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]

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6 Comments

  • Kristen Christian

    I would take this article more seriously if you had done your research about "Generation Y." That's not our proper title. We're Millennials, so much more than the second coming of Generation X. We're the new civic generational type rising during the digital age. 

  • stefano oldrati

    Somehow I agree with Richard, it is not the best article about Boomers. And coming from Razorfish even more surprising.
    Off the records I am just finishing a 12 months study (qual+quant) on Boomers in Western Europe (spirits consumption oriented in UK, DE and ES).I work with 3 different generations in the marketing organization of the company I am working for, and still I see more people obsess by fast careers (vertical as possible) than to enjoy life, or promote a revolution in values. It seems, to me, that only the MadMen people values are continuously surviving, joined and appreciated. Unfortunately.I don't see the stress of leaving and retiring or take the lead for the next gen. I think everything will flow beyond what Generations GI, SG, B, X, Y, Z will think of being able to manipulate or influence its surrounding.

    For sure if we will forget the model of vertical careers and that stupidity of the pyramidal companies, when in fact it is just a triangle called pyramid, and realize to investigate the rest of the dimensions of the pyramid maybe something good will happen.

    From and Italian Boomer 56 years old, living between Paris and Dublin, find the love of my life (Irish Gen X) at 43, married for the very first time at 48 and happy father of a 9 year old girl, a 7 years old boy and waiting for a new Irish baby born for July this year.And happy and far from being power, or retiring, obsessed.

  • Jason TEPOORTEN

    Why isn't Generation X mentioned?  We're also children of the "Boomers", and we've grown up adapting to their marketing strategy.  We have families, mortgages, and careers.  We are also consumers.  Have we become irrelevant to the marketing people?

  • Deborah Latham-White

    I could present an counter argument as a Boomer on how there are different generations of mindsets within our generation but that is a discussion for another time.

    My question to you is this: What were you doing when your children brought technology into your home during their youth?  I can look at all three of my sons and name which one brought different phases of technology and culture into our family lifestyle.   I can sit and comfortably discuss technology trends with my 26 year old and his 30 and 38 year old siblings.  If you think that we are all resisting the changes that life is bringing into our lives then you might be the one that is under exposed.

    I am sure that there is also the sting that comes from realizing that this is a diverse nation of people now and quite frankly, the culture is not as willing to yield itself to just the opinions of White males.  Yes, I am going there because that is the stuff of advertising that fueled the national trends for decades. You seem to be the one that is having a difficult time with the change of life and reality. Maybe you are finding it difficult to figure out where your niche is.

  • Richard Meyer

    I have read some dumb articles in my time but this one takes the cake.  Consumers will always be consumers and the hard part for marketers will be converting them from consumers into customers.  To suggest that Boomers will be irrelevant in 10 years is more than dumb.  In case the author hasn't noticed there are a lot of Generation Y people already running small and innovative agencies.  What will never change is not what generation you are from but whether you can understand what your audience wants and how to make your marketing relevant to that audience in a consumers empowered world.

  • Gassy Man

    Ho hum.  Another Baby Boomer stressing his generation's self-importance by dissing it for another -- as though anyone should listen to your opinion.  Take it from a Gen-Xer who isn't buying your products or your hype, either, the boring spate of expensive crap you've peddled for 25 years didn't do much to take money from our pockets, and all of the scrambling to cater to spoiled Gen-Y, many of which are your children, will be for naught when that generation finally wakes up in their 30s, realizes they aren't kids anymore, and laments that they spent so much of their youth taking money they didn't have to buy garbage like $500 smartphones with $70/month plans, $100 cable TV suites, $50/month Roadrunner Internet hookups, dozens of $60 videogames, $150,000 college educations, etc.  Your generation has sold them out by conning them into buying things they don't need when they should have been preparing for the future . . . and now you want to tell others who to continue to rape them financially.