I am 43 years old. I’ll be 44 in less than six months. Generationally speaking, I’m a Gen-Xer.
I’m not ashamed to admit that, because I happen to believe that age is just a number. One that you subtract from your life expectancy to find out how many more years you have to live.
But here’s the weird thing. By observing my own behavior, that of my friends and cohorts, and by reading articles about advertising in Adweek, I have recently concluded that I am not a Gen-Xer at all. I am actually a faux millennial.
Physiologically speaking, I was born in 1971. But apparently I was born again in 1993, when I emerged from a self-imposed two-year period of semi-Luddism. Between 1991 and 1993, during two very intense years of college, my sole links to the outside world were a telephone, a Brother word-processor (millennials, you can see examples of this technology here), and a CD-player (on which I listened, pretty much exclusively, to Tom Waits and Fifties jazz).
As near as I can figure, that period of relative cultural isolation acted as a kind of personal reset button, cleansing me of my past societal touchstones and opening me to a new reality. How else am I to explain my out-of-step beliefs? I think funny animals are cute, and that cute animals are funny. I believe that cartoons aren’t just for kids and that sugar tastes good. I also like things that are clever and “outside the box.”
For example, I like this.
I like it a lot. But guess what? It’s aimed at millennials. I also like this. Guess who it’s aimed at?
[Full disclosure: I also like anagrams. That’s probably not a generational attribute. Or is it? True millennials: Feel free to weigh in here.]
What’s going on here exactly?
In an article for Wired last year, Gen-Xer Clive Thompson suggested that the negative rhetoric around the millennial generation (which had its analogous phase for Gen-X during the nineteen-nineties) is just the latest example of a timeless phenomenon. A generation that no longer has its youth takes out its bitterness on the one that still has it. (“Youth and elde are often at debaat,” Chaucer observed, at a time when the English language was also in its slacker phase.)
If that’s true, maybe millennial preferences are also less meaningful than we think. Or maybe we’re not asking all the right questions.
Does it matter that much that when it comes to laptops, tablets, and smartphones, device usage among boomers, Gen-Xers, and millennials are very different? Maybe somewhat, but less so if we can achieve platform agnosticism. To be sure, millennials, with their upward mobility, fewer children, and higher disposable income are an attractive target. But if a streaming video ad mistakenly hooks a faux millennial like me, what is to be done? Should I be thrown back?
In his critique, Thompson cites the work of Kali Trzesniewski, a life-span expert, who says that the basic personality metrics of Americans “have remained remarkably stable for decades.” As Trzesniewski’s report, with M. Brent Donnellan, cautions: “psychological theory suggests that great care should be exercised when forming generalizations about entire groups of people (e.g., all individuals born in a particular decade) based on limited perceptions that might be unduly influenced by extremely memorable exemplars.”
Translation? Relax. To a large extent, people are people.
It seems clear that faux millennials like me haven’t entirely escaped the marketing radar. Why else create slim fit jeans in addition to skinny fit? I’m afraid I do have a Gen-Xer’s body (no matter how hard I work-out, sculpted abs are just a chimera to my kind). Also, I am probably more preoccupied with death than a true millennial, and I am interested (though I pretend not to be) in all of your youth-preserving salves and unguents.
Here’s my message to my fellow marketers: Keep doing what you’re doing. If by making smart, funny, attractive ads, you feel you’re doing what you need to do to attract millennials, so be it. I’ll keep enjoying them because they’re smart, funny, and attractive. (I probably won’t buy a lot of Oreos. But if they’re sitting out somewhere, I’ll eat tons.) While you’re at it, maybe start working on a smart, funny way to sell antacids and hemorrhoid cream. (This shouldn’t be much of a stretch.)
And if you miss your target market now, don’t worry; they’ll age into your cross-hairs. We’re all getting older and more forgetful by the minute, but that won’t stop us from reacting to what works.
Photo by Christopher Michel via Flickr Creative Commons (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/legalcode).