Can we stop talking about Gen Z already?


It’s time to end marketing’s obsession with labelling generations. Katarina Farrell our Managing Director in Sydney makes a case for an alternative approach.

Intellectually, we understand that no two people are the same. Yet, paradoxically, as marketers and communicators, we often expect diverse populations to act similarly based purely on the ten-year window in which they were born.

This is a symptom of age-related generational labels which influences everything from our research methodologies to the way we develop and promote products and services.

You could argue these labels have been created to better focus our marketing efforts. However, studies have found generational terms and assumptions can have the reverse effect and instead serve to shape people’s behaviour.

Research by McKinsey points out how focusing on generations can confuse people, warning, “Some social scientists even believe that the practice of studying generations can obfuscate what motivates people on an individual level. Generational theory should be understood with this caveat and used only as a way of thinking about society, rather than the gospel truth”.

It’s human nature to categorise things. It allows us to organise the world in a way that makes sense. But have we become overly reliant on generational labels and obsessed with the latest young generational cohort?

A decade ago, every second conference presentation or article was focused on the traits of millennials. Today, it’s all about Gen Z.

This onslaught of information about younger generations feeds into fears we’re all out of touch with younger consumers – which is understandable given changing communication styles, technology evolution and the fragmentation of audiences.

But whether it’s Gen Z or Gen X, there are many generalisations made about how people act and work based on these labels. Boomers are bad at using technology. Millennials are afraid to talk on the phone. There are always exceptions to the rule and so, as marketers, we could be doing ourselves a disservice by relying on these shortcuts.

Listening to the Julia Louis-Dreyfus podcast, Wiser Than Me, I was struck by an interview with designer Diane Von Furstenberg. Von Furstenberg proposed we stop asking people their age and instead ask how long they have lived.

It’s a provocative question you can pose to a five-year-old or a 90-year-old, and expect vastly different perspectives on their experience of life.

Imagine if marketers focused on people’s experiences and achievements instead of throwing them in a bucket with everyone else born five years before or after them.

It’s a richer territory to think about experiences, attitudes, and behaviours. And it opens up target markets you may not have considered.

Take, for example, a relationship break-up. While there are obvious differences in break ups at different life stages, at the heart of it, there is the same emotional core of loss running through them. The same is true for, say, people buying a house – the excitement, fear and stress – or planning a holiday – the desire to get away.

So instead of pitching a product or service at a group of people identified by age, let’s consider instead their life experience.

It’s an approach luxury brands such as Cartier, Gucci and Rolex apply by going after ‘upper-class consumers’. Or for a more down-to-earth example, think Patagonia, a brand that markets based on customer values ranging from eco-consciousness to climate activists or outdoor explorers.

In today’s data-rich world, big brands are already gathering information about their consumers such as purchasing behaviour. Instead of segmenting it based on age, there’s an opportunity to organise that data around similar interests and experiences.

Think tank Pew Research recently announced it would be ending the use of generational labels after hundreds of researchers signed an open letter calling for the change. They argued the labels are confusing, counterproductive, and not based on scientific evidence. Some went so far as to call generational research clickbait.

Next time you see an article with Gen Z in the headline, fight the urge to click on it. As long as we keep clicking on them, people will keep writing them and we’ll keep developing advertising strategies and campaigns based on these generalisations. Even though it could be limiting the opportunities to genuinely connect with people.