In a Digital World, Are Generations Dead?

Why Brands Need to Think Differently About Marketing to Generations

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As marketers turn their attention to the youngest generation of consumers -- those just on the cusp of hitting adulthood -- the ubiquitous millennial headlines are quickly being replaced by "Five Things You Need To Know" about Generation Z, centennials, digital natives, the iGeneration or the latest generational jargon.

This generation is so new that we haven't even settled on a name, let alone a definition (born after 1995? 2000? Who knows?). But generations are such a de facto marketing framework that we rush to define the next one without stopping to consider if these categorizations are meaningful.

Gen Z has some unique characteristics, just like any other generation. They're all-digital, diverse, pragmatic and scrappy. But what does a generation defined primarily by its dependence on technology say about the way we think about generations in the first place?

As all ages embrace the behaviors of "digital natives," many of the notions that support the traditional concept of a generational cohort are becoming less meaningful. Could it be then, that there needs to be a new definition of a generation, one that is made up of subgroups -- or tribes -- that go beyond age? And if so, what does this mean for marketers and brands looking to speak to these tribes?

Forget generational differences

Generations are often thought to be the children of the previous generation, but with the average age of parents rising, generations are no longer necessarily birthing their successors. A Gen Zer is just as likely to be raised by a Gen Xer as by a millennial. The idea that a new generation brushes off their parents' ideals is less relevant when there is a cohort in between. Moreover, because technology has opened up the entire family to a world of shared content and consciousness, parents and children increasingly share similar cultural ideals. The culture wars are no longer by definition age wars.

With newer platforms like Instagram, Twitter, eBay, Etsy and Yelp, users' ages are often not obvious, allowing people to lead with other characteristics; to have a voice and an identity untethered to their age. The new "entry to play" is no longer about age, location, status or even money -- it's purely about access. This power is reshaping how Gen Zers define themselves.

Tribes are the new generations

Sociologist Jane Pilcher Mannheim promoted the belief that the formative experiences of youth are the key period during which social generations are formed. Unlike prior generations, Gen Zers have no major world history event like war to tie them together (even the oldest members were barely in kindergarten during 9/11). Instead, what defines them as a group is less about their place in time and history, and more about finding their personal tribe -- finding passions, people and brands that fit their vision of themselves.

Quite possibly, a 16-year-old anime fan is more like a 32-year-old anime fan than she is similar to a 16-year-old sports enthusiast. Of course, it is reasonable that the 16-year-old anime fan is also a sports enthusiast, and a hip-hop dancer. Tribes can be this diverse because access to the world's population is available through the device in your back pocket. You can Skype live with members of your tribe in locations around the globe, find answers to questions, and influence the development of products and services that will serve your tribe through the immediacy of social media.

Digital trendsetters

We call Gen Z "digital-born," but truly, they're just leading the way for everyone else, even those who had to learn digital behaviors as adults. The experience of growing up Gen Z is still filled with the angst of youth, but they have more power and more control than any group of teenagers that has come before. Undoubtedly, past generations had their own tribes, sub-generations, and even cross-generational pollination. But never before have these groups been able to form and grow, free from the constraints of mostly age-segregated environments like school and work. And never before have brands had such opportunity to observe, influence and collaborate with these powerful and influential tribes of young consumers.

In the end, whether the traits we see in Generation Z are theirs alone or the traits we will see in all future generations doesn't matter all that much. Marketers must be fast and flexible to keep up with a generation -- and increasingly, a society -- that pivots seamlessly between technologies and adopts new ones with ease. It's time for companies to have strong values and a clear mission that tribes will identify with as they build their identities. Gen Zers can offer insight into the future they're already shaping, and their self-defined tribes will provide opportunities for organic conversation and collaboration. It's up to brands to show up.

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