Generation X

Those ’70s kids who toted Star Wars or Grease lunch boxes are now toting briefcases. Those ’80s Madonna wannabes and punk-skate kids are now commuting to work. A good many of them are, anyway. Hard to know for sure. Elusive to pin down, this bunch can’t even be counted correctly because the years that define this generation are up for debate: 1961-1981, 1965-1976, 1965-1980. No matter; what it boils down to is less the actual years and more the attitude. It’s a common thread—a gross generalization, if you will—about a group that prizes its individuality. Welcome to Generation X, the term coined by Douglas Coupland in his best-selling 1991 novel, Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture.

Nestled between two larger generations, the baby boomers (76 million strong) and Gen Y (81+ million), Gen X is nothing to sneeze at. The nose count for Gen X—or more precisely, 27-to 38-year-olds—is estimated at more than 44 million. And they represent 18 percent of total US spending power—that’s $736 billion, according to American Demographics.

“X is a term that defines not a chronological age, but a way of looking at the world,” says political cartoonist and commentator Ted Rall in his article, “Marketing Madness: A Post-Mortem for Generation X.” Researchers, writers, market pundits and social commentators have described these young people and their “way of looking at the world” as cynical, entrepreneurial, apolitical, educated, tolerant, skeptical, and practical, to mention just a few. Figuring out what shaped their beliefs and values, how they think today and, most importantly, what they’re buying and where they’re buying it, is what every manufacturer, advertiser and retailer wants to know. Here it is.

Growing up X

MTV, AIDS, Space Invaders, Kurt Cobain, The Breakfast Club, the fall of TV evangelists, The Simpsons, Thriller. If you were born between 1965-1976, these influences were part of your culture, part of your upbringing, part of you.

Jon Resh of Chicago, a Gen X writer, designer, publisher and former punk musician, says the Gen X sensibility was shaped primarily by one element: MTV. “MTV changed everything. Our view of the culture was filtered through MTV—not just music but fashion, visuals, language and vocabulary, political awareness. It broadened [our] generation, and also made it more homogenous. It formed our tolerance [of interracial couples, gays, etc.], and it made us question a lot of what we were supposed to accept.”

As influential as it may have been, MTV is only one segment of the bigger picture: television. Media’s huge influence on this generation has been attributed to the rise of dual-career households when little Xers were growing up. Women continued to push their traditional boundaries, their path to the workplace and other venues paved in part by the feminist movement of the ’70s. One small yet impressive example comes from Drs. Rick and Kathy Hicks in their book, Boomers, Xers, and Other Strangers: The number of women lawyers and physicians increased 300 percent from 1978-1988. Some women took jobs out of necessity; some didn’t. Regardless, after-school care didn’t keep up with the burgeoning demand, and school kids often came home to empty living rooms and plopped down with Doritos, a Dew, and the TV remote.

And when The Simpsons came to prime time, it was as pervasive and influential as MTV, says Resh. “Definitely. The Simpsons was universal for us. It cut across all lines, gender lines, too.” And apparently still does. Even as adults, most of this bunch would rather watch TV than read. Only 32 percent of those age 25-34 read a newspaper daily; but 53 percent watch one to two hours of television a day, according to Susan Mitchell in her book, Generation X: The Young Adult Market. There’s nothing to indicate those numbers have changed much. Perhaps this is why TV nostalgia, or rather Gen-X nostalgia, was so big at New York’s Licensing Show last summer. It was all there, says Courtney Rubin in “Reality Bites,” from junior macho like the Cartoon Network’s resurrection of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe to sugar-and-spice like Cabbage Patch Kids and Strawberry Shortcake. Hollywood continues this trend with a line-up of upcoming movies. Joining The Brady Bunch and Scooby-Doo redux are remakes of the likes of Starsky and Hutch, I Dream of Jeannie and (dig out the pastel T-shirts and push up those suit sleeves!) Miami Vice.

Nostalgia surfaces in any generation, of course, but Xers have a special way of viewing their past—celebrating “not the best of [their] youth, but the worst,” says Rubin. A little Gen X humor, one might say. “No icon and certainly no commercial is safe from their irony, their sarcasm or their remote control. These are the tools with which Generation X keeps the world in perspective,” says Karen Ritchie, author of Marketing to Generation X.

