By Published on .

The names miss their target. "Babybusters" and "Postboomers"? That's not who they are, that's who they're not ... not Baby Boomers. "Twentysomethings"? What about those who are 18 or approaching 30? "Generation X"? No group is that generic.

This generation born between 1965 and 1975 is not only misnamed, but also misunderstood. Alienated from society? There are 40 million of them; 40 million is a society. Disillusioned with power and disenchanted with wealth? They would not mind having either. Dissatisfied with their lives? They are thoroughly enjoying themselves-traveling, bungee-jumping, mountain-biking, shopping.

What accounts for this mislabeling and misrepresentation of an entire generation? An incomplete understanding of the economic, social and technological realities that have shaped it appears to be the most significant contributor. It is easy for Boomers of the '60s and early '70s, who remember exactly where they were when John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King were killed, to conclude that the late '70s and '80s lacked defining experiences. There was no assassination, no Vietnam, no civil rights movement to shape the next generation.

As a result, the names and characterizations applied to this generation ignore the defining factors that form the group's collective memories. They ignore the abundance of contradictions that has created a generation best described as Children Of COntradictory Experiences-COCOEs.

Cocoes grew up during the longest peacetime economic boom in history and entered the work force during the most prolonged recession in half a century. After watching people a few years older than them make small fortunes by the age of 30, Cocoes themselves can rarely afford to move out of their parents' houses. Dependence has replaced the freedom they knew while growing up as "latchkey kids."

Political contradictions, too, shaped Cocoes. They attended junior high school in the heat of the Cold War. Ten years later they left college while democratic elections were being held in Moscow. Cocoes who cheered as Iraq was routed in Desert Storm also remember America watching helplessly during the Iranian hostage crisis of 1980.

With all these contradictory memories, it is not surprising that today's young adults are Cocoes in another sense. They are Children of COnfused Expectations.

Unlike preceding generations, Cocoes doubt their chances of having a higher standard of living than their parents. Political expectations are also uncertain. In the national arena, Cocoes are emerging as a powerful voting block, but the field of candidates often leaves them little choice other than to vote for Boomers. It is only in their social lives that Cocoes find any measure of consistency, relying far more heavily than Boomers did on family and friends-old friends, not business acquaintances. They seek social stability, as evidenced by their serious approach to marriage. The median age of marriage for men and women is up three years, to 26.5 and 24.4, respectively, since 1975, and Cocoes' divorce rate will likely be low by modern standards.

What does Cocoes' orientation mean for marketers? Notably, Cocoes are not a brand-loyal lot. They have seen too many brands come and go (e.g., Atari, Pepsi Light and "Ooh la la" Sassoon) to be devoted to them. Cocoes are more apt to consider value for the money and practicality over brand name as product essentials. Little Caesars pizza has capitalized on this attitude by offering good pizza at inexpensive prices. Beer marketers, on the other hand, are struggling to attract Cocoes who overlook differences in taste and often just buy the cheapest case.

Advertising that appeals to Cocoes recognizes their uniqueness. It touches upon their memories and accepts the times in which they grew up. Budweiser's "Classics" television spots that show Cocoes playing pool and golf adopt this approach, highlighting fondly remembered TV shows and music. Unfortunately, their lack of subtlety and forced dialogues turn off the very people they wish to attract. Cocoes find the ads patronizing and see little connection between their memories and the product. "Ginger was a bimbo," but that is no reason to buy a beer.

Just as Cocoes want products with substance, they like commercials that present practical purchase motivators. Print and TV ads for Chrysler Neon, detailing environmental, monetary, performance and ergonomic reasons for buying, explore the multiple concerns of young car buyers.

Another approach that strongly appeals to Cocoes is humor. Hyundai ads spoofing "The Firm," wherein a young lawyer is offered a plush office, a high salary and a Hyundai, capture through comic irony the ambition and practicality that most Cocoes share. Nike capitalized on Cocoes' fondness for off-beat comedy with the controversial Dennis Hopper ads.

Relating to Cocoes becomes increasingly important as they establish themselves as vital consumers. No longer will Cocoes be casually dismissed as Twentysomethings, Babybusters or Generation X. They will be buying houses, cars, refrigerators and living room sets. They will be the people who sustain the economy. They will be the people who sustain industries. They will be the people who sustain your company.

Ms. Harrigan is president of Harrigan-Bodick, New York, a marketing research and consulting company. Mr. Gilmartin is an associate with the company.

Most Popular
In this article: