How Baby Boomers Are Stifling The Marketing Revolution

There’s a new generation gap brewing.

Today there are over 77 million baby boomers, the largest demographic cohort in the U.S. (now age 47-66). Not far behind comes Generation Y, the echo boomers, with more than 60 million members (now age 18-32).

The baby boomers have been driving the economy since the '80s. Now we’re all getting old. We’re retiring, or we’re planning to retire, so we’re finally getting smart and starting to save more than we spend. In either case, we’re leaving our peak spending years behind (hopefully to be replaced by our peak fun years).

Over the next decade, Generation Y will take over as the big economic engine in the U.S. Soon they’ll be giving up their carefree lifestyle to start buying houses, cars, furniture, travel, etc. Plus of course all the stuff it takes to raise their children. Despite the lessons they should have learned over the past three years, they’ll probably be spending more than they earn, just to keep up.

This is a big problem for brands. Baby boomers run the agencies, the media, and the client organizations. We’ve all spent the last 25 years getting really good at marketing to ourselves. Those skills are becoming less useful. In 10 years, they’ll be completely irrelevant. The only brands that survive will be the ones that are successful marketing to Generation-Y.

And Generation Y doesn’t look anything like us boomers. They’re digital natives who have grown up in a world of nonstop connectivity, hyper-social behavior, user-generated content, and extreme multitasking. They’re smart, idealistic, and passionate about technology. They don’t trust our institutions (including your brand), and believe very little of what we tell them in advertising. All they want is the truth, and they expect to get it from their peers, not from you.

Have we responded appropriately? No. There’s too much hand-wringing. Too much nay-saying. And too much argument about whether these changes are "real" (not an atypical reaction of an older generation that’s clinging to the past). There’s also too much fear. After all, who can be comfortable when they realize their future will soon be in the hands of their children?

If you’re a baby boomer, here’s what you need to do right now:

First, accept that while you may still run the show, the future of your brand depends on adapting to sweeping change. You need to throw out a good chunk of the expertise it took you a lifetime to accumulate. Second, dig in and start listening. Stop complaining, and instead start paying attention to what’s really going on (starting with your own kids). Third, start experimenting, trying and failing as you learn what really works with this emerging consumer. And fourth, do it with a sense of joy. You won’t be successful if they have to drag you kicking and screaming into the future.

It’s ironic, isn’t it? When we boomers we’re young, we complained our parents didn’t "understand our generation." Now we’re all complaining that we "don’t understand our children’s generation." Our kids complain that we "just don’t get it."

We better get it soon, or our businesses will suffer. Or as some have already learned, will cease to exist.

—Author Clark Kokich is the chairman of Razorfish. 

[Image: Flickr user lintmachine]