Work can wait


In many ways, Gen X followed a path similar to that of their predecessors. In no rush to start families, they concentrate on their careers. Saddled with school debt and credit card balances, a lot of them entered a tough job market, forcing many to accept far less than they hoped or had gone to college for—the “McJob” (as in McDonald’s). Coupland coined that term, too, which he defines as “a low-pay, low-prestige, low-dignity, low-benefit, no-future job in the service
sector. Frequently considered a satisfying career by people who have never held one.”

As kids, Xers saw their parents lose good jobs for no good or apparent reason other than downsizing. From that, these kids learned that working hard and being loyal didn’t equate to rewards, promotions, or even job security. With that plus other aspects of the economic turmoil attributed to Reagonomics during their growing-up years, they quickly learned there are no guarantees.

“This generation doesn’t expect the world to magically evolve for them. They know they have to make it happen,” says Barbara Caplan, a partner with Yankelovich, Inc. Boomers grew up in a thriving economy and, thus, came to expect certain things. Generation X grew up in a totally different economic climate. Because of this, they’re more practical, more grounded. “They look at what they have to do to compete and make their aspirations come true,” she says.

It’s no surprise, then, that when their turn came, they sought job security in a different way: by acquiring transferable, in-demand skills—”skills to go”—and nowhere more apparent or marketable than in the burgeoning technology/computer/Internet sector. While most boomers survive in the techno environment, Xers thrive in it. “New ‘household technology’ shaped us,” says Resh. “Things like microwaves, remotes, cable TV, VCRs created our sense of instant gratification and satisfied it.” From there they took to computers as just another Atari game, and from there, the Web.

And thanks to their comfort with multiple devices, they “invented” multi-tasking. “The real asset that individuals in Generation X bring to the workplace is their knowledge of technology and their ability to concentrate on a number of tasks at one time,” says Bettina A. Lankard in her report, “Career Development in Generation X.”

Some Xers, however, opted out of the traditional job market entirely, starting their own companies ranging from full-time freelancing to mom-and-pop ventures to Web-based enterprises. Zero Borders, an international marketing consultant group, defines them as “independent and individualistic,” noting that Gen Xers see the “small” in small business as very appealing. According to Jean Chatzky and Cybele Weisser writing in Time, four out of five new enterprises are the work of Xers.

But no matter what the work or career path, don’t think they’re all workaholics: they’re not. Many work to achieve a balanced life; their outside interests are as important as their careers. And as children come into their lives, family time takes on an almost surprising importance. Pamela Paul reports in American Demographics that 81 percent of Xers want to spend more time with their family. Many Gen X women are trying to squeeze full-time careers into part-time schedules during their children’s early years.

Whether mothers or not, these women are a strong presence in the today’s workforce. According to Peg Tyre and Daniel McGinn in Newsweek, more women now earn college degrees and MBAs than do men. Some interesting differences in earning power then and now: in 1983, 34 percent of women were in high-paying “executive, administrative and managerial” positions; in 2001, the number rose to nearly 50 percent. This is an educated group that expects and in many cases is getting the same job and income opportunities as their male counterparts.

Where the heart is


“The home is where it’s at,” says Caplan. According to ReachWomen newsletter, the rate of home-ownership for Gen Xers is higher than that of the boomers at an equivalent age. And home ownership means Gen X has considerable impact on the furniture, housewares, and home-improvement industries.

Paul refers to them as practical home-buyers buyers who put the focus on builder reputation even ahead of affordability. And once they’re in the home they bought, practicality rules, and trips to the local DIY center are frequent, even routine. Gen Xers buy more home-improvement products than any other population segment, according to Home Center News. More than two-thirds like to shop in warehouse home centers. They are confident do-it-yourselfers, women and men both, tackling new projects from floor to ceiling.

At the International Home Furnishings Market in High Point, NC, this past April, Generation X was on the minds of many. Bold colors and eye-catching patterns for furnishings and accessories fit with Xer’s more casual yet colorful lifestyle. Clean-lined pieces with multiple functions were showcased for young buyers with limited space. Sectional sofas are again popular for creating “conversation pits” and promoting closeness, according to Mitchell Gold as quoted in the Philadelphia Inquirer. Gold supplies chairs, sofas and beds to many stores Xers love, such as Anthropologie, Restoration Hardware, Crate & Barrel and Pottery Barn.

Friends and family

Furnishings and accessories lend themselves to the comforts and cocoon of home, and extend that comfort to friends. And friends have always been important to Gen X. Raised in an era when the divorce rate was climbing—from one in three marriages in 1970 to one in two by 1980—Xers created their own solid foundation of family feeling: their peer group. Their large circle of deep friendships—almost “sibling-ships”—gave them a sense of being anchored. They carried these friendships and that sense of family into adulthood, where they continue to nurture them.

