If there is something that has taken over the advertising and marketing language in the last 5 years or so, it has been, along with the design thinking, the generational labels.

For some time now it seems that the economical offer has been designed solely for Millennials or Gen Z. And also for a long time, advertisers have erased cultural diversity and thus the study of target audiences contextualized in their own culture.

The abusive and exorbitant use we make of these concepts becomes harmful to creative and strategic freedom. We must not forget that these are labels and therefore they simplify and reduce reality, helping to limit thinking. In the words of writer Rebecca Onion in an essay on Aeon: ‘generation theory is a simplistic way of thinking about the relationship between individuals, society, and history. It encourages us to focus on vague «generational personalities» rather than looking at the confusing diversity of social life’.

While this simplistic trend avoids the effort involved in working to know reality as faithfully as possible, and taking into account the very limited timings to which we are subject in advertising, it can be understood that the use of generational labels makes life easier to the advertiser. But this behavior should not be exempt from criticism.

This simplification of reality causes creative blindness or business myopia because not for being born in the same year is someone part of a generation, nor do all people of the same generation have to behave the same. And of course, there are behavioral patterns that far from being subject to a historical or temporal context are caused by purely biological facts.

Young people are young by nature

In sociocultural anthropology as well as in sociology generations are used to study change, either within a kinship system to which the individual belongs – especially in anthropology – or within broader social groups – more typical in sociology –.

‘In one of its senses, generation refers to a group of people who are living through a time period together and participate in some kind of shared identity, practices, and beliefs. Generation is also used by anthropologists in its more genealogical, kinship-related sense, to refer to the relationship between parents and their children […] Whether we  think of  intergenerational links within families or across historical periods, generation is about connections and contrasts – and often conflicts – in a temporal perspective’.

In 1928 the sociologist Karl Mannheim, in an essay considered a fundamental and pioneering work in the study of generations (Pilcher, J. 1993) and which has served as a reference for numerous subsequent studies, hypothesized that sociocultural transformation arose from the continued appearance of new generations that contact in a ‘fresh and new’ way with their social and cultural heritage, reshaping the established patterns. (Mannheim, K. 1998).

This ‘fresh’ contact can occur in two ways. Because of a social change (migration, scale of social status, adolescence) or because of a vital change (to pass naturally from one generation to another). According to Mannheim, the latter is potentially more radical ‘since with the advent of the new participant in the process of culture, the change of attitude takes place in a different individual whose attitude towards the heritage handed down by his predecessors is a novel one’. 

Equally necessary than the appearance of the latest generations is the disappearance of the first. Throughout the life cycle, obtaining knowledge through oneself is a much more radical process than doing it through others. And this only happens when we are young. If human beings lived forever and no one was born or died we would have to learn to forget what we had learned to make up for the lack of generational replacement. The young person, by virtue of being young, is cognitively designed – not yet learned – for questioning the inherited models, and it is much more likely that changes will occur in this vital stage than in later ones.

‘The possibility of really questioning and reflecting on things only emerges at the point where personal experimentation with life begins—round about the age of seventeen […]. It is only then that life’s problems begin to be located in a “present” and are experienced as such.’ 

In fact, it is the young who, by virtue of being young, that teaches his elders. Or is it not the young people who are teaching us to be sustainable or to eat healthier? And if we were at war instead of in the midst of a climate crisis (or now health) they would teach us peace as they did in the 1960s.

So many of the characteristics attributed to Millenials and Genz and attributed to boomers are caused by the mere fact that being young implies questioning the models of our elders. At this time, for example, during the pandemic caused by COVID-19, the psychological and emotional management of a young brain will not be the same as that of a mature brain, so the consequences will be different despite having experienced the same event.

Being born in the same year doesn’t mean that we share the same history 

To explain the generations Mannheim compares them with the social classes, but instead of a status what is shared is a temporary location in society. In the English edition of his essay this was translated as ‘location‘.

‘Similarity of location can be defined only by specifying the structure within which and through which location groups emerge in historical-social reality. Class position was based upon the existence of a changing economic and power structure in society. Generation location is based on the existence of biological rhythm in human existence—the factors of life and death, a limited span of life, and aging’.

However, this fact does not hinder the creation of a common mentality. This is the biological sense and does not address the sociological question:

‘The sociological phenomenon of generations is ultimately based on the biological rhythm of birth and death. But to be based on a factor does not necessarily mean to be deducible from it, or to be implied in it If a phenomenon is based on another, it could not exist without the latter; however, it possesses certain characteristics peculiar to itself; characteristics in no way borrowed from the basic phenomenon’. 

But it is necessary to delve into Mannheim’s concept of ‘location’. This is formed when two or more people experience the same events and facts together, are exposed to the same information, which generates a common and stratified consciousness… ‘no one, for example, would assert that there was community of location between the young people of China and Germany about 1800’. 

