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  Who's filling Gen Y's shoes?   Who's filling Gen Y's shoes?  Dr. Pete Markiewicz  
Who's filling Gen Y's shoes? What do these new trends mean for brand owners trying to reach the youth market? And what can other markets learn from these US trends?

Stung by their failure to recognize the unique features of then twenty-something X-ers, brand owners embraced Gen-Y as the next youth generation in the early 1990s. Gen-Y was identified at that time as the current crop of teenagers born between 1974 and 1980.

Gen-Y was defined through a linear extension of trends noted for X-ers. During the early 1990s teen crime, drug use and other negative youth trends were on the upswing. Popular culture continued a decade-long trend embracing the cynical, ironic, and apolitical. Children were said to be growing up too soon, and prophets of doom predicted a coming wave of teen super-predators.

Today, Gen-Y continues to be characterized by many as a sort of super-sized Gen-X -- larger in number and more diverse, individualistic, pierced, skateboarding and in-your-face than Gen-X. Marketers aiming at Gen-Y frequently assume they respond to brands with hip, edgy statements that cut through media clutter and push the boundaries of style and taste. Growing up with no memory of the economic malaise of the 1970s, Gen-Y is a marketer's dream -- they'll buy simply because it is cool to do so.

If this "edgy" Gen-Y is an adequate description of youth in 2003; kids today should be more 'tude-laced and purchase-happy than ever before. But US teens and college students have switched directions to a very un-Y path. It's not that the edginess of Y-style isn't out there, but as Dr. Carolyn Martin of Rainmaker Thinking, an authority on young people in the workplace, says "there are broader truths that need to be articulated" about teens and young adults.

These truths include unexpected trends among US youth, such as:

  • Violent crime by 12 to 17-year-olds is down by over 50 percent from its 1992-1993 peak (US Bureau of Justice Statistics).

  • Despite media reports of casual sex "hookups" among college students, the late 1990s saw overall teen sexual activity decline and virginity rise (Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, US).

  • School shootings were down by more than half in the late 1990s (less than 15 per year) compared to the early 1990s (over 40 per year).

  • Smoking, drinking and drug use among 8th, 10th and 12th graders fell simultaneously in 2002 for the first time (University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research).

  • According to Gallup more than 90 percent of teens report being very close to their parents; in 1974, more than 40 percent of baby boomers said they'd be better off without their parents.

  • Suicide rates for teens have fallen significantly since their 1988 to 1994 peak (National Center for Health Statistics, US).

  • Today's kids are more apt to trust parents (86 percent), teachers (86 percent) and the police (83 percent) than music celebrities (35 percent) and athletes (30 percent) (Applied Research & Consulting LLC).

  • Volunteerism is up. A University of California (UCLA) survey of college freshmen from fall 2001 showed an all-time high of 86.2 percent of students who reportedly engaged in volunteer work, compared to 66 percent in 1989.

  • Teens now form the most religious age bracket in the US. Participation in church groups among teens rose from 17 percent to 28 percent between 1995 and 2001 (Roper). In 2002, the UC Berkeley Survey Research Center PACES project reported that 67 percent of teens supported federal aid to religious organizations -- versus 40 percent of adults ages 27 to 59.

  • Teen marriages rose steadily after a low around 1990 -- a trend running counter to older US generations, which are getting married later (US Census).

Clearly, teens and young adults have reversed many trends that peaked in the early 1990s -- the same time that Gen-Y was defined. Was Gen-Y wrong from the start? It could be that the description of the edgy youth culture of 1993 was a description of the end of a generation, rather than a beginning.

How can this statement be reconciled with standard generational boundaries? Looking at absolute birthrates, Gen-X represents the "baby bust" decline in births in the US after the 1950s boom. Gen-Y is often described as an "echo boom" of rising births after 1975. This definition makes sense for marketers and advertisers, since it focuses on the differential size of their audience in each generation.

However, if one believes that generations are real social entities (in other words, that people born in particular eras of history really share common traits), other indicators become important. If US generations are defined by birth rates, the late 1970s rise in births simply reflects the baby boom entering childbearing age. It wasn't until after 1982 that actual birth rates began to rise. This boom was long lived -- birth rates in the US rose above replacement levels in 1990, fell slightly during the decade, and reached a second peak in 2001. In contrast, Europe and Japan show long-term declines in birthrates. According to Claire Raines, author of Generations at Work, "Culturally, we're much more focused on kids; parents are very involved in their children's lives and vice versa."

Other factors point to the early 1980s forming a natural generation boundary. An unprecedented bull market took hold in the US in 1982 and lasted until 2000. Boomers discovered parenting and promptly created a culture of child protection ranging from no-tolerance schools to standards-based learning. Mainstream moviemaking turned away from Exorcist-style, "devil child" films popular during the 1970s to "beautiful baby" films like Three Men and a Baby, Raising Arizona, Baby Boom and Little Man Tate. This trend continued into the 1990s with Disney's second golden age of animation and the appearance of super-smart movie tweens in Spy Kids and the Harry Potter series.

