Armies of marketing specialists have written their fingers to the bone to analyze and categorize the changing generations. This has gone so far that communications experts are already drawing up detailed psychograms for those born in the 2010s. The customer is king, so it goes without saying that we want to know his needs down to the last detail. But how useful is this for generating innovation in the company?
Class or milieu – What are generations?
The idea of understanding social change through generational affiliation is not that old. In contrast to biological theories of society and other categories considered immutable at the time, such as class or stratum, the sociologist Karl Mannheim devised a new model in his 1928 essay “Problem of Generations”. He wanted to explain the motivation of those who bring about change in society. In contrast to the traditional understanding of the world, which was based on unchanging conditions in nature, he attached great value to becoming and actively shaping the environment. He pursued the idea of a constant generative renewal of societies, which acts as a rhythm of historical change. In the 20th century, this idea significantly influenced theoretical approaches within the humanities that dealt with revolutions and political and economic upheavals.
Why doesn’t everything stay the same? It is because of different perspectives on the same events that create conflicts about what is the right thing to do. A generation is a specific age cohort whose members are all born within a defined period of time – typically over a period of about 20 years. According to the generational model, they are linked by a common social imprint. The assumption of a cultural state of consciousness determined by chronology is a kind of community of fate that binds each generation together. It experiences the external events and especially the “milieu” shaped by events in childhood and youth in the same inner dialectic. This in turn determines their worldview, which they perceive as natural. This natural worldview also brings them into conflict with other generations who grow up with partly opposite experiences and therefore judge the present from other points of view – as an example, early imprints of war and hunger on the one hand or prosperity and security on the other.
In this context, an age group delimited as a generation may well contain contradictions in its concrete forms. It is involuntarily part of the prevailing zeitgeist, which in turn is characterized by the “simultaneity of the non-simultaneous”. Moreover, the term has become so popular with a broad public in recent decades also because it introduces, alongside the identity-forming characteristics of “nation” or “culture,” a category that makes continuity and growth across borders mappable in an internationally networked world.
Overview: Every generation has its own style
The term has been used since the second half of the 20th century. The classification into different generations, which are characterized by delimiting features and achievements, is used retrospectively as a historical classification of national (and supranational) developments, but also projected into the future as an expectation. In this context, the dates vary by country and also within national literature. In the following, I list the best known ones:
Baby Boomers (ca. 1955-1969) – Economic Miracle and Sexual Revolution
Named after the baby boomers of the postwar period, who benefited from the economic boom and the emerging welfare state and lived new freedoms. They advanced democratization, emancipation and alternative life models.
Generation X (ca. 1965-1980) – Cold War and environmental protection
Often characterized as lost or “displaced,” Generation X lived through a fragile period of East-West confrontation and the collapse of communism. Critical of capitalism, they strengthened customization and consumer rights, supported gay marriage, and shaped the anti-nuclear movement.
Generation Y (ca. 1981-1997) – Internet boom and work-life balance
Generation Y or Millenials are the first so-called digital natives. They are tech-savvy and internationally networked. They are characterized as affluent and well-educated. They stand for sustainability and a changing working world that demands better compatibility with private life instead of a status-oriented career.
Generation Z (ca. from 1997) – Internet of Things and Self-Made Culture
Also known as Generation YouTube, this age cohort has grown up naturally with daily self-reflection and self-dramatization through social media and video portals. They have a less location-bound understanding of privacy and organize and inform themselves via peer communities.
Intergenerativity, digitalization and the social question in the consumer community
It all started with Generation X. The American photographer Robert Capa used the term for a photo reportage on young people as early as the 1950s. The term was later coined by Douglas Coupland in his 1991 cult novel “Generation X.” As a catchphrase, it became popular first in North America and then in Western Europe, branding an entire youth as disillusioned and disoriented. The Y and Z of subsequent generations simply followed the alphabet in their designation.
