers us a dangerous confirmation bias to the idea of homogenous aged-based international cohorts.
Which itself acts as a proxy for many things, including affluence and even more strongly, political inclination – the higher your educational attainment, generally the more liberal you lean, at least within the normative framework for your cultures political spectrum.
Key life stage markers
Another where Age was a useful proxy, but longer, less linear lives and changes in aspiration (when it comes to kids and settling down) and hard headed reality, especially when it comes to urban housing mean that it is not an accurate or useful global proxy any more.
Marriage, parenthood and home/property ownership are all massive deciding factors shaping someone’s outlook and view. Where many of the western-centric generalisations about millennials fall down in Asia is that they fail to remember how much younger people still have children and that, particularly in less equal, more patriarchal skewed set-ups, a 24 year old without a child is more different to a 24 year old with a child than she is to a 40 year old without.
One that, if Google and many other tech utopians have their way, will eventually disappear as a discerning factor, but the reality is that globally we are not yet at a stage when this can be disregarded. Access is uneven, can be patchy and often for many as a proportion of income (another key factor) too expensive to be ‘always on’.
Optimists versus pessimists
How do you see our future? How do you see the world? Naturally this will be influenced by any number of things, but it is important to take into account. There are many with huge advantages in developed nations who are negative in their worldview, and the converse is true in many more difficult to live in cultures and situations. The importance of outlook should not be overlooked.
Of course, looking at mapping based on these, you would expect to see age driving certain clusters in certain countries, but it would be interesting to see how that matched up against other groups elsewhere. A Vietnamese urban 20-something might really tally with an affluent, upbeat suburban boomer on America’s east coast…!
Of course the danger here is veering in the opposite direction, but the point is we must realise that time and age are a poor proxy and no guarantee of some kind of universal human generational experience.
- Article by Adam Nelson