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Unlocking the Power of Generations

Do generations really matter? The answer is yes! And, it’s possible to unlock the power of generations all across your organization including your research efforts, strategy, hiring, or daily operations.

Editor’s Note: This post is part of our Big Ideas series, a column highlighting the innovative thinking and thought leadership at IIeX events around the world. Elli Denison will be speaking at IIeX North America 2019 in Austin, TX. If you liked this article, you’ll LOVE IIeX North America. Click here to learn more. 

No one likes being put in a “box.” On the other hand, as researchers, we are always looking for continuity, similarities, patterns, or correlations, and oftentimes fine demographic factors to be useful in uncovering these links. One such factor that has proven to be remarkably helpful, particularly in recent years, is age or generation.

Generation (based on birth year) can be a powerful predictive clue to better understand a person’s decision-making processes or even what he or she might want from a brand, product, or experience.

  • Did your parents let you roam the neighborhood for hours on end, only expecting you back for meals, or was your childhood play mostly conducted in supervised playdates?
  • Did you have a house key to show yourself in after school or did your parent pick you up, hand you a snack, and speed to after-school activities?
  • Did you grow up huddled around a family radio or with a smartphone in your hand?
  • Did your family talk about money or do you still know very little about the true state of your parents’ financial situation?

Believe it or not, these formative experiences make a big difference because they play a role in shaping your outlook, habits, and decision making as an adult. We all then carry these structures into our own families, workplaces, and customer experiences. This is why generational research is so important.

Studying generations can provide a powerful piece of the puzzle, whether the goal is trying to understand consumer behavior, the direction of future trends, updating a legacy brand, or even strategic innovation.

Sometimes people who are roughly the same age simply feel differently or think differently than another group of people who are roughly a different age. Often, they want quite different experiences with the same product or service. A teen may need an athletic brand to provide a personal identity marker for Instagram or Snapchat, whereas a Boomer might just want a quality pair of tennis shoes, and never think to post his new kicks on Facebook.

It’s important to note though, that the objective with generational research is not to shove people in a proverbial box, but rather to add an additional lens through which to better understand them. For instance, people who grew up without the Internet and mobile devices often have very different habits, perceptions, and expectations than teens who are baffled at the sound of a dial tone.

This is just one small example of what generational differences might look like. But it’s important to note them because with 4 and in some cases, 5 generations in the workplace these differences can starkly appear in the professional world, in everything from recruitment messaging and employee perks to communication styles and rules about working remotely.

Generational differences are everywhere!

But, they need not divide us because differences can actually be strengths. Each generation can be valued for what it’s members bring to the table; every table, from the kitchen to the boardroom. These varied perspectives, experiences, and perceptions can make for a richly diverse, multi-faceted organization or team. Uncovering and understanding differences allow us to sort through when it’s time to adjust to accommodate others, when it’s time to compromise, and when it’s time to hold fast to a decision, direction, or policy. There are times for each of these and generational research helps inform these decisions.

It’s common to joke about “those kids today” or “when we were young…” but aside from the ‘walking barefoot in the snow to school’ exaggerations, there is some truth to the sometimes starkly different experiences or outlooks of different generations. It can also be comforting to discover that there is an enormous group of people, roughly your age, that experienced similar trends in education or parenting, developments in technology, or social or political events that made their formative years similar to your own.

So, what is a generation? Simply speaking, a generation is a group of people born at or around the same time that experienced similar societal, technological, and financial trends. Generations are different than demographic groups. A demographic group such as age 18-34 is often a prized group of consumers, but generationally, this demographic is comprised of two different generations; Millennials and Gen Z – some are teens and some are now parents. Research is showing that these two groups are similar in some ways, but they are very different in others. While it may be desirable to catch them both, this often requires a different strategy, approach, or messaging.

Consider adding a generational lens to your organization’s research and see what new and multi-layered insights pop up! When my co-presenter, Heather Watson, and I speak at IIeX Austin, we’ll share exciting insights, anecdotes, and new research about Gen Z, the youngest generation of consumers, employees, and citizens…also your children, grandchildren, interns, and students.

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Elli Denison

Elli Denison

Director of Research, The Center for Generational Kinetics