Understanding the Marketplace Part 2: Generation X


“Generation X has the benefit of possessing the best characteristics of both the boomers and the millennials, and none of the downsides,” David Barnett, in The Independent.

Losers. Slackers. The “Whatever” generation. The Pew Research Center even called Generation X “America’s neglected middle child.” Sandwiched between the Baby Boomers and Millennials – and one of the smallest generations in American history – Generation X is often considered the forgotten generation.

Marketers have typically focused their attention on the much larger Boomer generation, and the much trendier Millennials. However, thanks to their increased spending power, the generation often considered to be the most cynical, but also the most practical, is getting renewed attention from marketers who are trying to understand the marketplace as it relates to Gen X.

Gen X: An Overview

So, who exactly are the members of Generation X, anyway?

As with most generations, the specific start and end dates vary, but it’s generally accepted that Gen X is comprised of those born from the mid-1960s to the late 1970s. Today, most Gen X-ers are in their late 30s through early 50s – or, as some like to say, middle-aged. This is a generation defined by pop culture phenomenon ranging from the teen angst films of John Hughes and the “grunge” era of music to the resurgence of the sitcom and “must-see TV.” This generation saw the rise of the Internet and the bursting of the dot com bubble. With so much economic and family turmoil in their lives, it’s no wonder that this generation is so often called “lost” and known for its skepticism.

That instability and turmoil of the 1970s and 1980s affected Generation X significantly, and how they live their lives today – and respond to marketing messages. The majority of Gen X-ers are married with children and are very committed to family life. Older generations tend to refer to them as “helicopter parents,” as they will intervene when they believe that something is affecting their children, and they are more than willing to question authority when it comes to their kids. Generation X parents are also more likely to build their lives around their children, scheduling work and other activities based on their kids’ interests. For this reason, marketing messages aimed at family, and what’s best for them, tend to be effective with this generation.

Generation X-ers are earning more than their parents did at the same age, but many are still saddled with high student loan debt. In addition, because most started working later than their parents, have saved less money and have dealt with harsher market conditions than other generations, they tend to have less wealth than their parents did. Gen X-ers have a complex relationship with money, but they also have more purchasing power than younger people. They can spot a scam a mile away and are turned off by products that are overpriced and useless, and seek good long-term value.

Marketing to Generation X

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With this understanding of where Generation X is coming from, what does that mean for marketers, specifically when it comes to choosing tactics and channels? As it turns out, there is a lot you can learn.

  1. Generation X Consumes a LOT of Media. While Millennials and younger people are often assumed to be the biggest consumers of social media, the fact is, Generation X uses social media more often and watches more TV than any other generation. Generation X spends an average of seven hours a week on social media – and their platform of choice is Facebook with Snapchat their least favorite. As far as TV, while more Gen X-ers are switching to streaming services like Hulu, many still see value in traditional over-the-air options and are more likely to stay with a service like cable than other generations. This means that they are more likely to see advertisements, which are typically skipped by younger users.
  2. Yes, They are Skeptical. Generation X is more skeptical than any other generation, and they question everything. They want lots of information before making a decision and will continue to weigh the pros and cons even after they decide to buy. The Journal of Behavioral Studies in Business even went so far as to say that members of Generation X “are pessimistic, skeptical, disillusioned with almost everything and are very questioning of conventionality.” You must be authentic with your marketing, as Gen X is adept at spotting nonsense, and will quickly dismiss anything they deem to be unnecessary, overpriced or dishonest.
  3. Generation X is Comfortable with Technology. Where Baby Boomers tend to be overwhelmed by or resist technology, and Millennials don’t know life without technology, Generation X is somewhere in the middle. Generation X basically invented the Internet, so while they weren’t born with smartphones in their hands, they are comfortable using them and are willing to adopt new technologies.
  4. Inbound and Outbound Marketing Are Effective. While outbound marketing techniques like advertising are likely to go ignored by younger people, Generation X still responds to both traditional and online advertising. Targeted ads, personalized email marketing, social media content and a presence on major consumer feedback websites are all still effective at reaching these consumers – as are traditional methods, including TV and radio ads, and even direct mail. The most effective marketing campaigns are those that use a combination of methods.
  5. Social Impact Matters. While Generation X isn’t necessarily as concerned with the values and social impact of business than their Millennial counterparts, the benefits of their purchases are still a priority. They do look for companies that have a positive social impact and are more likely to support those that align with their values.
  6. Nostalgia Sells. Research indicates that people will spend more money when they are feeling nostalgic, and Generation X buys into nostalgia big time. We see it in the reboots of classic films and TV shows from their childhood to the toys making a comeback to the songs being used in commercials – Generation X has fond memories of their childhood, and smart marketers are capitalizing on that.

As Generation X ages and its purchasing power increases, smart businesses will develop plans to reach them where they are and tap into their need for security, stability and a sense of purpose. Don’t shy away from using technology and new approaches, but don’t overlook “old-school” marketing tactics either. Consider the typical Gen-Xer as someone with a newspaper in one hand and smartphone in the other, and work to bridge the gap between them. As they say in the 1980’s classic film “Field of Dreams,” beloved by this generation, “If you build it, they will come.”


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