Why Boomers Need to Let Go

Q&A With Author Tammy Erickson About Marketing to Gen X

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Full disclosure: I'm a Gen-Xer and my generation has been hosed. Sure, Douglas Coupland got a great book out of it, but the rest of us have gotten the short end of the economic stick. Tammy Erickson has written a trilogy of books about generations in the workplace. The most recent, "What's Next, Gen X?," focuses on workplace issues and why Gen-Xers would make great leaders if they could only get a chance. She will be speaking about that (and @adagestat will be blogging from) at the Economist's "Human Potential" conference in New York later this month. We chatted with her about the tough times for Gen X and how marketers should take generational differences into account.

Tammy Erickson
Tammy Erickson
Ad Age: Why won't the boomers just retire already?

Ms. Erickson: If you interview boomers, they don't want to stay in those jobs. They're not staying there because they're thrilled. When boomers can see their way clear to move out of those jobs, I think they'd be very motivated to do so. The more difficult issue in some ways -- particularly if you're going for a very senior spot as an Xer -- is psychological. Boomers don't get Xers, they don't understand them. Boomers often look at an Xer and think, "This person doesn't respond to things the way I would respond to them. Therefore, they're probably not a good candidate for my job."

Ad Age: With the boomers retiring later and later, is it harder for Xers to get and move into better-paying jobs?

Ms. Erickson: It will be harder to get the jobs because more [boomers] will be fearful of moving on or cutting back, which I always thought was the more practical solution for boomers. I never really thought that they should in fact leave totally. But I do think they should cut back and move into part-time positions and turn over the leadership reins to the Xers. I think you're going to see less willingness to do that than even before. I also think to the extent that they get the jobs, the challenge is just a lot tougher. So there's almost an element "Do you want that top job or not," because it's going to be really tough if you get it.

The one silver lining is that I don't think Xers were surprised by the recession in the same way that boomers and Generation Ys were. I think those are both very rose-colored-glasses generations. I think boomers were absolutely stunned that something bad had happened to them. Most Xers I know have always thought about the great what-if and have worked hard throughout their careers to think about back-up plans and alternatives.

Ad Age: What did Xers do to be in a better position?

Ms. Erickson: Well, certainly a lot of the Xers that I've interviewed have multiple income-producing things under way. It's not at all uncommon for me to interview an Xer who says, "This is my job today and what I tell people I do, but, in fact, my wife and I have this going on the side and I'm going back to school to get this degree so that I could also do that." Lots of Xers have already been thinking about this multiple-irons-in-the-fire kind of approach.

Ad Age: In what ways are they different?

Ms. Erickson: Xers fundamentally don't trust institutions by and large, nor should they based on the life experiences that they've had.

Ad Age: Does the fear of institutions and perceived lack of loyalty pose special problems for marketers?

Ms. Erickson: I do think it's important for companies to consider the generational audience that they're trying to reach and shape it around generational values.

One example I often use in speeches is the ads from the U.S. Army has used over time. When the army was trying to recruit the generation that I call "Traditionalists" [the pre-boomers who are now aged 65 or older] -- people who are very comfortable with hierarchy and authority. They love institutions and want to join. That's when they used the "Uncle Sam Wants You" tag. So you had an authority figure telling you to join an institution. Very aligned with the values of that generation. When they wanted to recruit the boomers -- idealistic, anti-authoritarian, self-fulfillment and all that, they did "Be All that You Can Be." "Uncle Sam Wants You" would have just pissed the boomers off. When they wanted the Xers, they switched to "Army of One," which is a very odd notion when you think about it. But it certainly has connotations of self-reliance, which I would say is the major value inherent in Xers. Today they're talking to the parents. "You Made Them Strong, We'll Make Them Army Strong," so they're picking up on the close relationship with Gen Y and their parents.

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This is the third in a series of AdAgeStat Q&As with those who know best about pieces of the demographic puzzle. Earlier we spoke to Richard Florida about cities and Paco Underhill about women. Follow @adagestat on Twitter.

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