• February 1, 2012
  • By Leonard Klie, Editor, CRM magazine and SmartCustomerService.com

Gen X: Stuck in the Middle

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When MTV launched in August 1981, the first song it aired was "Video Killed the Radio Star," by the British New Wave band The Buggles. Well, the radio star isn't quite dead yet, the Buggles were a one-hit wonder, and MTV barely plays music videos anymore. Nonetheless, MTV did help define a generation of latchkey kids who sat for hours every day in front of television sets across the country. But that's only part of the story that has helped shape Gen Xers today—many of whom are stuck between supporting their aging parents and young children. Their life stage and a variety of influences—some traumatic—have made Generation X the self-reliant and somewhat cynical generation that it is today.

By 1984, MTV was reaching more than a quarter of daily teen television viewers, prompting columnists, sociologists, and demographers alike to label the children of the 1980s The MTV Generation. This is the same generation, born between 1965 and 1976, that is now referred to as Generation X.

MTV embraced its teen following and its affiliation with Gen Xers, and, in 1991, even did a documentary on the subject. Titled MTV Generation, the documentary cast people born during this 12-year span as bound by cynicism, uncertainty, a constant need for diversion, and an innate ability to process a lot of information very quickly.

As Generation X aged, it shed its reputation as "slackers" who lack direction, but kept—and even reinforced—its reputation as a tech-savvy cohort. It's no wonder, considering that Generation X, during its formative years, witnessed the introduction of the home computer (in April 1976, Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs released the Apple I computer), video games (Pac-Man was released in the United States in October 1980), cable and satellite TV (the first basic cable network, launched in 1976, was Ted Turner's WTBS superstation), and, of course, the Internet.

To this day, Generation X continues to embrace the functional benefits of new technologies and, as a result, has become a highly connected generation. A recent Forrester Research study, "The State of Consumers and Technology: Benchmark 2011," indicates that 95 percent of Gen Xers own mobile phones—of those, 49 percent own smartphones—and 11 percent own tablet computers.

It is a highly connected generation, according to Jon Miller, director of the "Longitudinal Study of American Youth for the Institution of Social Research" at the University of Michigan. In 1987, the study identified 5,000 people (born between 1964 and 1981) and has tracked their growth, development, and habits since then with surveys and questionnaires at least once a year. Data from the study has prompted Miller to label Gen X "the first generation to grow up in the Internet Era, and perhaps the most extensively wired generation in American history."

So what exactly are Gen Xers doing on the Web? According to the Forrester report, 74 percent of online Xers use the Internet for banking, 72 percent use it to research products or companies, and 81 percent have made purchases online. The average amount spent online, during a three-month period, is $311 per Xer.

Items that they buy most online, according to the Forrester study, are books (38 percent), clothing and accessories (33 percent), event tickets (26 percent), and videos and DVDs (20 percent).

Additionally, Forrester reports that 62 percent of Gen Xers read newspapers, 48 percent listen to radio and read magazines, and 45 percent regularly consume TV programming online.

They're also spending time on social media sites: 95 percent have a page on Facebook, 35 percent have LinkedIn profiles, and 25 percent regularly post to Twitter, according to the Forrester report.

According to results of the Institution of Social Research's longitudinal study, reading and accessing information are the main reasons Gen Xers regularly go to the Internet. Ninety percent use the Web to obtain maps and directions, 88 percent to obtain weather information, and 80 percent to obtain health and medical information.

"They read a lot. They read it on a screen rather than in print, but they're definitely reading," Miller explains. "The Internet is an enormous electronic library, and this generation knows how to manage it better than anyone."

Gen Xers are also very well educated. Half of this generation has completed a postsecondary degree, and 43 percent have earned at least a bachelor's degree, according to the Institution of Social Research's study. "They're doing exactly what the American stereotype has always been," Miller says. "They stayed in school and got good jobs."

Gen X is also the first generation to see a huge jump in the number of women getting a college education. In fact, more women than men in this generation have gotten college degrees (46 percent of women, compared to 40 percent of men).

As a result, more Gen-X women entered the workforce, and they've stayed there. The longitudinal study reports that 79 percent of Gen-X women are currently employed, and, of those, 57 percent work 40 or more hours per week.

For many, this has meant delaying marriage, which has led to smaller families. But there has also been a greater emphasis on keeping the family together and doing things as a family, mainly because their Baby Boomer predecessors weren't around very much, either because of divorce, working long hours, or both.

"The Boomers spent too much time at work and not enough time at home with the kids, and with Generation X, we're seeing the reverse," observes Bill Schroer, principal of WJ Schroer Co., a Battle Creek, Mich., consulting firm specializing in social change and generational marketing.

"This is a generation that is more focused on striking a balance between work and family," Schroer says.

Boomer, Can You Spare a Dime?

But that has come with a price. Gen Xers typically aren't earning as much money as their Baby Boomer parents. "They have a much lower net worth because their priorities are not the same," Schroer explains. "They're not as concerned about working longer hours to climb the corporate ladder. They do not believe that they will be rewarded for their loyalty to the company where they work."

In part, this stems from seeing their parents sacrifice family time for their careers, and then getting laid off when the economy faltered. Compounding their financial problems is the current economic climate. From the oldest to the youngest members, this generation is fully immersed in a workforce that is still recovering from the Great Recession.

"Their income growth has been flat or declining," says James Chung, president of Reach Advisors, a New York–based strategy and research firm focused on emerging shifts in the consumer landscape. "This is the first generation where they don't have the same expectation of living better than the prior generation."

And because they're earning less, they're not given to excess the way Boomers have been. "This is a generation where they are less likely to buy big luxury items," Chung states. "There's a greater amount of spending on family than on individual purchases."

Generation X's attitudes and skepticism have also been shaped by current events and the media. This generation witnessed the gas shortages of the 1970s, sharply rising crime rates in urban areas, and the Chicago Tylenol murders. It was the first generation required to check Halloween candy for razor blades. The generation also witnessed the start of the AIDS crisis and the Iran-Contra scandal. And many were personally affected by the burst of the dot-com bubble.

"Generation X was raised during some very big paradigm shifts," Schroer comments. "There's been a lot of social drama and trauma in their lifetimes."

And it's led to a strong mistrust of government and corporate America. As a result, Gen Xers are less likely to gravitate to big-name brands, and are more likely to go for smaller, niche brands, or even store brands, says Jay Ehret, founder and dean of marketing know-how at TheMarketingSpot, a Texas-based marketing education and resource center.

Gen Xers are averse to ad hype and overstatement and keep a constant lookout for hypocrisy and self-importance. They're also far less daring when it comes to spending their money. "They're more risk-averse," Ehret says. "They will take a more cautious approach. They like to play it safe."

Let Your Fingers Do the Talking

In most cases, that means researching a product—almost to the point of excess—before making a purchase. And, as you might expect, most of that research takes place online.

Gen Xers are not going to the Yellow Pages to find a company; they're going to Google or Yahoo! instead. They're also going to Facebook and Twitter, looking for reviews from their family, friends, and others in their social networks. And they're going to review sites like Yelp, Amazon.com, Angie's List, Epinions, and CNET. "Their peers are immensely influential," Chung says.

"Peer marketing is very big," adds Joel Goldstein, president of the Orlando, Fla.–based Peer Marketing Group. "Social media plays a huge role right now, but even before that there was word of mouth."

Therefore, social media needs to be a part of any strategy for connecting with Generation X consumers. "Gen X likes to research while shopping online. They read more reviews and visit more opinion sites," Ehret says. "This would suggest a couple of tactics: Ramp up your presence on Yelp and other opinion Web sites, and also use keyword search engine advertising."

And encourage customers to write peer reviews, to blog about your products and customer experiences, to "like" and "friend" your company, and to participate in social media forums.

The bottom line: If one Gen Xer thinks you are offering a great deal, expect to see his friends as word spreads. For them, value sells.

But, as any successful organization knows, selling is only part of the customer relationship. Another big component of the relationship is service, and this generation's attitude toward service has forced organizations to take notice. The support a company’s employees provide is perceived as just as important as what they say by Gen Xers. This is a generation that is constantly "looking for an affinity and a sense of connection," Schroer points out. "So be warm and pleasant and talk to them as a peer rather than an authority."

Given the amount of time Gen X spends staring at computer screens, it also makes sense to provide them with online avenues for customer service and support. Having support available to them via email, Web chat, and text messaging makes a lot of sense, but it's also important to let them reach your firm via social media. "You really need to look to online forms of customer service, like Facebook and Twitter," Ehret says.

Gen Xers also want to reach you on their own terms. "They want service to be available when they want and need it," Schroer adds. "They want to be able to reach someone in tech support at midnight, so you probably will want to look to extended hours, nights, and weekends."

As Gen Xers are going online to research products and companies, seek support, or exchange ideas about the companies with which they do business, you can be certain that comparison shopping and looking for deals is also on their minds. But companies looking to court Gen-X shoppers should look past just competing on price. This is a generation that highly values honesty and transparency. "If a company is going after the Gen-X crowd, they have to prove the product claims in their ads," Goldstein states. "When talking to Gen X, you need to show that you have a proven track record and you are a trusted source."

