In March 2018, the Pew Research Center issued a statement on the official cutoff point for the start of the Millennial generation. This helped define the generation before them (Gen X) and the generation after them (Gen Z) by defining Millennials as persons born between 1981 and 1996. From a marketing perspective, what makes a generation? How can marketers target each of these groups in unique and innovative ways?

Defining Distinct Generations

How is it that the Pew can give any group of people a definitive date range? It isn’t as if there is a given range of years consistently used for generations. For example, the Baby Boomer age range is 19 years, whereas Millennials and Generation X are set at 16-year intervals.

When discussing how to reach certain generations over others with marketing efforts, it’s essential to understand what the connective fabric within generations is. As far as marketers are concerned, generational distinctions are tools for understanding how groups think in a general sense. Generations can explain parts of how perspectives and viewpoints change, which is valuable for marketing.

Generational differences seem to be emblazoned everywhere, and perhaps because of the technological explosions that happened in the 80s and 90s, the “Millennials” are seen as a major crossroad between the past (Gen X) and the future (Gen Z). However, technology use isn’t the only thing that separates the generations. Major historical events also shape the generations that experience them.

Gen X Age

To understand any generation, you should know when they were born, as well as what happened when they were growing up. Generation X’ers were born between the mid-1960s through 1980, so the Gen X age range is wide: 55 to 39. They have been shaped by countless different political and economic events that make them, in general, self-reliant and practical.

They lack the formality of the Boomer generation, though they nod to it when they need to. Because they grew up in more uncertain times, they also are incredibly flexible and tend to take to new challenges quickly if — and this is an important if — those challenges align with their values.

Gen Xers and Work-Life Balance

Gen Xers value work-life balance in a way that previous generations did not. While there is no way to know for sure why, it is important to note that Generation Xers have the highest percentage of divorced parents. Many Gen Xers have memories of their family dynamic changing because one party valued work over their family.

At the very least, that work was a sticking point had been a prevalent attitude when discussing the generation. This means that Generation Xers work to provide for their families. Unlike other generations in the past, work is work and who they are is more about outside values than it is what they do.

Outside Factors Impacting Generation Xers

In November of 1991 the Berlin Wall, a relic from when there was an East and West Germany, finally came down and united East and West Berlin. This led to the literal and figurative end of the Cold War, impacting the world views of many members of this generation in their formative years.

This focus on globalization and collaboration helped contributed to the rise of personal computers and the culture surrounding their development. Though a far cry from how we use computers today, Generation X also grew up during the time of chat rooms, the spread of the internet and the Freedom of Information Act (July 5, 1967). For the first time, they could talk to anyone who had an internet connection in close to real-time.

Corporate layoffs also colored much of what Generation X experienced as they grew up. An upbringing laced with uncertainty and sprinkled with hope allows members of this generation to follow their gut yet be adaptable and skeptical. These individuals need to feel that they have a voice and a value, and as consumers, they are going to purchase from companies that also align with their values.

Who Are Generation Y/Millennials?

Most members of Generation Y, also known as Millennials, born between 1981 and 1996, would be hard-pressed to explain why they get so much press. For being a shorter age-gap generation than those that came before, Millennials have an extremely wide range of foundational experiences. Older Millennials sometimes even consider themselves a micro-generation, known as the Oregon Trail Generation.

This nickname resulted from the Oregon Trail video game that could be played with a home computer starting in 1971. While the game was invented a decade before Millennials, they were the generation that grew up with technology. Younger Millennials are hard-pressed to think about what it would be like to grow up without many facets of modern technology, while the eldest of the group can distinctly remember outdated tech like pagers.

The economic recession of 2008 — which came at a time when many Millennials were first entering the workforce — played a significant role in shaping this generation, as well. For the first time since the Silent Generation (born from the mid-1920s to the 1940s), there was a significant economic downturn that created a consumer needing to stretch the dollar as far as possible. Marketers tend to find that Millennial spending, saving and trust in the stock market are far more in-line with the Silent Generation than with Generation X. Their spending habits and changes in brand loyalty have also colored a lot about the current generation, Z.

Who Is Generation Z?

Even the earliest Generation Z’ers (born in 1997 through 2015) can’t quite remember a time where it wasn’t possible to be connected to the internet at all times. Older generations had to adapt to, learn about or grow up with the internet. Gen Z hasn’t ever experienced a life without it. While some of them remember landlines, it’s important to remember that the iPhone launched in 2007. Considering the median age for a cell phone is 13, it’s not unreasonable to think that there are quite a few Gen Z’ers who have never had a landline.

Marketing to Generation Z

This all means that Generation Z has access to information on an unprecedented scale. If they want to know about something, it takes seconds to have thousands of results presented to them. This makes them even less brand loyal than the Millennial Generation. Instead, they’re likely to use social media to find out what their friends like, why they like it and whether a brand’s ethics align with their own. This fast-fire information stream can be alienating to older generations until it’s considered for what it truly is: the most effective means of communication the world has ever seen.

Members of Generation Z are constantly moving targets because of the rapid change in their preferences, which means that marketers must be agile and focused on trends at all times. In many ways, because they are the most current generation, Gen Z could be considered extremely easy to market to if trends in the media are followed.

On a larger scale, however, Gen Z’ers are part of a trend that started all the way back with Generation X characteristics. Work-life balance, ethical companies, personal values, and smart spending have become more and more important to consumers with each passing generation. Generation Z is more frugal and less interested in keeping up with the masses, likely because they can talk with whoever they wish with a swipe of the finger.