But Gen X is generating real family, too. Imagine thousands of nurseries decorated in animal themes and space stations, elephant bumpers and Saturn night lights. Pottery Barn Kids did. In fact, they’re right at the top of Gen X’s Web-shopping favorites, along with Fisher-Price, American Baby, BabyCenter and BabiesRUs,accordingtoNielsen/Net-Ratings for March 2003. Babies are big business again.

It’s no surprise, of course, that at age 25 to 34, Xers are the most important customers for infants’ and children’s products and services. As parents, Gen X spends “far more than average” on baby furniture and equipment, baby clothes and bedding, toys, baby food, child care and babysitting, according to Susan Mitchell in American Demographics. Xers spend 100 percent above average on clothing for children under 2, and 33 percent more than average for boys and girls between 2 and 16. No wonder, then, that clothing designers like DKNY and Tommy Hilfiger have jumped on the baby-and-children bandwagon with their clothing lines. And Baby Gap is bigger than ever.

Now with families of their own, their original families (mom, dad, siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles and more), and the neo-extended family of friends, traditions old and new are perhaps surprisingly important to Gen X. They often re-create or adapt the traditiions of their youth; and if they don’t have one for this event or that holiday, they’ll invent their own, share it with those near and dear to them, and observe it year after year. Do they buy for those traditions the way their boomer parents did (and still do)? Not exactly. According to Mary Ford in Selling Christmas Decorations magazine, Xers aren’t likely to buy a $500 Christmas tree, but they’re quite likely to buy a new holiday ornament every year.

What, me vote?

Boomers, those children of the ’60s, may have been first to note that their Gen X kids didn’t have a “cause” to rally around, making them complacent; in fact, one might argue that this is the start of the “slacker” moniker. Gen X certainly had its share of criticism along these lines: pragmatic, self-absorbed, and not politically inclined, says Ted Halstead in The Atlantic Online. “Xers are less politically or civically engaged, exhibit less social trust or confidence in government, have a weaker allegiance to their country or to either political party, and are more materialistic than their predecessors.” Rall makes an even stronger statement, saying the choice between Democrats and Republicans is infinitely less important to Xers than the choice between Mac and Microsoft.

Why such apathy, and is it even true? Researchers blame the Reagan and (first) Bush presidencies and economies, when government-bashing was stylish. According to Hicks and Hicks, Gen Xers have the lowest voting percentage of any of the adult generations. Still, this is the tolerant generation, the generation with a heart (volunteerism among Xers is higher than any group other than seniors), the demographic who is showing its elders that its reputation as lazy, self-absorbed, plugged-in slackers is changing—if it ever was deserved.

Rainbow connection

“Multicultural” is a given for this generation. Socially, economically, racially and ethnically, it’s been argued that no American population is as diverse as this group. “They are more multi-cultural than earlier generations, due to the high levels of immigration [to the US] in recent decades,” says Ford. In addition, Gen Xers “lived” the equal-rights movement: they were among the first kids to be bused. As a result of these factors, another hallmark of Gen X is their acceptance and tolerance of ethnic, cultural and lifestyle diversity.

According to Mitchell, nearly one-third of young adults are African American, Hispanic or Asian. As the population continues to grow, so will these groups: In the next 25 years, the Hispanic and Asian populations are expected to nearly double to 68 million and 24 million, respectively, according to Alison Stein Wellner in American Demographics.

Meeting the specific product needs and wants of the various ethnic subgroups is another very important strategy for specialty retailers. Learning to speak at least a little of the languages of your customers (even a quick gracias, merci or arigato) would score points with these Gen Xers. Not only that, but majority Gen Xers are in the market for ethnic goods, too—from African fabric to Asian spice. Gearing a portion of the product mix to appeal to ethnic tastes and esthetics is can’t-miss.

The X factor

Twenty-nine percent of Xers have bachelor’s or graduate degrees, six percent more than their parents do. They raise the bar on knowledge, says Paul: not just formally educated, Gen X grew up in the “information era.” They know how to research anything, and they research everything in order to make informed choices on a number of levels, including purchases, activities, etc. Johnson says the other major theme to emerge from the RW survey is that Gen X is “influenced by a wider variety of media” than the rest of us. The Internet is the preferred method of research, a quick and easy tool they are comfortable with. “That’s where they gather their information for where they’re going to eat, going to shop… It becomes a centerpiece of their activity,” says Caplan. And it’s where they prefer buying books, CDs and software, says Thomas Niedermeier in “Generation X Buys More Online.”

