New analysis of Optimism Index data reveals that most of us don’t know what generation we are. A typical 24-year old Gen Z (born 1998 or 1999) is just as likely to think that they are a Millennial or Gen X as a Zoomer, while nearly two-fifths of Gen Xers (currently aged 42-57) don’t even offer a guess, admitting they don’t know what cohort they fall into.

What generation are you?

There is one group that gets it right most of the time, though: the Baby Boomers (currently aged 58-75). They correctly identified their group 66% of the time.

We’ve written before about the myriad flaws of generational analysis. To summarise, generational groupings are often too flimsy (someone born in 1981 might be either a geriatric millennial or an incredibly fresh faced Gen X, depending on where the lines are drawn) and also too broad. Someone born in 1982 won’t have had broadband internet until they were an adult, and would have been 25 when the iPhone was released. Is that really the same as someone born in 1994, who would probably have had broadband at home throughout their teens, and whose first phone was an iPhone? No, clearly not.

Yet another flaw is that even when people are born at very similar points in time they might not be that similar. King Charles and Ozzy Osborne are the same age (born just a few weeks apart in 1948) but you’d market to them very differently.

But generational analysis also has uses. People born at the same point in history often do have shared experiences – they experienced major political or economic events at similar times and are likely to have had corresponding exposures to the continually evolving landscape of culture and technology. That stuff matters. It’s also so incredibly accessible. Demographic information on every country in the world is available through the UN, and the ONS (like most national statistics bodies) will tell you the age and gender breakdown of every local authority in the UK. That’s quite a handy starting point for anyone looking to start defining a particular population.

But popular ignorance of generation cohorts presents a new challenge. Those of us who spend (too much) time online will likely be keenly aware of generation based discourse – Zoomers vs Boomers and all that. This filters into wider communications, segmentations and strategies. But how useful is it if fewer than half of the population know what group they’re in?

What generation are they?

There’s a further issue too – people define themselves by what they’re not as much as what they are. Remarkably, we’re even more likely to be ignorant of what generation people older and younger than us are.

Only two groups come out of this with even partial credit. Gen Z (just about) and the Baby Boomers can generally identify members of their own generation based on that person’s age or birth year. But both are terrible at identifying others. The Boomers might tussle with the Zoomers online, but only 13% of them know what they are. Gen Z do a bit better – nearly one in three can identify a Baby Boomer. But spare a thought for the Silent Generation – even they’ve forgotten who they are.

Finally, for those interested in needlessly complex charts, here’s the full data, by single year of respondents age. There’s a few things that leap out – including the critical mass of people who do know their generation and the desperation of people aged 18 and older (often way older) to considered Gen Alpha – is the consistency of the Don’t Knows.

Click to enlarge

 

What does this mean?

  • We’ve found a new limitation to generational analysis – no one knows the differences between the generations. In truth, this is more of a limitation to strategies or communications that play off generational difference. We’d still argue for the value of generations (as one strand) in your of customer/consumer insight.

 

  • So much of the discourse around intergenerational conflict is manufactured. Differences between generations are important, but there are usually strong similarities in attitudes and priorities too. Here’s another one.

 

  • The lack of awareness of our own generations is an interesting counterpoint to the increased importance of identity. It suggests that age – at least as far as it pertains to our generation – is not a particularly strong component of that identity. Perhaps it is just a number.

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