I recently asked a gen-X friend of mine to give me her take on generational communications in the U.S. today. Her response was perfect: “In the words of MTV’s cultural phenomenon The Real World, it’s ‘The true story of seven strangers, picked to live in a house, work together and have their lives taped, to find out what happens when people stop being polite — and start getting real.’”
(Sure, there’s technically only six active generations, but I think we can all agree that baby boomers count as at least two on their own, so the analogy stands.)
Today, more generations than ever are sharing a very small marketplace. Their drastically different values and worldviews are constantly butting against one another, creating more noise, distrust and demands than at any other time in history. Coming from a member of the famously overlooked “MTV generation,” as gen X is often dubbed, my friend’s comment was not only an apt description of the challenges faced by the businesses who are marketing and selling to these distinctively nuanced generations, but also of what makes gen X unique on its own.
The gen-X audience is skeptical, educated and practical. They’re also tech savvy, having grown up alongside the internet, and they’re entrepreneurial do-it-yourselfers thanks to growing up in dual-career or single-parent households.
While generation X is smaller than the other age groups, and while its members are certainly not as outspoken as their boomer and millennial counterparts, the approximately 50 million gen Xers should not be overlooked. They are reaching their peak earning and spending years right now. Understanding their beliefs and values, how they think and what, why and where they make purchasing decisions plays a big part in earning their business.
Who are generation Xers?
Gen Xers are the generation squished between two noisy powerhouses: the baby boomers and the millennials. Gen Xers may be smaller in population, but they represent a mighty economic force with 18 percent of the total U.S. spending power, according to American Demographics.
The first generation truly raised by the media, much of their cultural development was more often filtered through the MTV lens than from their families, shaping their views on everything from music and pop culture to fashion, design, language, politics and social tolerance. Growing up on information also raised their expectations for knowledge — 29 percent of gen Xers have earned bachelors or graduate degrees; that’s 6 percent more than their parents. Nonstop access to media also honed their research skills, so they strive to make informed decisions in every aspect of their lives.
Their world view was also skewed by their formative years. Where boomers lived in the “free love” era, gen X grew up in the era of AIDS. Where boomers grew up building careers in a time of economic prosperity, gen X watched parents lose jobs to downsizing and globalization. They learned that working hard and being loyal didn’t guarantee rewards, promotions or job security.
At home, they were the first generation to grow up in an abundance of dual-career households or, alternatively, in the largest number of divorced, single-parent households of any previous generation. This generation of “latch-key kids” was accustomed to tight budgets, coming home to empty houses after school and learning to be frugal, independent and self-motivated.
Their tendency toward pessimism was bolstered further as a consequence of the Great Recession — gen Xers lost the most wealth of any group. According to Pew Charitable Trusts, between 2007 and 2010 they lost an estimated 45 percent of their assets. Reinforcing their lack of belief in guarantees and drawing on their basic practicality and entrepreneurial instinct, this led gen Xers to seek security in different ways than their parents or grandparents. They developed transferable, marketable and moveable skills, which, in many ways, led to the incredible growth of the tech industry.
There are six generations living in the U.S. today: The greatest generation, those born between 1901 and the early 1920s; the civics (or silent generation), born between the early 1920s and the early 1940s; baby boomers, those born in the mid-1940s to the early 1960s; generation X, born between the mid-1960s and the early 1980s; millennials, born between the early 1980s and the early 2000s; and generation Z, those born in the early 2000s to the present.
Why should businesses care about generation X?
They spend money. Lots of it. Currently, gen Xers are in their earning and spending sweet spot. The oldest in the generation have the strongest purchasing power and are close to empty nesting as kids head off to college. The youngest are marrying, having kids and buying their first homes. From either stage, their lifestyles lean toward higher spending. In particular, they are the leaders in spending for home improvements and childhood goods. In addition, gen-X families often share household and earning responsibilities, making time scarce. This has led gen Xers to spend 78 percent more on outsourced personal services than the average American.
They’re adventurous consumers. Gen Xers care as much as anyone about convenience and having a pleasurable shopping experience, but they also care about expressing their individuality. This makes them more willing to try new stores, products, services or ideas. Although naturally skeptical, they are more than willing to scope out alternatives to traditional options. This creates opportunity for businesses trying to expand in the marketplace. However, in order to capture gen Xers, customer service and quality must not only meet but exceed their already high expectations. Fail to do this and a business risks not just losing customers but also dealing with their vocal unhappiness across a variety of media channels.
They are influenced by media. Generation X was raised by media, and its members still access it at a level and variety that no other generation can match. While they don’t necessarily trust everything it communicates, gen Xers are highly accessible to marketers across a number of media channels. With their willingness toward early adoption and readiness to veer from trends, gen Xers offer businesses a variety of communication options from which to reach them.
How should businesses communicate with generation X?
Speak to their skepticism, and be clear and direct. By age 18, an American child will have seen at least 350,000 commercials, and this was true for gen Xers as well. This has helped shape gen Xers’ skepticism of all marketing messages as well as their ability to tune them out. Because of this, gen Xers are more likely to respond to a strong, singular message that is both compelling and true. Authenticity mixed with personal applicability goes a long way. Keep the details short, be realistic in your messaging and offer a money-back guarantee.
Celebrate their diversity and stand out from the crowd. Gen Xers are willing to try something new, to be adventurous. They look for this quality in the brands they spend their hard-earned dollars on as well. How a business courts them, markets to them and meets their needs must be unique and surprising, or a business risks losing their attention. However, be careful not to stray from authenticity in this pursuit, or a business risks losing this consumer forever.
Know their other options. Gen Xers are all about research and comparison. They care about individuality, quality, services and price. They also care about how a brand speaks to them. When shaping your pitch and product, knowing who else is out there offering options and how they are marketing that information is essential in order to win gen Xers’ attention and money.
Go digital. Gen Xers are tech savvy. They came of age right alongside the Internet. The majority use social media and smartphones and still rely on email as a primary communications method, more so than younger generations. This includes practicing good SEO, using search engine advertising and monitoring review sites like Yelp to see what people say about your products or services, because gen Xers are likely researching any spending decision online first.
Bottom line: When marketing to gen Xers, don’t count on brand prestige or trends to earn their money. Gen Xers have high expectations and little trust, so be up front and accurate with information and supportive and available with service. Knowledge is power to this generation, and they know how to research and find anything online. Make sure you know what they are finding, too, and that you’re offering them the alternatives they may be seeking when your competitors fall short.
Let’s be honest, few generations were more aptly named than the baby boomers. While the moniker may have risen from a historically specific fertility trend, in many ways it has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. As writer P.J. O’Rourke once described it: “We’re stuck with being forever described as exploding infants.”
If I wanted my 20-year-old son to join me for a late meal, I’d text him: “Buffet on me.” But I would never ever text my 86-year-old mother with a dinner invitation. For her, there would be a phone call with plenty of formalities and forewarning, a promise of a nice, sit-down establishment and a start time of 4:00 p.m. to take advantage of early bird specials. Why? Because each generation communicates differently.
When he’s not jet-setting to Tahiti or hobnobbing with his best friend Tom Cruise*, Sean O’Brien is just a regular guy. He’s 29, single, never pays full price when shopping online and likes to snowboard with friends in Tahoe.
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