Marketers also need to provide a compelling reason to get Gen X to buy their products. Money-back guarantees go a long way toward helping Gen X get past its innate skepticism. Marketing experts agree that to effectively reach Gen-X consumers, companies need to be clear about what their product is and what it does. "They're skeptical. If something in your offer is not clear, they will shy away from it," Ehret suggests.

That reputation is not something that can be built with a lot of flashy advertising. "The idea that you can do a quick pitch or a jingle is just wrong. You can't get [Gen X] with a quick, slick ad," Miller points out. "You won't be able to dazzle them with something cute or flashy."

And this is a generation that certainly doesn't want to be told what to do—by anyone. "They do not like to be told that they need to buy anything," Ehret continues. "It's better to suggest that this might be something they'd be interested in, and then make sure you give Gen Xers enough details to justify their purchases."

Ads targeting Generation X should showcase family entertainment, independence, and escapism. Ads that are authentic, family-oriented, and unique work best when reaching out to this generation.

Leave It to Beavis

Experts also warn against ads that appeal to a broader sense of heritage, history, and tradition, because Gen X doesn't go for that. After all, this is a generation that watched Beavis and Butthead, not Leave It to Beaver.

"What Boomers consider offensive, Gen Xers would consider funny," Schroer notes. "Gen Xers are more likely to be receptive to campaigns that make fun of convention and tradition. Gen X is more unconventional, in-your-face, loud, disrespectful, and irreverent." That's why Schroer and others suggest that an edgy marketing message will likely have the widest appeal.

Gen X is also a multicultural generation—about 35 percent of the people in this age group are minorities—so any marketing outreach that embraces that diversity will be well received.

Because Gen Xers spend so much time online, the Internet is an obvious marketing channel when trying to reach them. The Internet allows them to browse for information and products at their own pace and at a time of their choosing.

For this generation, television is almost vanishing as an effective advertising medium. "If you look at how busy they are, you'll [realize you won't] be able to sell them something every Tuesday at eight p.m.," Miller warns. "Everything is on demand, not on a schedule."

But you can't automatically assume that they will respond to everything that gets thrown at them while surfing the Web. Marketing experts agree that Internet campaigns should be relevant to the site where they are placed to avoid any feeling of intrusion upon the Gen-X visitor. "And when it comes to Web site design, Gen Xers like a comprehensive, professional, and interactive site that satisfies their thirst for information, current research suggests. "Have a front page that carries very general information, and then you'd better have lots of links" where Gen Xers can go for more in-depth information, Miller advises.

This points to a key fact about Gen X that is universally accepted. Not only are Gen Xers active, but they're serious readers and active information seekers. "You have to treat them as very informed consumers," Miller asserts. "Always assume that you're dealing with someone who's done his homework."

Also, whenever you're dealing with Generation X, being accessible is the key, whether it's in marketing, customer support, or sales. "If you're difficult for them to get hold of, [Gen X] will naturally be skeptical of you," Ehret states.

It comes down to dollars and cents. Contrary to Dire Straits' lyrics, most members of the MTV Generation never did get their "money for nothing." So they're more protective of the money they have.

Generation X: An Immigrant Age

The United States saw a significant drop in the number of births through the mid-1960s and 1970s, but a steady flow of immigrants helped pad Generation X's numbers.

"If it weren't for immigrants, Generation X would have seen a significant hole," says Reach Advisors' James Chung. "Birth rates dropped fifteen to twenty percent, but immigrants made up a lot of the difference."

Though Generation Y has a higher percentage of minority members than Generation X (41 percent compared to 38 percent), Gen X contains a higher percentage of immigrants (22 percent) than Gen Y (15 percent), according to the Pew Research Center. The result is a generation that is very diverse. Only 62 percent of Gen Xers are white. This is in stark contrast to previous generations, where the overwhelming majority of the population was white. The Silent Generation, born between 1928 and 1945, was 79 percent white. Even the Baby Boomers, born between 1946 and 1964, were 73 percent white.

The ethnic makeup of Generation X is as follows: white, 62 percent; Hispanic, 18 percent; black, 12 percent; Asian, 6 percent; and other, 2 percent.

The generation's diversity has shaped how members of this cohort behave. To reach them, companies need to honor diversity and celebrate the pride that Generation X takes in its diversity and eclectic tastes. Include people of various ethnic heritages in your advertising. And, most of all, don't treat them as a unified, one-size-fits-all target market.

News Editor Leonard Klie can be reached at lklie@infotoday.com.

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