This being the case, we can think that the continuous use we make of generational labels is correct, since we now live in a global world and all young people who were born in the same year are exposed to the same context and social interaction is universal. Therefore, both young people in the USA and in Europe are digital, sustainable, vegetarian natives, eat avocado and no longer watch television… but this is not exclusive to new generations at all. Since this thought ignores the factor, as we mentioned, of social interaction, which can become intergenerational. Quoting again from writer Rebecca Onion:

‘Since I’m a ‘Gen-X’er born in 1977, the conventional wisdom is that I’m supposed to be adaptable, independent, productive, and to have a good work/life balance. Reading these characteristics feels like browsing a horoscope. I see myself in some of these traits, and can even feel a vague thrill of belonging when I read them. But my ‘boomer’ mother is intensely productive; my ‘Greatest Generation’ grandmother still sells old books online at age 90, in what I consider to be the ultimate show of adaptability and independence’.

As Toll well explains in a later work ‘all people living at the same time do not necessarily share the same history’. (1970). And it is because without social interaction between individuals we could not speak from the sociological point of view of generations and their problems would be reduced to the purely biological: being born, aging and dying.

‘Were it not for the existence of social interaction between human beings—were there no definable social structure, no history based on a particular sort of continuity, the generation would not exist as a social location phenomenon; there would merely be birth, aging, and death’

In fact, we can even find, according to Mannheim, generational units within the same generation that are contrary to each other, due to different social interactions and interpretations of reality. For this, it is necessary for a generation to emerge ‘as an actuality’, that is, as a reality not only derived from sharing the same ‘location’ but from sharing a whole series of experiences.

‘Whereas mere common «location» in a generation is of only potential significance, a generation as an actuality is constituted when similarly «located» contemporaries participate in a common destiny and in the ideas and concepts which are in some way bound up with its unfolding. Within this community of people with a common destiny there can then arise particular generation units’.

When the same vital destiny is shared, it is then that a generational unit emerges, within a broader generational group. To illustrate this, Mannheim explains how within a single ‘location’ in the early 19th century in Germany, two antagonistic youth units were established: the Conservatives and the Liberals.

The approach from the cohort concept

As we have seen, what happens in our sector is that we use these labels without taking into account intergenerational cultural differences. As much as they were born in the same interval of years, a person from Spain, the USA or the UK are not the same. There is no shared common consciousness since they have not had sufficient social interaction to be included in the same generation.

Imagine the generation of Spanish poets and writers of ’98 or ’27. Not only do they share the same ‘location’ according to Mannheim, but they maintained a constant interaction that led them to share conscience and to be characterized within the same generation. Although they shared the same temporal location with many other writers, they were intrinsically homogeneous and clearly heterogeneous with respect to the rest.

Demographer and sociologist Norman Ryder approached the generational problem in 1965 from the cohort concept. This approach would involve the study of people born in the same period of time and who share the same life experiences (2012, Quiñones, E. Princeton University News).

The cohort is more precise and narrower than the generation, and it approximates Mannheim’s concept of generational unity, since it would imply the definition of a context prior to study, as in the generations of poets and writers.

To differentiate ourselves we have to define different audiences

For brands and advertising agencies it would be much more fruitful strategically and creatively speaking, to define a target as a cohort than as a generation. For example, studying the cohort of individuals who obtained a university degree in 2013 in Spain, which implies an incorporation into the labor market in the midst of the former crisis and the consequent frustration due to the rupture of expectations. Starting from this definition, we have a greater facility of faithfully imagining what social conditions they had to face and how they developed another way of thinking, behaving and creating culture after all.

We would thus avoid simplifying and reducing our targets. First of all we already talked about people. Secondly, these people can agree that they are Millennials or not (if they exist). And thirdly, it is much more authentic and rigorous to investigate a population based on that hypothesis than to do it based on a mandatory such as ‘we are targeting Millenials’.

But the reality is that we think of generations as if they were physical laws that always behave the same and are immutable everywhere. We end up homogenizing what is really diverse and helping to generate the same messages for different people. It seems as if the industry has invented a target to direct its products and communication to, leading to an undifferentiated mass of communication.

‘The problem with transferring historical and sociological ways of thinking about generational change into the public sphere is that ‘unclassifiability’ is both terrifying and boring. Big, sweeping explanations of social change sell. Little, careful studies of same-age cohorts, hemmed in on all sides by rich specificity, do not.’ Rebecca Onion

In advertising we go easy (which is sometimes going global) and not professional. And the easy thing in this case is to build a common archetype for everyone, an artificial one, that only lives in our minds, and to create campaigns like hotcakes for them in all markets. Advertising is a speculative discipline. Everyone plays to believe that something is true. And it can end up being.

  • MANHEIM, K. (1998) “The sociological problem of generations”. Essays of the sociology of knowledge. Taylor & Francis Book UK.
  • PILCHER, J. (1993) “Mannheim’s sociology of generations: an undervalued legacy”. Department of sociology. University of Leicester.
  • ONNION, R. “Against generations”. Aeon Essays. REcuperado de: https://aeon.co (19 de mayo de 2015).
  • QUIÑONES, E. “Norman Ryder, renowned demographer and leader in fertility studies, dies”. Princeton University News. Recuperado de https://www.princeton.edu/ (12 de julio de 2010)
  • LAMB, S. (2015) “Generation in Anthropology”. International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences. Oxford. Elsevier. pp. 853–856.

On the author:

Vicente Gallego is Publicist and Head of the department of strategy of a communications agency in Barcelona. He also studies social and cultural anthropology, a discipline that he considers increasingly necessary and that gives meaning to the experience gained during his professional career.

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