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Give generational stereotypes the flick

By Malcolm King - posted Thursday, 13 September 2012

Stereotyping people is a short hand form of prejudice that relieves us of the duty of thinking.

There is no such thing as Generations X and Y. They are not generations. They are small age cohorts devised by marketing researchers, predominantly in the US, to flog stuff to. Originally 'cohort socialization' was devised in the States in the 1960s to sell alcohol to teens.

The genesis of this Gen X and Y rubbish came from an academic paper called – wait for it … Cohort Generational Influences of Consumer Socialisationout of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, back in 1994. If you were born in the 1980's, this mob was waiting for you.


It is impossible using current demographic techniques to draw any conclusions about a small age cohort's beliefs, attitudes or psychological typologies based on 'common' historical experience or even, for that matter, from the technology they use.

We can ascribe consumer-type behaviours such as why young people buy iPhones or why they use social media - but so what? When I was a kid I bought a new stereo and two push bikes (one with Sturmey Archer gears – so cool). I was at a life stage when those commodities interested me.

Marketers (and others) are keen to commodify groups of young people because they can sell these empty concepts to advertisers. Marketers use life stage analysis to draw these dodgy conclusions – and then charge their gullible clients millions of dollars for the privilege.

Even with the masses of qualitative and quantitative data gathered by academics and governments over the years, we still cannot make definitive statements about the Baby Boomer generation. We can only make tentative generalisations.

Why? Every individual has a unique cognitive understanding of passing experience. Is my conception of historical experience the same as yours? This area fascinates me but it's not the type of question that interests marketers or recruiters. Indeed, recruiters would be just as well served by analyzing a job applicants star sign than birth cohort.

There is one exception and that is Hugh MacKay's research on what he calls the 'Lucky Generation' (born in the 1920s). From the vantage point of 80 or so years, we can look back at the formative influences on people born in that period and make some considered conclusions about their 'world view'. Not so with more recent birth cohorts.


Generation X was born roughly and imprecisely between 1965-1980. They have been branded as materialistic and disenfranchised. There is no valid or replicable evidence for this. It's a divisive stereotype, a myth.

People born 20, 30 or 40 years ago are much like the people born in just about any epoch of the last 100 years. We would recognize the foibles and qualities of boys in Edwardian London as being the type of behaviour of boys today. Human behaviour does not change.

What changes is the multitude of ways we try to classify and monetize that behaviour. Small age cohorts do not evince personality. We personify them and stereotype them to make them easier to summate and sell.

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This story was published in The Advertiser.

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About the Author

Malcolm King is a journalist and professional writer. He was an associate director at DEEWR Labour Market Strategy in Canberra and the senior communications strategist at Carnegie Mellon University in Adelaide. He runs a writing business called Republic.

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