We’re all familiar with the terms Baby Boomers, Millennials, Gen X and so on, as a widely-used shorthand for the age groups in our society.
They might be common currency now, but they’re not new. It all started in the 1940s, with the arrival of the ‘teenager’, a burgeoning cohort of young people who had money to spend, and an identity to express through consumerism. At least that’s how the advertising industry viewed them.
This blossomed into a new ‘youth culture’, as a new space appeared between childhood dependency and fully-fledged adulthood. In a bid to keep this consumer dynamo turning, from this sprang the idea of a generation, a construct that allows youth culture to be reinvented every 15 or so years.
The Baby Boomers were the first to get the treatment. (The Silent Generation weren’t defined until later, retroactively as the ad people worked backwards once they were convinced of the commercial potential.)
Before that, we didn’t name generations, as consumerism was in its infancy, the true potential of a mass media had yet to be realised and post-war prosperity had yet to kick in. From where we stand today, this seems like a distant and impossibly innocent era.
Benefits to the consumer?
I’m all for using tools like this when and if they are useful, and they can certainly serve a purpose. For example, we used the generational names in our recent national survey into intergenerational wealth transfer.
But they’re not perfect. I can see how they would help retailers and manufacturers shift units but how much do they really benefit the end consumer?
Are we really saying that all the people born within a certain time frame are more like each other than they are like other members of their family? Or their country? Or their place of work or worship?
Something we learnt when conducting our survey is that these generational distinctions can also have limitations where discussing family money is concerned.
Shared family wealth
For good financial planning, it helps if all generations within a family are communicating openly about money. More talking and better mutual understanding usually translates to better outcomes.
However, packaging up generations into their own distinct divisions can create distance when we should be looking to get closer together on discussions around money.
What we try to do is encourage people to think of their wealth as the shared wealth of the family as a whole, not just that of the generation that’s currently holding it.
Each generation is simply a custodian of those assets which, if looked after and nurtured carefully, can pass down through the family over time.
Data is democratic
It’s also worth remembering that the idea for these generations was hatched in the 1940s, an era before a mass media had truly come into being, a different world from the multimedia environment we now live in.
Generational tags can only have a limited use in a world of multiplicity and idiosyncrasy powered by the internet and it’s only a matter of time before those of us who produce products and provide services start to reflect that.
A more intelligent use of data will, of course, drive this and inform how we define, anticipate and meet the needs of clients from now on.
Data is democratic in this sense, in that it can benefit those on both sides of the commercial relationship.
Personalised and nuanced
So, for providers of financial, legal and professional advice, the brave thing to do is to recognise and embrace the new complexity.
By building on the foundations of previous generations, we can create an ever more personalised and nuanced experience for today’s clients and those of the future.