Generation X was the first to grow up with the label of the marketing world before it could invent itself. Ironically, it adopted the ubiquitous likeness and celebrated itself as a loser. And yet it has produced innovative and highly productive business leaders like Larry Page, Sergei Brin, and Elon Musk. In the public context, Generation X is strangely absent today, even though it is the generation that will set the tone in social institutions in the near future. Marketing campaigns target Baby Boomers as the set, affluent generation and Generation Y and Z as the future talent for the job market. What about Generation X? Did their invention merely fill a void that served the self-affirmation of an elite spoiled for success and oblivious to the collateral damage of political transformation?
While Generation Y or the Millenials and Generation Z, as digital natives and Generation Greta, embody the new age entirely, the Baby Boomers are the representatives of a bygone era that decisively shaped the young democracy of the 20th century after the great caesura of the two world wars and fascism. Generation X, on the other hand, are digital immigrants, no longer baby boomers, but also not yet fully absorbed into the digital age. This sandwich cohort, which is placed as a transition between the two perceived as successful and positive Baby Boomers and Generation Y, has precisely this advantage, however, that it knows both worlds and can thus act as a mediator between old and young.
Change of generations, but the same basic values
One should realize that the designations for the generations do not represent psychological concepts of a subpopulation. They are retrospective assessments of social developments and upheavals for which explanations – often constructed and difficult to prove – are sought at the sociological level. In addition, the focus is on those social groups that produce social change on a mental level – i.e., the (urban) elites. The sensitivities of the working (rural) population, which is hardly visible in the media and whose needs are determined less by short-term trends than by nature-based continuity and traditions, are not included to the same extent. Moreover, the generational concept is applicable only to a limited geographic space – a childhood in 1980s West Germany was different from one in Russia, even if the political thaw of the Eastern Bloc formed a common background melody.
So the categorizations are to some extent arbitrary. For while management consultancies and market researchers use these designations as a matter of course, their value is disputed in academia. Even though the different generations are repeatedly said to have different attitudes, studies and surveys show that the basic values are surprisingly similar: Self-actualization, work-life balance, stable relationships. What’s more, attitudes toward current issues such as equal rights or environmental protection change across all generations. The reason for this is that attitudes and values are not eternally fixed in people, but change through communication, interaction and shared learning.
Likewise, the image of others that the marketing industry solidifies through the advertising-effective definition of a generation in terms of certain characteristics influences the search for identity to a not inconsiderable degree. This can lead to the representatives willingly submitting to this external image or completely refusing to do so out of spite. In any case, however, it is an interesting question to what extent this external image of society does not already construct the self-image in advance and possibly thereby restrict free self-development more than it has an identity-forming effect.
Innovation in the company succeeds through participation instead of monitoring
The decisive thing about the generation model is not the demarcation, but the cross-generational re-evaluation of achieved goals through community building. The new style of younger generations is constantly forcing society to free itself from old burdens on the one hand and to focus more on the new, which has not yet been achieved, on the other.
If, for example, companies focus too much on the supposed interests of customers when it comes to innovations and instead underestimate the innovation potential of their own workforce, this can backfire. Social developments are difficult to foresee in advance and are determined by sudden changes (“tipping points”). New generations gain different cultural approaches through their special experiences, which leads to a different understanding of the tradition that has been handed down to them and therefore to new ways of acting – ways that previous generations had not imagined.
So instead of blindly relying on marketing studies, it is better to offer employees the opportunity to fully develop their potential for change. Employees have in-depth knowledge of their own products or services, which elevates them to a position of expertise that customers do not have. Moreover, especially if they belong to a different generation, they bring a new perspective to the table by looking at things from a fresh perspective and can thus suggest solutions that were previously inconceivable.
Conclusion – unleashing shared potential
It is important not to let oneself be limited in one’s corporate development either by established internal processes or by currently prevailing market needs. Because revolutionary innovations can only come about if, on the one hand, you try to offer customers real added value in their current lives, but on the other hand, think beyond the prevailing trends to actively shape a future that does not yet exist. Innovation in the company thus succeeds with all generations, provided that people listen to each other, try to comprehend the perspective of the other person and further develop the potential of the common denominator.