What Generation Gap? Millennials and Boomers Are Awfully Similar

Millennials, the age cohort born sometime between 1980 and 2000, are in the news an awful lot these days. It might have something to do with the “combined global spending power of $2.45 trillion” they wielded in 2015. Everybody wants to know who the millennials are, what they want, and how to shape messages to appeal to them.

But marketers, in their rush to find out what makes this demographic tick, may have lost sight of the fact that Millennials share a lot of characteristics with their Baby Boomer forebears, who still wield quite a bit of influence themselves: “the leading edge of Millennials will not achieve the spending power of their Boomer parents for another five years … and most of the rest not until 2030.”


The “Me” Generation, Again

Millennials have been called narcissistic, self-indulgent, entitled, and prone to assuming their less tech-savvy elders can’t keep up with their fast-paced, mobile lifestyles (a theme Toyota poked fun at in a 2011 ad for its Venza crossover). Boomers can probably recall when they were being accused of similar character flaws by the folks who preceded them. It’s no coincidence that in generational studies the millennials are often referred to by another name: the Echo Boomers.

The Boomers’ parents — the so-called Greatest Generation, born circa 1900–1925, and the following Silent Generation, born circa 1925–1945 — lived through the Great Depression and World War II, so in large part, their generational hallmarks were frugality and patriotism. Their offspring, however, grew up in the abundance of the postwar period — and quickly sought to throw off the chains of traditionalism and social restraint. The Boomers’ desire for autonomy and self-actualization led social critics to dub them the “Me” Generation — a moniker that’s recently been reapplied to the Millennials.


Hippie to Hipster

Both groups report a desire for respect and recognition and to leave a positive legacy. The Boomers, however, are slightly less inclined to both give and ask for that recognition. We see that difference at work in the generations’ respective professional lives: Millennials, who grew up in a much more volatile job market, are more open to changing careers and are upfront about asking for raises and frequent feedback.

(Feedback is a basic human need; it lets you know you are being heard and valued. “Only the method and frequency of feedback tends to differ between the generations. Millennials may prefer monthly email check-ins, while Boomers might be happy with a quarterly face-to-face meeting.”)

Despite their reputation for supposed self-obsession, both generations have been associated with strong social values. The Boomers burned their bras and draft cards and marched for civil rights. The Millennials, in turn, identify economic justice issues as a major cause (e.g., Occupy Wall Street) as well as social justice (Black Lives Matter, LGBT rights, etc.). The idealism of the 1960s may have eventually given way to cynicism and decadence in the 1970s, but in the 2010s, the Millennials still seem optimistic about their chances of making a positive change in the world.

Millennials are also more inclusionary. Boomers don’t expect to make the team unless they earn a spot. Millennials think everyone should get a chance to play and be recognized. (Kia satirized that concept with an ad about participation trophies.)


Not So Different after All

Contrary to conventional wisdom, both the Boomers and the Millennials (like Generation X in between them) have rapidly adopted new technologies such as smartphones and social networks. According to the Pew Research Center, at least 65 percent of Baby Boomers aged 50-64 use Facebook. “Additionally, boomers are device agnostic like millennials — utilizing multiple screens at once, i.e. texting, posting and/or watching TV at the same time.” Millennials may be a step or two ahead in the tech game, but Boomers aren’t the Luddites they’re often made out to be.

Much is made of the fact that Millennials appear resistant to traditional marketing and branding, preferring to rely on the advice of their social networks to make purchasing decisions. But a study reported by Millennial CEO reveals that Boomers are also heavily swayed by personal recommendations. And Millennials, for their part, aren’t all that immune to the powers of branding: MediaPost reported that 72 percent of younger millennials stated that they are loyal to all or many of the brands that their parents use.

So Millennials and Boomers have a lot in common, but with a few differences. The question then is: How do you market to one group without alienating the other? According to retail strategist Samara Anderson, It’s easy to go so overboard with merchandising for younger shoppers that Boomers walk in and think, ‘There’s nothing here for me.’ But smart brands don’t do that — they focus on a merchandising strategy that appeals to Gen Y [the Millennials], but also creates an aspirational draw to the Gen X and Baby Boomers.”

In the end, from a marketing perspective, there’s not so much a generation gap to see here as a generation wheel. It keeps on going around and around — and even if it doesn’t stay exactly in the same place, most of the same bits eventually circle back to the top.