X Ways: Generation X's Consumer Identity Isn't Easy to Pin Down, but a Large Aspect of Successful Selling to This Crowd Involves Clarity, Honesty, and Open Communication

Article excerpt

Generation X is the undefined generation, the unknown and unpredictable quantity that remains outside the corporate ken (the name comes from a 1991 novel, Douglas Coupland's Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture). At least, many Xers think of themselves this way, disloyal to brands and skeptical of big business. Boldness, youthful rebellion, and benign anarchy remain the hallmarks of the generation, even as it begins to have families and start businesses.

However, Gen X is not so inscrutable as it would have us believe. The art and science of demographics is devoted to figuring out the behavior of groups with common factors, regardless of how diverse they may seem at first. Xers have their unique traits, but when you're dealing with about 50 million Americans between the ages of 30 and 41, you're going to find some commonalities as well.

REVENGE OF THE BABY-SAT

"Generation X is defined chronologically--they're the group that comes after the Baby Boom--but it's also a psychographic," says Caroline Barry, president and founder of PortiCo Research. "They're more skeptical, more cautious, and very aware of the possibility of being manipulated."

Her project manager colleague Michelle Schaefer adds, "Xers are classified by the lives they lead. It's the first generation that was largely a product of divorce. These are the latchkey kids, more cynical, and many came from homes where both parents were working."

Consider that Gen X was the group that made the cell phone take off--this untethered form of communication caught the eyes (and ears) of a generation because they could relate to being without a land line, or trying to reach somebody who was in transit. Technology like cell phones and the Internet has changed the way Generation X and later generations think and act. "As a result of the Internet and mobile technology, Generation X has high expectations around receiving easy and personalized service at all times and companies need to deliver on this by talking to them based on their behaviors, needs, and personal interests," says Megan Van Someren, director of strategic planning at marketing and advertising agency Wunderman.

"This is a generation that likes to talk and share. Both Generation X and Y will talk about and share good and bad experiences across their networks of friends, colleagues, and families," Van Someren says. "Smart companies are figuring out ways to leverage the idea of community networks."

THE PARENT TRAP

Mothers (and fathers, of course) are an important part of the equations for Gen X, especially as more of them are becoming parents themselves and seeing the other side of their experience as young people. "Gen X is interesting, in that they were identified sooner as the new, young generation, and were often described as slackers--now they're becoming parents," Schaefer says. "Their direct reactions are to correct the wrongs they perceived in their own parents and families growing up."

X women are going through more changes than their male counterparts. "Gen X women are looking for a career where they can work and still be parents," Barry says. Even though women's equality in the workplace was turbocharged by the Boomers, a lot of them didn't take advantage of the possibilities they created, and instead passed the drive to their daughters.

This is not to say that Gen Xers with a Y chromosome are still slacking off, however. "Although Generation X shares a common work ethic and drive to succeed with Baby Boomers, they are hard wired to embrace and even expect ongoing technology advancements similar to Generation Y," Van Someren says.

However, parental Xers are generally not as tech-savvy as their kids would like them to be. Remember being a teenager? "Marketers have really empowered the younger generations, starting with Gen X. Companies knew they'd eventually be helping their parents with decisions, especially in regard to technology," Barry says. …