Keeping Up with Generation Jones

Article excerpt

Business and Aging

Yes, a demographic baby boom filled the nation's maternity wards between Jan. 1, 1946 and Dec. 31, 1964. But, no, there wasn't a monolithic Baby Boom Generation born during those 19 years. Two distinct new generations sprang from that robust post-World War II period.

Understanding key differences between these disparate cohorts is critical to businesses and nonprofits focused on aging. The beneficiaries of the coming retiree boom will be those who comprehend the differences between these two generations and the corresponding implications for products, services and marketing.

GENERATIONAL MARKETING

Generational marketing as an approach to market segmentation springs from a theory by a father of sociology, Karl Mannheim (1893-1947). As Mannheim observed, social and cultural events during the suggestible years of adolescence can foment and solidify a generation and its shared outlook, thus shaping ensuing life experiences and values with a collective consciousness. Social science has shown that the Zeitgeist phenomenon-the shared feeling for an era and the unique spirit of a generation-is not equally magnified for every generation. Those who become young adults during a quiescent historical period are less likely to experience a strong sense of generational connectivity.

Numerous experts have recognized that a period of 19 years, the traditionally accepted span of the boomer generation, is far too inclusive. Author David B. Wolfe, for example, argues that a true generational cohort occupies a much shorter duration. In his book Ageless Marketing (Chicago: Dearborn Trade Publishing, 2003), Wolfe notes that "from a subjective perspective, the age span of a generation is 12 to 14 years." Similarly, in the updated edition of her classic book Passages (New York City: Random House, 1995), Gail Sheehy argues that "given the acceleration of the life cycle, a generation is now encapsulated in 10 to 15 years instead of the traditional 20."

Further undermining the traditional 19-year boomer-generation concept is the reality that no generation has ever been defined by how many babies were born; generations stem from shared formative experiences, not head counts. Demographers originally pointed to the remarkable bulge in birth charts simply as an interesting phenomenon, not as a generation. Unfortunately, some in the media lazily started referring to this bulge as a generation, and subsequently the baby-boom-generation myth became nearly intractable.

Perhaps most telling is that the overwhelming majority of those born during the second half of the baby boom don't believe they are baby boomers. Instead, they feel part of a separate generation-a fact borne out repeatedly in national polling on this question.

MEET GENERATION JONES

The real boomers, in the Zeitgeist sense, were born between the mid-1940s and the mid-1950s. Henceforth in this article, we'll refer to this cohort simply as boomers. They are the group to which the common boomer stereotypes and touchstones have been attached, from Howdy Doody to Beaver Cleaver, from Woodstock to Vietnam. This group has been the subject of countless national media reports recently, from the cover of Business Week to NBC's Nightly News, as the leading-edge boomers began turning 60 this year to usher in a hopeful new conception of aging in America.

Born between the mid-'sos and mid'6os is "Generation Jones"-the moniker established by Jonathan Pontell, a coauthor of this article, to describe this distinct population cohort. The name stems from the concept of a large, anonymous generation, "but the word Jones evokes additional relevant connotations: from this generation's competitiveness (conveyed in the phrase keeping up with the Joneses) to the residual craving this group feels as a result of its large-and unfulfilled-expectations. It was this generation that embraced the '705 slang words jones and jonesing, meaning a deep yearning. …