The Pew Research Center is one of the most influential and important places for social science on the planet. Founded in 1990, the non-partisan think tank aims to hold a mirror up to American society.
But one thing it won’t be doing any more is using generational terms like ‘millennials’ or ‘Gen Z’ to describe different cohorts of society. In a thoughtful announcement last month that ended a year-long decision-making journey, Pew’s director of social trends, Kim Parker, explained the decision.
The main issue for the Center is that when it compares generations it also needs to control for age. “The question isn’t whether young adults today are different from middle-aged or older adults today,” Parker notes. “The question is whether young adults today are different from young adults at some specific point in the past.”
In other words, most – if not all – of the differences we keep claiming to be some new and changing aspect of society are actually a more basic, recurring phenomenon: that of being young. Not of being significantly different from previous generations.
Another problem for Pew is that the United States has seen significant population change during recent decades. When studies do pick up statistically different attitudes and behaviours across generational cohorts, the likely explanation is as much down to its different racial and ethnic constitution rather than any fundamental age related issue.
If I told you I would not be targeting Scottish people with my champagne marketing plan because they are “too tight” to spend on luxury… you’d be right to take offence.
Finally, Pew is uncomfortable with the gigantic swathes of society that are suddenly lumped together under a single arbitrary identifier when names like millennials are used. “A typical generation spans 15 to 18 years,” Parker explains in her article. “As many critics of generational research point out, there is great diversity of thought, experience and behaviour within generations.”
This careful, thoughtful relegation of generational labels will come as something of a shock to marketers. Most of our industry constantly talks about Gen Z, Gen X and their current obsession – millennials – as if these segments are well supported by data and instantly ready for target marketing. But so much of this stuff lacks any legitimate foundation. There are three enormous issues with using demographics to segment markets.
1. Intra-segment horseshittery
First, as Pew notes, there is too much variance within these ‘segments’ for them to be meaningful on any commercial level. Case in point: there are 15 million millennials in the UK. Does anyone really believe that these people all share the same traits, lifestyles and preferences? Or that slicing more judiciously with a further set of variables would not make more sense and result in better commercial outcomes. Come on!
When BBH Labs demonstrated that being an Orangina drinker (whatever your age) signalled more than twice the social cohesion of any of the demographic cohorts, it gave us two important insights. First, the utter pointlessness of demographics as a way to segment your market. Second, the superiority of attitudinal variables (eg introverts) and behavioural approaches (people who floss) over blunt generational assumptions.
Start with people who complete crosswords or consume your nuts. Only then do you want to move to demographics, in that hope that there are some skews in those behavioural groups. Starting and ending with demographics makes no sense.
2. Inter-segment horseshittery
Second, these demographic segments aren’t just heterogeneous within their massed ranks, they are also often remarkably blurry across the different segments too. I’ve sat through too many brand plans in which marketers talk about millennials versus Gen X, only to then reveal that when they actually slice their quant survey and compare the attitudes and activities of these two apparently opposing slices of the market, the data confirms they are essentially identical and within reporting error of the sample.
Put another way, a millennial is often as likely to behave like a Gen X-er as they are another millennial. These aren’t distinct or even meaningful methods for segmenting markets – just bullshit labels that become reality because we’ve stereotyped them that way.
That was the main thrust of an article in Harvard Business Review from four esteemed and frustrated organisational psychologists a few years ago. King, Finkelstein, Thomas and Corrington cited a number of peer reviewed articles that all concluded the same thing: that these enormous claimed differences in how different generations responded to the workplace were essentially horseshit.
“What really matters at work are not actual differences between generations,” they suggest in their article, “but people’s beliefs that these differences exist.”
3. Political incorrectness
Which brings us to a final, ultimately damning point about demographic segmentation – it is abhorrent from an ethical, DEI perspective too. If I told you I would not be targeting Scottish people with my champagne marketing plan because they are “too tight” to spend on luxury, or mentioned that I was only targeting men for season tickets for a football club because women “aren’t really into sport that much”, you’d be right to take offence. In the 21st century, no-one should make assumptions about people based on their gender, race or any other generalising factor.
But for reasons I cannot understand marketers happily make a whole bunch of unjustified assumptions about someone on the sole basis of the year they were born. Millennials are digital natives who want to save the planet but won’t commit to a career. Baby boomers are more conservative petrol lovers who are only into cruises and cheap funerals. Arch stereotypes are fed by these giant, inaccurate generational groupings.
I write stuff about my arse. Most of my columns (with the exception of this one up until this sentence) feature the flagrant over-use of words like ‘cock, ‘fuck’ and also ‘fucking’. So when I am the one writing about something being morally unacceptable and politically incorrect, you know things have taken a pretty drastic turn for the worse. We should not be labelling people according to age any more than we do so based on race or religion.
And yet, as any daily check of LinkedIn will surely confirm, these generational segments continue to dominate. Why? The explanation is as simple as it is sad. Most marketers know they need some kind of target consumer at the centre of their tactical bullseye. Even the crap ones have that much knowledge. But many simply don’t have the capability or the data to segment a market properly, or make the equally appropriate decision to mass market. Instead, they flounder about needing something to tick the box and move onto their AI tactics in the multiverse with influencers thingy.
And that’s where these inaccurate, offensive slices of society come into their own. All a bad marketer has to do is say the words ‘millennial’ or ‘Gen X’ and the room nod their heads in stereotypical, unempirical unison. And all the time the real market and the real potential for growth and success is being missed.
The Pew Research Center is right to call time on these outdated demographic cliches. When will marketing catch up?