Yesterday's blog post about Mark Zuckerberg's stated attempt to modernize Facebook by moving away from older generations of social media users elicited the expected reactions from many of you.
Frequent commenter (sadly, there are no “points” for that), Bob Bellin, conceded that Facebook may be confronting its “eventual cliff” because the future is always with youth. That said, Bob wondered about the validity of a new social media concept aimed at the upper-demo Facebook is apparently in the process of abandoning.
Boston-based consultant, Clark Smidt put it this way: “Is there something wrong with over-40 dollars?”
That's a question many Classic Rock radio programmers (present company included) have pondered as Baby Boomers “age out” of radio's 25-54 box. Bellin also noted the format has “managed to become relevant to younger listeners, despite the age of its music.”
But generational stereotyping remains a major part of radio research and programming strategies. Whether we define the population by age cells or with catchy labels, are we really applying logic and accuracy to our calculations?
The Atlantic writer, Joe Pinsker, suggests we end the practice of dividing up audiences with “standard” generational boundary lines. In “Gen Z Only Exists in Your Head,” Pinkster makes the case that generational analysis of data and trends is not only limited, but “stupid” (his word, not mine).
We're been using generations in our Techsurveys (in addition to Nielsen-ish age groupings) for more than a decade. Most end users and audiences for whom I present these studies enjoy the groupings, even if social scientists can't agree on precisely which years make up which generations.
In fact, Pinsker acknowledges Baby Boomers may be the only legitimate generational label because it was defined by an “actual demographic event” – the post World War II explosion of births. Beyond Boomers, the other gradations – Greatest Generation, Gen Xers, Millennials, and now the Gen Z sprawl are simply made up. They are also fluid because of the lack of agreement among social scientists about where to to draw the lines.
Even stranger, YouGov's recent survey of American adults reveals that many people don't actually accept their own generational groupings. Not surprisingly, Boomers are most apt to embrace their societal name – nearly three-fourths readily identify that way. But it's downhill from there. Every progressively younger generation is less likely to associate themselves with their generational ID tags. In fact, fewer than four in ten so-called Gen Z's are simpatico with being linked to that last letter in the alphabet. (After all, where do we go from here?)
Note that YouGov uses the Silent Generation as the label for those born before 1946. In Techsurvey, we did, too. That is, until many respondents (mostly in the public radio version of our study) complained. We have since “rebranded” them as members of the “Greatest” Generation (which other social scientists do as well), apparently mollifying the offended.
Still, only Boomers are generally copacetic with standard generational labeling, while virtually everyone else has bones to pick. According to Pinkster, Pew conducted a similar study back in 2015, only to find that many people “mis-identify” themselves. Their data showed that a third of Millennials think of themselves as Gen Xers, while 8% claim to be Baby Boomers.
Other mis-labelling occurs among the other generations, too. We might conclude that people are simply confused about where they actually fall generationally or this is their way of rejecting the idea of being pigeon-holed with one of these labels.
Pinsker suggests the media own some of this problem because reporters and commentators love the stereotypes. They make it easy to categorize people, and worse, they help set up artificial generation friction, and even conflicts.
A Millennial friend of mine (not in radio, by the way) told me about an incident in her workplace, repopulating post-COVID. In what may be a preview of coming attractions when more of us return to the office (or station), she told me about how some of the Gen Z kids were screwing up
the workplace by imposing their standards and mores on everyone else.
In fact, that was the topic of a recent New York Times piece by Emma Goldberg. Its title – in the “Business” section – says it all about generational tension:
Her story suggests Gen Zs have become aggressive about imposing their ideas on standards on everyone else – from holidays (whether the company takes Juneteenth off) to pronoun assignments (he/him) to simply feeling unhip in the workplace.
This last point is nothing new. The younger generations have always enjoyed ridiculing their parents' generation (remember, Boomers?). But Goldberg says the push from Gen Z is already changing the way many offices roll, and that in many cases, it has made the company culture more relaxed and casual.
But as The Atlantic's Pinsker points out, the generational groupings aren't just fraying, they often inaccurately create narratives that may lead to branding, marketing, and positioning mistakes. Even worse, people who otherwise would never stereotype by ethnicity or gender may be far more likely to label Millennials as “slackers,” Gen Xers as apathetic, and Boomers as out of it.
The moment we hear that about “my generation,” there is a tendency among many of us to push back – to explain “But I'm not that way.”
A number of years ago, Jacobs Media collaborated on an ethnographic research study with PRPD (the Public Radio Program Directors). Aptly for this post, we dubbed it “The Millennial Project.” We spent entire days following around twentysomethings – around the house, to and from work, in the workplace, and in the early evening hours.
It was an informative, even eye-opening study that helped inform public radio managers and programmers about the emerging audience and the challenges and opportunities they present. One of our questions for respondents asked whether they embrace the term “Millennial” to describe themselves.
And nearly across the board, they pointed out the label covers a lot of ground – and they did not consider themselves to be “typical Millennials.”
In fact, that identifier was often reserved for a younger sibling or co-worker, far more likely to typify the cultural stereotypes of the generation.
Ironically, the Who sang about this topic generations ago. In the stuttering “My Generation,” they offered up this wish:
“Hope I die before I get old.”
In the case of the faces of the band – Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey – it didn't come true. They are both in their mid-seventies, still performing, and even occasionally sneering.
True to form, they are probably resistant to change, technophobic, and taking up jobs that would be better filled by younger musicians.
I talked about those Boomer stereotypes last June in a post called, “During COVID-19, Baby Boomers Played Catch-Up.” It featured our Media Usage Pyramid from this year's Techsurvey, an eye-opener if you think of this generation as one that still can't figure out how to text:
All those thumbs-up emojis symbolize media, gadgets, and activities that showed upward movement from the previous years study (the vertical bar at the far right). Streaming video and audio as well as listening to podcasts represent increased activity among Boomers. And their acquisition of gadgets that include smart TVs, “hearables,” and smart speakers are impressive as well.
The generational stereotypes only serve to further polarize an already great divided populace. More often than not, they add more friction, resentment, finger-pointing and conflict. And as social scientists increasingly are concluding, the generational delineations are based on imagining segmentation to begin with.
As we look at other generations – and then we look in the mirror – we see things that run against the grain of these popular stereotypes. They erode our culture, or dialogue, and our discourse.
And Pete and Roger ended up being wrong. This getting older stuff ain't so bad.
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