All Generational Research is Not Created Equal – Caution Advised

By Chuck Underwood, Founder and President of The Generational Imperative

Generational business strategy has emerged in the past decade as a powerful business tool.  This is the good news.

 Because it is proving to be so helpful in the marketplace and workplace, a whole bunch of people have read a book, slapped a shingle on the wall declaring themselves to be “generational consultants,” and are now spouting generational information that is terrifyingly inaccurate.  This is the bad news.

 And as one of the handful of people who developed this field of study beginning more than a quarter-century ago, I’m concerned about the junk that’s floating around.

 So let’s go back to the beginning.  Here are the three truths – researched and documented – that constitute the foundation of generational study:

 Truth # 1.  In the first roughly 18 to 23 years of our lives, you and I form very powerful Core Values that will guide our decision-making for life.  Core values are burned into our brains by the TIMES that we experience during our formative years and by the TEACHINGS we absorb from older generations of parents, educators, religious leaders, and others.  And those people who share those same times and teachings will, by and large, share the same core values.  By sharing the same core values, we become a “generation,”and whenever the times or teachings, or both, change in a SIGNIFICANT and WIDESPREAD way, a new generation begins.

 Truth # 2.  Generational core values, we now know, exert significant influence over our consumer choices, career decisions, lifestyle preferences, personal relationships, and personal behavior.  So, in order to fully connect with any generation – in the marketplace, workplace, living room, house of worship, classroom, anywhere – we must understand not only that generation’s core values but also the formative years’ times and teachings that molded them.

 Truth # 3.  There are five living generations of Americans, and these apply with about 80% to 90% accuracy to English-speaking Canadians, as well, but not to ANY OTHER COUNTRY.  Although other countries use the same generational labels, we cannot accurately apply generational core values of Americans to any other countries, even our close, same-language friends in countries such as England and Australia:

G. I.                  born from 1901 – 1926          current age in 2013 is 87+
Silent               born from 1927 – 1945          current age is 68 to 86
Baby Boom     born from 1946 – 1964          current age is 49 to 67
GenX                born from 1965 – 1981          current age is 32 to 48
First-Wave
Millennials      born from 1982 – 1995          current age is 18 to 31

Millennials are still coming.  We do not yet know the birth year in which their generation will end and our next one will begin, for this reason:

  •  Generational study is not reliable until we get out of high school at about age 18.  THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS A 12-YEAR-OLD OR 16-YEAR-OLD MEMBER OF ANY GENERATION.  At the moment, it appears that today’s 17-year-olds, a year from now, are going to become Millennials because their core values are looking as if they’ll be very similar to those of current First-Wave’ers.

When the day comes that 18-year-olds are demonstrating core values that are significantly different from First-Wave Mils, and when we see that for a few years, we will then, and only then, be ready to announce our next generation.

 We become a member of a generation when we FINISH our classroom years, and not before.

 There is valid generational research and there is invalid generational research.  The topic is so hot that some very irresponsible people are creating generations that don’t exist or doing online “surveys” without the proper controls and then proclaiming they have new generational research, all in order to land a speaking gig or have an excuse to publish a book.

 Beware these scammers.

 Another “beware”:  if some organization claims that it has conducted “a worldwide study of Millennials,” my response is…

 No you haven’t.

 Instead, you’ve conducted a study of people who are the same age as America’s Millennials, which means you’ve done AGE research, which is profoundly different from GENERATIONAL research.

 No generation is a “worldwide generation”.  Generations tend to be very nation-specific or region-specific.  But absolutely NOT worldwide, even with the influence of the Internet.  From one country to the next, the times and teachings simply vary too sharply.

 Bottom line?  Be critical of news stories and research and speakers and books.  That is, check to see where their content came from.  Make the source prove his or her claim with reputable sources and clear attribution and proper controls on their research, because if you’re using generational information to guide your event or exhibition, there’s too much to lose by following all of that inaccurate junk that’s now out there.

Chuck Underwood, founder and president of generational consulting firm, The Generational Imperative, Inc., is one of the seminal scholars who developed and popularized the field of generational study and business strategy.  He consulted with CEIR in 2009 on its landmark generational research study, Power of Exhibitions in the 21st Century which offers insights for events and exhibitions to better understand GenXers and Millennials.

Mr. Underwood has authored the comprehensive book, The Generational Imperative:  Understanding Generational Differences In The Workplace, Marketplace, And Living Room.  He has hosted the national-television series “America’s Generations With Chuck Underwood” on PBS. His firm’s website is www.genimperative.com and he can be emailed at chuck@genimperative.com

Additional CEIR reports relating to the impact of generational preferences on event content and marketing preferences include:

Power of Exhibitions in the 21st Century Phase II

Generational Differences in Face-to-Face Interaction Preferences and Activities

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