A tweet by a guy named Michael Schaub went somewhat viral recently. “Every time I see a baby boomers vs. millennials tweet I wonder if they realize there’s a whole generation in between who hates them both,” he wrote to his 12,400 followers. It got retweeted or liked more than 32,000 times.
It’s funny, but it turns out that Schaub’s tweet is only half true.
Generation X, that middle child generation squashed between Boomers and Millennials, has a pretty decent opinion of their elders. Those in Gen X chose positive words to describe Baby Boomers as part of the 2017 Ipsos Global Trends survey. Their top five descriptors (selected from a long list) included “respectful,” “work-centric,” “community-orientated,” “ethical” and “well-educated.” That’s identical to how the Millennials viewed the Boomers and is as similarly positive as the review Boomers gave themselves.
But what is also true from that tweet is that Gen X does not approve of the Millennial generation. And neither does anyone else. On the positive side, they (and other generations) gave Millennials the nod for being “tech-savvy.” From there, it’s all downhill with descriptors such as materialistic, entitled, lazy, selfish, arrogant, narcissistic… you get the idea. The data in the charts below is from the U.S. but these trends, with mild variations, are found the world over. These are even the words Millennials use to describe their own generation.
Why the generational attitudes?
Why all this tension? And how do generations get branded anyway?
“A lot of this is life cycle. People in midlife always attached pejoratives to people coming of age,” said author and historian Neil Howe. Howe, who serves as the demography sector head for Hedgeye Risk Management, is credited with coining the term “Millennial” in the early 1990s. “[Older people] sense that [younger people] are inadequate replicas of themselves or they idealize what they were when they were young.”
Boomers feel threatened, he said, by the things that are truly different about Millennials. Further, they don’t understand that some of those differences are positive. This sort of generational tension is “mammalian”–it’s a behavior you see in other species, not just humans.
But why do Millennials buy into it? Why don’t they push back against all this negativity? Howe attributes the non-response to what he sees as a key generational strength of Millennials.
“They want to get along,” he said. “They are respectful and so well-socialized that they can say, ‘Let the other person think they won the argument.’”
Author, venture capitalist and Gen Xer Bruce Gibney agrees that the poor light cast on the Millennials is largely cyclical. He cautions against taking too much stock in our current opinions of them. It’s difficult to judge their long-term “identity” as a generation so soon. They may turn out to be “lazy” he says, but “we don’t know.” He points out that there’s very little in the way of longitudinal data on their adult behaviors because so many are still so young.
We are wrong about Boomers, too
Many of the positive aspects ascribed to the Boomers might boil down to good self-marketing.
“There’s nothing more ironic to see boomers talked about as patient and well-socialized,” said Howe, who characterized his generation as one that “will argue until the sun comes up” and that has pushed back against authority throughout their lives.
Gibney, whose new book “A Generation of Sociopaths” takes an obviously negative view of the Boomers, points out that this generation has a high level of control over the media and political spheres. Marketers, media and politicians, he said, have engaged in a “self-reinforcing dialogue of flattery.”
Millennials clearly need a marketing makeover for their entire generation. The way they and Boomers see themselves impacts how marketers view and generate creative targeting them. Further data in the Global Trends Survey, as well as another research package Ipsos produced focusing on the Millennials, show that there are great differences in the media they consume and the levels of trust they have in brands and in advertising.
Gibney thinks we’ll see even more fragmentation within the media landscape. For decades, marketers have engaged in “reciprocal self-flattery” with the Boomers. More recently, they’ve turned their attention toward the Millennials. The focus has been on spinning those negatives, like “self-centered” or “narcissistic,” into positive traits like “you’re an individual.” He adds, with typical Gen X sarcasm, “Over time we’ll start seeing those labels sink in because all commercial mentions have to be positive, right?”