Welcome to Generation Nation How understanding the parents, economies, and technologies of each generation can help us better communicate with them

The 21st century is suddenly one-fifth over, and already we've experienced incredible changes that are dramatically reshaping our world.

Walk down any street or through any mall—chances are you'll see more people looking down at their phones than up at their surroundings. While the debate rages whether this is better or worse for humanity, there’s no question that marketers must understand the opportunities and challenges this shift in behavior presents.

It should come as no surprise that nearly 95% of Americans currently own cell phones; 77% of those are smartphones, up from just 34% in 2011.1 The desktop internet experience of the early 2000s has been replaced in short order by mobile connectivity that puts the world in everyone's pocket—creating on-demand expectations that brands must now meet in real time.

It can be tempting to attribute most rapid changes in our world to the ever-accelerating pace of technology. Yet a confluence of demographic shifts are also exerting force on American society and business.

Much has been made of Millennials passing the Baby Boomers as the nation's largest demographic segment. There are now more than 92 million Americans born between 1980 and 2000, or nearly one-third of the entire U.S. population.2

Yet Millennials are just one of six demographic segments alive today. Four of these segments—Millennials, Baby Boomers, Gen X, and the youngest, Gen Z—wield vast social and economic influence that marketers are clamoring to capture.

For brands, today's challenge is determining the best ways to speak with each of these groups.

Experience shows us that personalization resonates across the board. But beneath all of the data that makes personalization possible lies a thorough analysis of how generational behaviors and attitudes have been shaped and continue to evolve over time—and some of the insights might come as a surprise.

Meet the Generations

"Three major influences have shaped the general attitudes of each of today's generations: their parents, the economies they've lived in and the technologies they've embraced," says Daniel Dejan, Print and Creative Manager with Sappi Fine Paper, who has studied generational differences at length. Could Dejan's model for how generational attitudes are formed help marketers better understand how to communicate with each generation? Let's find out.

Their parents: The Baby Boomers are the children of post-World War II America. Their parents returned victorious to start families, enter the workforce, build homes and launch a scientific revolution. It was a time of unparalleled national optimism.

Their economy: Their formative years were ripe with economic prosperity. Although they weathered economic crises in the 70s, 80s and two major downturns after 2000, they have otherwise earned well and lived well. Yet by necessity or choice, some continue to work even as they enter their later years.

Their technology: The internet and email arrived later in their careers, changing professional productivity and expanding personal connectivity. More than 80% prefer desktops and laptops to mobile devices.3 One-quarter spend more than 20 hours a week consuming online content.4

Their attitudes: The world they grew up in is vastly different than today's, yet there is an inherently optimistic attitude that still defines Baby Boomers. They've become more passionate about their interests with each passing year, increasingly engaging with email, website, blog and video content; and responding to money-saving offers promoted across these channels.

Their parents: Gen Xers are largely the children of the Baby Boomers, many of whom married later and had fewer children than previous generations. Many Gen Xers grew up as latchkey kids and children of divorce. They're the smallest of the four major living generations.

Their economy: They watched their parents traverse a series of financial ups and downs. Many entered the workforce during Wall Street's growth amid a pervasive “greed is good” mentality. They struggled during the dot-com bust and 2008's Great Recession, which set a lot of Gen Xers back. Today, many are trying to remain relevant in the middle part of their careers.

Their technology: Just as their parents saw TV take over radio, Gen Xers have been witness to the birth, rise and prominence of the internet. Nearly 80% now participate in some form of social media,5 but many prefer stationary internet to mobile. More than 78% download or watch online videos each month.6

Their attitudes: Gen Xers grew up during some turbulent times, including the Vietnam War, Watergate scandal, and saving and loan crisis. They've been characterized as cynical and distrusting of institutions by others and think of themselves as independent- minded. They respond to high-quality content on social media, blogs and review sites to help them make more informed decisions, and and have significantly shifted their entertainment consumption from TV to online in recent years.

Their parents: Millennials come from a cusp combination of Baby Boomer and Gen X parents who were passionate about making life easier for their children. Many are derisively characterized as “helicopter parents”. 15% of Millennials are of foreign birth, making them the most diverse American generation in a century.7

Their economy: Millennial formative years saw 9/11 and two major downturns in post-2000 America, impacting their parents and even themselves as young professionals. They are known to value experiences over money—64% said they'd rather make $40,000 a year in a job they loved than $100,000 a year in a job they didn't.8

Their technology: Truly the first children of the internet age, Millennials are more than content consumers—they were also the first generation to fully embrace their own content creation. They continue to use the online world to connect with others, share experiences, and validate choices.

Their attitudes: Millennials strongly echo the optimism of Baby Boomers: 74% believe they will make a difference in the world.9 They scrutinize marketers to make sure products and services are ethically-sourced and produced. "Making of" articles and videos resonate with Millennials, as do brands that actively engage them in conversation through user-generated content. They are a group that often relishes the opportunity to help shape the voice of their favorite brands.

Their parents:Some Gen Z are the first offspring of the Millennials, others are Gen X. They've grown up during a shift in parenting—from "helicoptering" to a more empowering approach focused on helping kids form strong decision-making skills at an early age. empowerment—investing children with decision-making capabilities. This has led to many Gen Zers having heavy influence over family purchase decisions.

Their economy: Because Gen Z has seen their parents struggle, they've become uncommonly driven and responsible at an early age; 21% have savings account before age 10; 12% are already saving for retirement; and 56% have discussed saving money with their parents in the last six months.10They're also the first children of the entrepreneurial sharing economy—55% believe they'll own businesses one day.11

Their technology: Highly mobile and always connected, online life for Gen Z is an organic extension of real life. They average 15.4 hours per week on their smartphones,12 and 95% say they use YouTube regularly.13 In fact, 53% percent would rather give up their sense of smell than their lives on social networks.14

Their attitudes: Nearly 80% of Gen Z say it's okay for celebrities to talk about why they like or use a brand.15 The rise of the internet star means that anyone can be famous in the Gen Z world, and that everyone should have a voice online. Brands that find ways to seamlessly include their products and messaging via third-party traditional and digital media are gaining traction with this segment.

Want to discuss ways to raise the bar for your brand’s communications? Talk to an RRD expert.

Share and Connect

  1. Pew Research Center. Mobile Fact Sheet (2017)
  2. Goldman Sachs. Millennials coming of age (2015)
  3. Scott's Marketplace. Marketing to baby boomers: 5 action items for online sellers (2017)
  4. Marketing Land. The generational content gap: How different age groups consume content (2015)
  5. Business 2 Community. Gen X and social media: Stuck in the middle (2014)
  6. eMarketer. How digital behavior differs among Millennials, Gen Xers and Baby Boomers (2013)
  7. Obama White House Archives. 15 economic facts about Millennials (2014)
  8. New York Times. Generation nice (2014)
  1. Telefonica. Global Millennial survey (2013)
  2. The Center for Generational Kinetics. Our 2017 National Gen Z Study: The state of Gen Z (2017)
  3. Top Employers Institute. Millennials are tech savvy; Gen Z are tech native (2017)
  4. Vision Critical. Generation Z characteristics: 5 infographics on the Gen Z lifestyle (2015)
  5. Adweek. Infographic: 50% of Gen Z 'can't live without YouTube' and other stats that will make you feel old (2017)
  6. McCann Worldgroup. Today's global youth would give up their sense of smell to keep their technology (2011)
  7. Adweek. Infographic: 50% of Gen Z 'can't live without YouTube' and other stats that will make you feel old (2017)