Not only is this generation highly educated, they’re highly skeptical: according to Mitchell, 69 percent believe they can’t be too careful with people; and 48 percent feel people would try to take advantage of them if they could. It’s easy, then, to see why Xers don’t trust institutions or corporations to volunteer information, and the recent corporate scandals reinforce that distrust: Thus, their need to research. Before Gen Xers lay out cash, they want to know everything they can about what they’re buying.

How does that translate to specialty retailers? Give these customers the details. Don’t try to oversell them, dazzle them, or fake them out. They’ll get to the truth in no time, and you’ll have lost them for good. In “RW Listens,” Lisa Johnson quotes trend-spotter and youth-marketing consultant Chauncey Zalkin—this is one of his “top-line” observations: “Humanize the brand. Don’t be afraid to share the grit… Avoid the spin and tell the true stuff.”

Selling to Gen X

That said, the upside is that Xers are ideal prospects for retailers marketing new products. They’re more than willing to try brands they’re unfamiliar with. They’re early adopters, among the first to try and buy new products (especially for the home, the kids or the computer), but they don’t follow fads or stick with “trendy” brands. Furthermore, Johnson reports that in a survey of Gen X women, two main themes come through loud and clear: “Brand loyalty is not a given”; and Gen X is “influenced by a wider variety of media” than the rest of us.

Selling to Generation X can be tricky. They like to express their individuality; they’re skeptical if not cynical; and they scout the alternatives, making it hard to pin them down. Xers aren’t clones: some love stores like Anthropologie; others love Target; some shop both ends of the spectrum and nearly everything in between. “They will go to all different places [like] CB2 and Ikea, [and] look at everything that’s out there [to] choose the best from the lot,” says Caplan. They have the confidence to put column A with column B, whether designing their living room or getting dressed.

Today’s Gen X families share earning and household responsibilities. “Gen X families work out their own arrangements, taking turns, working as a tag team, weighing pragmatic factors about who makes more and whose strengths lie where,” says Paul. And when time is short, outsourcing comes to the rescue from housekeeping to babysitting. In fact, Xers spend 78 percent more than average on personal services of all kinds.

As far as where they shop, it could be anywhere. Xers are open to trying different distribution channels. Like boomers, Xers are looking for a pleasurable shopping experience where they can go to a store in a convenient location, find what they need with value attached, and at an affordable price. Xers, however, are willing to try something new, something different.

They’re adventurous, daring, quirky, informed, responsible, skeptical, fun-loving, and (yes) hard-working. They still love The Simpsons; they are Sex & the City. They cemented “reality TV” to the tube and put “extreme” everything on the sports pages. They learn it, live it, love it, laugh at it. This is the secret to success in understanding and marketing to this group. If you’re a retailer targeting these ex-slackers, remember what motivates them. Remember their past, what they gravitate toward, and what they try to avoid. Look at their future and the challenges they face.

Retailers can reach this market segment in many ways, but superior quality and customer service wins. According to a 1999 report published by Battelle, the technology/R&D giant, “Products will not only have to meet high expectations, they will have to exceed them.” More than that, your sales staff has to be prepared to “support,” not just sell, your merchandise. Add to all this the competition not only from other retailers but from the Internet—the ease Gen X finds in shopping online without the hassle of traffic, travel time and kids in car seats. To compete, retailers have to make the trip to the mall worth it.

Straight shooting

By age 18, an American child will have seen at least 350,000 commercials, Gen X children included. It’s what helped make them skeptical of all marketing messages. Gen X is still bombarded with marketing messages, and tend to tune them out anyway. In fact, Coupland coined the term, “option paralysis” to explain how too many choices leads to Xers’ inability to make a choice. All the more reason to speak to them clearly and directly. In fact, Zalkin says Gen X is drawn to “a strong, singular voice… a compelling and true narrative will resonate much more than a brand with mass-consumer identity.”

Says Johnson, “Can we come up with a way to simply categorize them? No… If there is one overriding theme to all of this, maybe it is [that]… to connect with them, just make sure the stories you present through your marketing efforts [are] authentic and applicable to the way [they] live their lives.”

For specialty retailers who want to attract Gen X, the trick is to learn how to stand out from the crowd in ways that resonate with them. This means creating a marketing message they’ll accept for products they will buy. Because this generation’s spending power and affluence will increase as they gain experience, knowledge and (yes) age, now is the time to court them, market to them, meet their needs, and move into their future with them.