Talk About Generation Gaps. This One’s 38 Million Strong.

November 10, 2002 | By Danny Hakim

Once every marketer’s sweetheart, Generation X is finding itself lost in the shadow of two generational giants. This became clear during a recent speech by Dieter Zetsche, the chief executive of the Chrysler Group.

“The next decade will include the coming of age of the most promising new generation of buyers since the baby boomers,” Mr. Zetsche proclaimed to a conference hall full of industry executives, analysts and journalists. On projection screens behind him, a chart appeared with three bars. A tall blue bar on the right side represented the baby boomers—from 38 to 57 years old and 82 million strong, by Chrysler’s calculation. Boomers, Mr. Zetsche’s chart said, are motivated by comfort, luxury and safety when they buy a car.

On the chart’s left side was a bright orange bar representing millennials, also known as Generation Y, the offspring of the boomers. From 6 to 25 years old, Generation Y numbers about 78 million. They want technological gadgets in their cars and an ability to connect to the Internet on the road, and they are loyal to brands.

In the middle of the chart was a faded gray bar, a short shadow that represented the 38 million members of Generation X, from 26 to 37 years old in Chrysler’s analysis. The company hadn’t bothered to forecast their tastes at all.

Many businesses define generations by statistical peaks and troughs, though there are different schools of thought on just where one generation starts and another begins.

A decade ago, youth-obsessed marketers were riveted on Generation X. Television shows and movies explored its trials (“Beverly Hills 90210,” “Reality Bites”), while the recording industry poured venture capital into Seattle grunge rock, the signature sound of a generation. The reigning aesthetic, seen in perfumes like cKone and Gap clothes, was unisex and casual.

But Gen X’s time as a marketing darling was short-lived.

“They go directly from boomers to Y’s,” said Ann A. Fishman, president of Generational Targeted Marketing, a consulting firm. “The reason is not because of numbers. It’s because Generation X is harder to understand.”

Neil Howe, a historian who has written on both Gen X and Gen Y (he defines the latter as everyone born since 1982), said Gen X was difficult to target because it never liked being categorized as a troop of goateed slackers in the first place.

“It’s a generation that celebrates its diversity and individuality,” he said. “So that’s one huge strike against X-er marketing. It’s easier to explicitly target millennials than Gen X. They think they have a great future and a special role in the future of this country, because of the way they were raised.”

Boomers, Ms. Fishman said, had a favorable economic and historical ride, and Generation Y is made up of bull-market babies. That makes both groups generally more optimistic and brand loyal, even now.

X’ers are less so. Yes, they grew up during Ronald Reagan’s “morning in America.” But they also came of age at a time when corporations downsized, when crack made the drug culture increasingly dangerous, when suddenly sex could kill you.

As a generation they have trouble trusting network news, the main political parties and many businesses that try to court them, Ms. Fishman says. Some businesses no longer bother.

“Generation X is the first truly tough generation to sell to,” said Charlene Stern, a senior vice president at NewGround, a bank services firm with headquarters in Chicago. “They don’t give you more than a second to slice through and earn your keep.”

Not every industry is specifically Gen-X-averse. Many companies, like soda makers, are perpetually focused on youth because that’s where their consumer base lies.

For Chrysler, the focus on Gen Y has as much to do with what it sees as an industrywide mishandling of the boomer generation, which turned to foreign brands like Toyota and BMW, as it does with an inability to reach Gen Xers.

“Detroit didn’t do a very good job of connecting with the baby boom,” said Jeff Bell, marketing chief for Chrysler’s Jeep. “When we see this huge group building, Gen Y, we say never again. It’s not a slight to Generation X. We do wish to sell products today. But we have to be ready for the next big boom.”

Still, said Richard Thau, the president of Third Millennium, a nonpartisan Gen X research organization, giving up on reaching his generation is “like driving around Europe and getting to the border of a country where you don’t have a map and turning around because you don’t want to find one.”

Then again, what does it matter?

“Gen Xers don’t drive cars,” he added. “We only pedal to work, right?”


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