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Race and Ethnicity

Why Do Many Gen Xers and Millennials Hate Baby Boomers?

Baby boomers believe they were and remain a kind of chosen people.

While their relative merit is up for debate, it can’t be argued that baby boomers (currently aged 55-75) are a unique generation. This is a direct result of their shared experiences of having been born in postwar America and being part of or exposed to the counterculture. Generational (and generalized) traits include an orientation toward prosperity and abundance; a consumerist ethos; a comfort with peer pressure; an acceptance of great expectations; an acquaintance with social and political turmoil (the civil rights and feminist movements, Vietnam, assassinations, Watergate); an idealist philosophy; a rebellious streak and a distrust of institutions; a generally liberal social attitude; and being natives in the analog world and immigrants to the digital world.

Because of these traits and having spent their formative years in what was unarguably a special time and place from a historical perspective, baby boomers believe they were and remain a kind of chosen people.

Many Gen Xers and Gen Y-ers (millennials), however, perceive baby boomers in much less flattering terms. Boomers hogged the economy and the world’s resources for their own financial gain and/or consumptive habits, I’ve been repeatedly told. They are often seen as greedy and wasteful, with no regard for what future generations will inherit. To put it another way, they’re frequently viewed as dinner guests who’ve eaten and drank pretty much everything set out on the table, leaving only scraps for those who came later to the party, even their own children. In short, the sorry state of the world, including global warming, is considered to be largely their fault.

The backdrop to this kind of thinking is that baby boomers did indeed dominate American society during the 1980s and 1990s (the “yuppie” era) as they advanced professionally. The sheer numbers and collective wealth of the generation dwarfed that of Gen X, making boomers a convenient target among those feeling that the economic cards were unevenly dealt. Their undeniably aspirational, often competitive instincts have helped to inform such a view, as has their unapologetic inclination to buy things they don’t really need and soon get rid of them so they can buy something new—an unsustainable proposition.

Generational hostility is nothing new. There is in fact a long history in America of a younger generation differentiating and distancing itself from their parents’ generation. (It actually goes back to the 18th century.) As a people, we are very much interested in making our own mark, blazing our own trail, and doing things our own way. From this respect, it was inevitable that Gen Xers would set themselves off from baby boomers as a cohort and attempt to carve out their collective identity. The same was and remains true for millennials and Gen Z.

That said, there seems to be a special effort being made by many Gen Xers and millennials to create a contentious relationship with baby boomers. This can be expected given the general sentiment held by the former generations towards the latter, as explained above.

Ageism, too, is behind the current wave of boomer bashing. Because ageism, like discrimination based on race, gender, sexual orientation, and physical ability, is deeply rooted in the United States, younger adults tend to view older people and the aging experience itself in negative terms. We are a society obsessed by youth, making it seem natural and sensible to dislike people in their third act of life. Many younger adults make an unconscious or conscious effort to avoid older people in social settings and at work. Baby boomers are the focus of this antipathy and are commonly seen as in physical and cognitive decline and as no longer relevant.

Such attitudes can be easily detected in the marketplace. It’s difficult for most marketers (especially millennials) to not subscribe to such ageist thinking, as it’s thoroughly woven into everyday life. Ageist thinking prescribes a marketing approach steeped in a consciousness of age, and specifically negative feelings about older age. Such profiling is both silly and discriminatory, and not any different from marketers defining consumers as black or female or gay or physically impaired in some way.

Why then do many marketers insist on focusing on the age of older consumers? We’re all just people and want to be thought of that way, without the demographic and social divisions that separate us. Tapping into universal and positive human values (love, community, empathy, purpose in life, the desire to express one’s voice) is a far better approach than one shaped by a person’s age (or race or gender).

Baby boomers will thus be most attracted to those brands that do not define the group or individuals in terms of age, especially older age. They will prefer those brands that reinforce the idea that boomers are essentially the same people they used to be when they were younger, except that they now have a broader perspective from having spent more years on the planet. Defining brands in generational terms is just as divisive and limiting as defining them by race or gender.

Those marketers who decide to consciously address baby boomers should in their messaging celebrate their proud past, recognize their meaningful and purposeful present, and anticipate their still relevant future.

More from Lawrence R. Samuel Ph.D.
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