Based on the evidence, the Gen-Y characterization needs serious revision. One approach is to confine Gen-Y to the late 1970s cohorts responsible for early 1990s youth trends, and define a new, "Millennial" generation with birth dates running from the 1980s to 2000 or 2001. This approach was first developed in the work of William Strauss and Neil Howe, who discussed Millennials in their 1991 book Generations and more recently in Millennials Rising. These authors assign late 1970s cohorts to Gen-X and put the dividing line between generations in 1982. Back when "Gen-Y" and "disturbed" were often said in the same breath, Strauss & Howe predicted that by 2000, "teen pathologies -- truancy, substance abuse, crime, suicide, unwed pregnancy -- will all decline."

More recently, Lynne Lancaster and David Stillman assigned Gen-Y birth years between 1981 to 1999 in their book When Generations Collide. Like Strauss & Howe, these authors noted the close parent-child bonds lacking in the "edgy" Y model. Ron Zemke, Claire Raines and Bob Filipczak defined a similar post-X generation born between 1980 to 2000 in their book Generations at Work.

In contrast, Rainmaker's Martin feels it's necessary to classify the 1978 to 1988 cohorts as a unique, mini Gen-Y. According to Martin, "the problem with longer definitions is that they're too huge" -- in other words, they cover too much societal change. This analysis puts the Gen-Y teens of the early 1990s into a unique buffer zone between X-ers and Millennials.

Whatever the generational division, there is agreement that kids currently entering college are something new. According to Strauss and Howe, Millennials diverge from older Gen-Y models in several key aspects:

  • Unlike earlier generations, Millennials have a near-zero generation gap, and parent-child co-purchase decisions are common. Martin agrees, saying: "When you ask this generation who their heroes are, the majority say their parents." Brands seeking to appeal to this generation in the name of rebellion will increasingly fall flat.

  • Millennials are expected to retain close parental bonds even after leaving home, and they are more likely to consult with their parents on major decisions. Marketing aimed at this generation should consider the input of parents on big-ticket purchases.

  • The "helicopter parents" of Millennials are increasingly found on campus, monitoring any physical or moral threat to their children's progress. Parental input must increasingly be factored into any beliefs about the greater susceptibility of Gen-Y versus Gen-X to marketing messages.

  • Millennials show greater interest in family, religion, and community -- at the expense of celebrity role models and their associated brands.

  • Trash-talk pop culture may lose its influence with today's teens. The rise of Avril Lavigne -- an ordinary-looking, midriff-free, non-dancing singer hailed as the "anti-Britney" -- may presage this generation's backlash against over-hyped, X-treme 1990s culture. Edgy brand associations may fail to appeal to this increasingly conventional generation, which looks for social consensus instead of pushing the limits of taste. In the words of Generations at Work author Raines, "If the Gen-Y concept is about extra edginess, then, yes, it's got to go. Marketing efforts targeted at today's teens and young adults that are based on that picture will be totally misguided."

  • Under constant pressure by their parents and society to achieve, Millennials find little common ground with the "slacker" archetype of youth. Advertising lampooning hard work and celebrating the accidental success of airheads does not speak to this generation.

  • In contrast to ultra-individualist X-ers, Millennials are group-oriented -- meaning that they are less interested in an "army of one" and more interested in the "watch me become we" alternative. Group-oriented concepts such as "leave no one behind" may emerge from the movies (2002 movies Lilo and Stich and Black Hawk Down both used this phrase) and go mainstream.

  • Millennials appear to be using rapid-fire communication via the Internet and other peer-to-peer media to build a newly inclusive "one" from their wildly diverse origins. This may, in the words of Howe, cause Millennials to rally around "a few big, bright and friendly" brands and trigger brand consolidation.

  • Programs ranging from affirmative action to gender-equity sports-program Title IX reduced cultural and gender gaps during the Millennial childhood -- but the gap between rich and poor steadily widened. Millennials are less hung up on race, gender, or ethnicity than their parents, but may increasingly be moving toward increased sensitivity to economic class.

What does the US experience imply for other countries? During the years of the US echo boom, birthrates in Europe and Japan fell. This implies that the global youth culture in westernized countries may be on the verge of fragmenting. Marketing that appeals to youth in the US may fail elsewhere, while youth campaigns in other countries may appeal to US 30-somethings.

Strauss and Howe predict that an international Millennial generation will emerge in Europe during the next few years, with similar trends appearing in Japan and other parts of Asia by the end of the decade. A Millennial-style breakout may be imminent in your location if the following trends are evident:

  • An echo boomlet partly reversing trends toward smaller families
  • A rising obsession with the safety and education of children
  • Warmer relations between adolescents and their parents
  • Recent reversals in long-standing, negative social trends among teens
  • Widespread use of cell phones and the Internet for peer-to-peer communication
Marketers and brand owners targeting youth outside the US have a unique advantage. Unlike their American counterparts, they have time to prepare for the end of Y edginess, and they will be able to pick and choose among successful US strategies speaking to the post-X generation.

Whatever the ultimate outcome of these trends, it is clear that youth marketing needs to be rethought. A Gen-Y archetype may capture the essence of today's 20-somethings -- but a new reality is taking hold among teens, and it doesn't look like 1993.    



Dr. Pete Markiewicz, co-founder of entertainment products site,, has co-authored three books on Internet-based entertainment and recently completed a fourth book charting the effects of changing generations on the entertainment industry in the 2000s.

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