The concept of generations has been a way of organizing and describing social and political phenomena for many decades, certainly for as long as the human race has had some semblance of mass media in which to foster collective awareness.
Contemporary sociological and marketing evidence is unequivocal: generations exist. They are self-defining; they have unique personalities; and they differentially assert their influences on social change and progress. Understand generational nuances; better predict the future.
But ill-defined labels and conceptualizations around generations can lead to heated debates among pundits.
For example, a new generational debate is underway with this election season. So it goes: the American demographic group born between 1946 and 1964 is not a single generation or generational cohort.
I began and ended my previous business book, Marketing to Leading-Edge Baby Boomers, by focusing on the first ten years of the post-World War II birth boom. This is my generational cohort, a group I’ve observed and marketed to since we purchased hula hoops en masse. This is the group that came of age during the height of the Vietnam War and engaged in social / political protests of every stripe and color.
There is another cultural generation within the traditional demographic birth boom, bracketed by ’46 and ‘64. This group has been lumped together with the older half, much to the detriment of businesses and political parties trying to target marketing messages. This group has been called “Late Boomers” and “Trailing-edge Boomers,” but I am sanguine about the clarity and distinctiveness articulated by Jonathan Pontell. He calls this cohort Generation Jones.
Karl Mannheim, the father of sociology, observed that a generation is a social location in history that has the potential to affect an individual's consciousness in much the same way as social class. He delineates an adolescent intersection between biology and society such that “individuals who belong to the same generation, who share the same year of birth, are endowed, to that extent, with a common location in the historical dimension of the social process.”
The force and influence of generational identification can lead to enduring changes during adolescence, a “quite visible and striking transformation of the consciousness of the individual in question … a change, not merely in the content of experience, but in the individual's mental and spiritual adjustment.” Profound personal adjustments can reflect and augment “collective mentalities” that shape the future.
So, how could two generations exist in the time span that many influential pundits reserve for just one? According to Mannheim, “Groups which work up the material of their common experiences in different specific ways constitute separate generation-units.” Generation unit members elicit a common consciousness causing “the members sharing them to form one group.” Each unique group develops collective slogans, styles, norms, ideals, and experiences that serve “as vehicles of formative tendencies and fundamental integrative attitudes, thus identifying with a set of collective strivings.”
Collective strivings are the basis of what Mannheim calls “continuing practice,” meaning influential formative tendencies rising up from a generation early in adulthood persist through life. Once formed, a unique generation tends to assert commonly held values across the generation’s lifespan.
As Jonathan Pontell and other influential observers see it, Generation Jones came of age in the 1970s, not the 1960s, and this generation's values differ from Boomers enough to merit new conceptualizations of generational identity.
Jonesers’ significant cultural influences were different from Boomers (Live Aid vs. Monterey Pop Festival). Their macro economic and political challenges were different (stagflation vs. a buoyant economy). And their aspirations today, political and otherwise, are different (pragmatic vs. idealistic). From a business and political perspective, this cohort needs a different set of strategic insights for marketing effectiveness.
This is also why we need to think of Barack Obama (born 1961) as belonging to a different generational unit than Hilary Clinton (born 1947), although they are technically part of the same birth boom. Many of their core values are in alignment, as members of neighboring generations tend to be, but they are dissimilar enough from a generational perspective to warrant a different mindset when it comes to understanding the cohorts they represent.
Pontell and I are amicable colleagues, but he points out that his generation is bigger than my generation (and therefore, by implication, GenJones just might be more economically viable or potentially influential). We don’t agree on a few years describing the beginning and ending of our respective generational cohorts. But trying to settle an issue that can’t be settled is fruitless. Fundamentally, we agree there are two distinct cultural generations bracketed by the years 1946 to 1964, plus or minus a few years on either side.
I am of the opinion that all generational cohorts are of equal value; one is not intrinsically better than another. What you do with the insights available about unique generational personalities is a different matter. Failure to understand and capitalize on the strategic differences between them is the wellspring of missed opportunities and ineffective market performance.
Barack Obama is a Joneser; Hilary Clinton is a Boomer. For political and business insiders who truly understand how to tap into generational nuances, this insight proposes a plethora of possibilities that might even win an election.
Here is a new video produced by Jonathan Pontell that provides some credible testimonials from leading journalists: