Generational Sociology and Boomers
Karl Mannheim (1893 — 1947), a founding father of the field of sociology, conceived the essence of generational theory through a seminal 1923 essay entitled "The Problem of Generations." Mannheim insisted that when a youth cohort faces substantial turmoil during its formative years between ages 12 and 25, a sense of generational identification strengthens.
The leading-edge of the Boomer generation came of age between 1964 and 1975, an intense era of social, political, and technological changes. Protest marches, lifestyle experimentation, and social role reinvention became hallmarks of Boomer youth, a movement full of fervor, fun, and fantastical ideas about reorganizing society and culture.
Quantitative Research Supports Generational Theory
Even before I became fully aware of Mannheim's theories, and as I was finishing the first draft of Marketing to Leading-Edge Baby Boomers in 2002, I was convinced that Baby Boomers had substantial generational affinity influenced by extraordinary turmoil during our youth, buttressed by a mass-market advertising industry that had targeted us since we were in diapers.
But I had no quantitative evidence, other than the insights I have gained since 1978 from creating myriad successful advertising and promotional campaigns targeting Boomers.
The Pew Research Center conducted a national survey from March 10 through April 15, 2015. Researchers studied 3,147 adults who are part of their American Trends Panel, "a nationally representative sample of randomly selected U.S. adults surveyed online and by mail."
Pew's study concluded that Baby Boomers have the most pervasive sense of generational identification when compared with four other living generations: The Greatest Generation, the Silent Generation, Generation X, and Millennials or Generation Y. Pew concluded: "Fully 79% of those born between 1946 and 1964, the widely used age range of this generation, identify as Boomers. That is by far the strongest identification with a generational name of any cohort."
Not only do the majority of Boomers identify with their generational label, 70 percent also feel that their assigned generational label applies to them "very well (31 percent) or fairly well (39 percent)."
Research evidence suggests that shared generational values formed during external conflicts and cultural turmoil do not perish with time passing; rather, the sociological phenomena typical of Boomer youth are finding newer ways of manifestation as the generation ages. Shared generational values can also be thought of as "collective mentalities" or "dominant ways of thinking."
How can marketers tap into the powerful influence of generational values?
Here's how Volkswagen recently delivered a nostalgic advertising message targeting Boomers for its People First Warranty:
Another method is to examine topical issues confronting members of the generation today, such as possible exposure to the hepatitis C virus infection. Gilead Sciences directly addressed Boomers in the following commercial:
Whichever method advertisers use to attract attention and instill positive brand impressions with Boomers, it is critical that creative directors and copywriters understand subtleties and nuances of what it means to have reached adulthood during the Vietnam War era.
Like all generations, we retain positive memories of our youthful years and struggles. Like all generations, we have contemporary needs, wants, and concerns unique to our generational journey.
Appropriated vs. Acquired Memories
Generational theory recognizes that memories we appropriate from other generations — meaning those memories we experience vicariously through stories shared by members of older generations and historical media — are not as powerful as memories we acquire through personal experiences during adolescence and young adulthood.
To members of younger generations, the assassination of President John F. Kennedy represents an abstract lesson from history; to leading-edge Boomers, the killing of this president remains vivid and enduring. Every one of us born before 1957 remembers that fateful day — exactly where we were when we heard the shocking news. America changed, and the Boomer generation lost much of its innocence and trust. Kennedy's assassination persists today in our collective psyche.
To members of other generations, the Woodstock Music & Art Fair may sometimes be seen as a hackneyed cliche. To Boomers, the festival represents a time and place when everything changed in dramatic ways, whether or not as individuals we attended.
To members of other generations, being at risk for infection with Hep C may represent a moral failing of too much "free love." To Boomers, the possibility of being infected hearkens back to memories of long-lost lovers when "making love" was not seen as something awful but rather natural.
Advertisers need cogent advice from those who understand generational nuances, not just those who are strategic and creative with marketing communications, and that, in a nutshell, is the purpose of my consulting business.