When it comes to how much information and insights there are about a generation, the size and uniqueness of the group matters. Behemoth generations get examined closely. Demographers, sociologists, industrial psychologists, advertising researchers, and business analysts all spend oodles of time compiling and parsing data about BIG generations. Because of their sheer size, the predilections, attitudes and actions of large generations have a profound impact on society. Similarly, generations that are conspicuously different from previous ones get a lot of media attention and scientific study simply because they stand out. This explains why the nearly 80 million Baby Boomers and the 75 million Millennials have been the media darlings for decades. Those generational groups are both large and distinctive.
Conversely, smaller and less notable generations get overlooked. Meet Generation X (born 1965 to 1980), the red-headed step-child of 20th century generations. Gen Xers, as they are commonly referred to, have been largely ignored by the population patrollers. As the name implies, they have been Xed out of the demographic spotlight. Born from 1965 to roughly 1980, this somewhat overlooked generation today ranges in age from about 35 to 50. That may very well be part of the problem. This ‘generation’ doesn’t cover the usual 18-20 year span of most generations. Gen Xers also aren’t young and trending or gray and retiring. Some might even argue that they haven’t really redefined society. For the media, this generation hasn’t delivered much in the way of fire, fuss, or freshness. In most of the ways we take stock of generations – their racial and ethnic makeup, political, social and religious values, economic and educational circumstances and technological engagement – Gen Xers are somewhat low-key, smack between adventurous abundant Boomers like Steve Jobs and Sir Richard Branson and the engaging, modish Millennials like Mark Zuckerberg. That said, although many businesses are fascinated with Millennials, it would be wiser to focus on the well-educated Generation X, especially since many companies are now led by Gen Xers.
X Marks the Spot
Wedged between Boomers and Millennials, the small generation of Gen Xers (about 60 million now) have been viewed as unoriginal and unaffecting to the political, economic, social and technical landscape of the U.S. However, to dismiss this generation because of its diminutive size or its absence of notoriety would be a mistake. Generation X has been key to ushering in many of the changes shaping the 21st century and transforming the world.
Gen Xers were the first generation to predominantly have two working parents. That gave rise to the new term “latch-key kids”, children who returned from school to an empty home because their parents were away at work and were left with little parental supervision. In turn, this made Xers the first to play a lot of video games during adolescence. This led some to view Gen Xers as a generation of introspective slackers. But this turned out to be far from the truth. In fact, as part of the June 9, 1997 Time Magazine article titled “Generation X Reconsidered”, Time’s cover read: “You called us Slackers. You dismissed us as Generation X. Well move over. We’re not what you thought.” Today, most would agree that Generation X was initially misjudged and actually blossomed into a productive thriving groupGen Xers became resourceful, independent and self-sufficient people. As a whole, it became a goal-focused generation (think of the wildly best-selling book “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” by Stephen Covey) and spawned the concept of multi-tasking. In short, Gen Xers became a generation of doers and creators.
Indeed, this generation came of age as the world began changing in leaps and bounds, and Generation X jumped on the bandwagon to spur even more change. Gen Xers were the first to use personal computers in day-to-day life. They were the first to use beepers and then cell phones in order to stay continually “in touch”. And it was the generation that saw the flourishing of global logistics as an industry, increasing the urgency to have “the right item in the right quantity at the right time at the right place for the right price in the right condition to the right customer.” Given these developments, it is no surprise that Gen Xers are known for their broad, global perspective and impatience.
This group also endured experiences that made them somewhat cynical and skeptical of big government and big institutions. They watched major government debacles including Watergate, the Iran-Contra affair, Three-Mile Island and Chernobyl. They grew up hearing their parents complain about the energy crisis of the 1970s and came of age during the widespread layoffs of the 1980s. Indeed, many Gen Xers struggled to find jobs after college. According to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics, there was a sharp rise in joblessness to nearly 8% among college-educated men and women ages 24 and under in the early 80s. That may explain why Gen Xers are hard workers (once they found jobs) and are more likely to stay at a job longer than Millennials. Gen Xers are also better educated than any generation before them, with 43% having graduated from college.
Having enduring joblessness early in their work life and having more education may also be contributing factors why Gen Xers are rising to the top positions of companies, shaping work policies with broader definitions of career tracks, entrepreneurial mindsets, and work-life balance expectations. In fact, a survey by Ernst & Young found that 70% of workers said Generation X make the most effective managers of teams, versus 25% of Boomers and 5% of Millennials. Gen Xers are playing the role of bridging the divide between the older me-focused Baby Boomers and the inclusive, relaxed and empathetic Millennials that follow. The Gen X leadership style is a mix of the success-driven style of previous generations and the benevolent, flexible one that Millennials expect. While Gen Xers value hard work, they also actively participate in a variety of communities and live full, multidimensional lives.
Not only are Gen Xers career-driven, they are also carrying a bigger load in family life. They are sometimes referred to as the “sandwich generation” because they are increasingly caring for their aging and ailing parents (who are living longer at a time when Alzheimers and other illnesses affecting the elderly are rising sharply) and are also raising more than 50% of the nation’s children under 18. This has added a level of stress on Gen Xers not felt as acutely by previous generations.
Making the Bucks
According to the Nielsen organization, Gen Xers have a tendency toward affluence, technological savvy and brand loyalty. At 60 million strong, this target market has the numbers, the money and the ability to shop. Indeed, Generation X is an audience most businesses would do well to target. They may have been overlooked in the past, but Gen Xers are now thriving financially and they are able to spend on the things they value. In fact, one study sees them as the cash cows replacing the aging Boomers.
Actually, according to the numbers, although the Silent Generation and Baby Boomers were both vying for top spot in sheer net worth, Gen Xers today have more spending power than any other generation, with 31% of total income dollars. That’s because practically all of the Silent Generation has retired and the Boomers are starting that trend as well. In fact, a Shullman Pulse study showed that 36% of Gen Xers have either a household income of over $250K annually or a personal net worth over $1 million. These would be considered upscale Gen Xers, and they account for 10% of the generation. But even the rest of Generation X that isn’t ‘upscale’ also have higher incomes that their baby boomer or millennial counterparts.
Interestingly, though, Generation X is not only the first generation to have the highest percentage of college graduates, it is also the first generation to have the highest percentage of women earning more than their male spouses. Over 20% of Gen X women earn more than their Gen X spouse.
Marketing to Gen Xers
So what are Gen Xers doing with all that income, now that they are in their peak earning years? About 90% of them are saving money. At the top of the list, half of all Gen Xers want to help pay for their children’s college expenses. Having gotten very little assistance from their Baby Boomer parents, Gen Xers themselves were saddled with huge college debt, a fate they don’t want for their own kids. Gen Xers also want to start a business, be financially independent, buy a home, minimize their taxes, and leave an estate for their heirs. These goals all require a lot of saving. However, Gen Xers are also saving to travel for pleasure. About 50-75% of all Gen Xers want to travel for pleasure in the next year (although statistics show that many Americans are forgoing vacations altogether). Financial planners, travel agents, stock brokers, accountants, real estate agents and universities should all be actively targeting Generation X with their products and services.
To appeal to Gen Xers, both males and females, means connecting them to everyday household and family activities. They will relate to marketing that shows “this is me” as opposed to marketing that says “I wish that were me.” Unlike other generations, real-world situations and authenticity appeals most to this cohort. They aren’t into high-powered, high energy or daring ads or gimmicks. Instead, they prefer to be approached in a calm, safe and appropriate manner. Female Gen Xers are somewhat sentimental, wanting to memorialize life’s milestone family and household events. Male Gen Xers are relaxed, low-key, and subtle. Generally, they prefer to talk through issues and spend their free time on traditional masculine activities such as sports, cars and handyman projects. This is a demographic that DIY hardware stores, pick-up truck manufacturers and sports teams should actively court.
Generation X may be small, but it is a notable generation comprised of educated, earning, bridge-building, technology-straddling doers who are on both sides of the marketplace as managers and buyers. While this cohort may have been overlooked before, it is a group that should now be looked over and taken seriously.
Quote of the Week
“It is never too late to become what you might have been.”
© 2015, Written by Keren Peters-Atkinson, CMO, Madison Commercial Real Estate Services. All rights reserved.