Pete Seeger – folk singer and social activist – was big on radio as leading edge Boomers were growing up. We’re talking old school late night FM, not Beach Boys or Top Forty; Seeger was deep, man, like real deep.
Born in 1919, and far from being a Boomer himself, his renditions of Where Have All The Flowers Gone, If I Had A Hammer and We Shall Overcome nevertheless galvanized young counterculture progressives of the 1960s and early 1970s.
One of his most famous songs, Little Boxes (1963), written by kindred spirit Malvina Reynolds, mocked the alleged suburban conformity of the post WWII years. Inspired by the San Francisco suburb of Daly City, the opening verse became something of an anthem for urban planners and green space advocates on the public policy level and for free spirits and individualists in everyday life.
Little boxes on the hillside,
Little boxes made of ticky tacky,
Little boxes on the hillside,
Little boxes all the same.
There’s a green one and a pink one
And a blue one and a yellow one,
And they’re all made out of ticky tacky
And they all look just the same
The little box syndrome: alive and well as generational stereotyping
Among other causes, Reynolds and Seeger were lifelong crusaders against bias – shoving people into handy little stereotypical boxes.
Fortunately, in the marketing, media, academic, entertainment and political arenas there are exceptions. We elites always find ways to protect our turf.
So we discuss branding, segmentation, communities, identity groups, audiences, constituencies and – our personal favorite – generations. The standard boxes go like this:
Boomers: Once optimistic, now facing retirement crisis … digital laggards … White Hats: idealistic, pro equality, question authority / Black Hats: greedy, self-centered, resource guzzlers.
Gen X: Overlooked … latchkey kids … skeptics who saw the American Dream slip from their grasp … early tech adopters … self-reliant balance seekers … squeezed between Boomer bosses and Millennial upstarts.
Millennials: The generation du jour … digital whizkids … struggling to pay college debt and find good jobs, but caring and collaborative … making a difference … diverse … cool, urban-focused anti-car; walk and bike.
Well, it ain’t necessarily so.
Millennials are growing up to be Boomers: “experts” perplexed
Last August we discussed the relatively slow rate of Millennial home purchases – also noting, contrary to the hip urban meme, when they do buy homes it’s more likely to be in Applebee’s-enabled suburbs than in city center lofts a là NPR’s Hipsterfication of America.
The trending suburbia story has been in the news again recently, to the predictable surprise of “experts” in big bi-coastal media centers.
Score one for ticky tacky boxes.
In So Much For The Death Of Sprawl: America’s Exurbs Are Booming, Joel Kotkin, executive editor of NewGeography.com, cites the Brooking Institution (2015) to explain that newer, outer suburbs developed in the 1990s and 2000s are growing more rapidly than dense inner rings. This refutes, he says, the conventional narrative that most American job and housing growth occurs closer to metro area cores.
Kotkin also quotes data from another NewGeographer writer, Wendell Cox, to suggest the greatest suburban growth potential is among Millennials.
Looking at where Millennials live currently (latest data, 2011) is deceptive, Cox finds. In that year a little over a third (39%) were in newer, outer suburbs (see chart).
However, this superficial view masks key dynamics: 90% of 2000-2011 population growth among Millennials occurred in suburbs, with 75% of it in newer, outer suburbs and exurbs. The flow is out of the city, not inbound.
So, hype aside, as Millennials age and settle down to the family lifestage, they begin to resemble their suburban Boomer parents. Good news for appliances, kids’ clothing, toys, compact SUVs and family restaurant chains.
The little Boomer box: no longer able to adapt or switch brands
The marketing stereotype about Americans over fifty is that we are no longer willing or able to adapt. And, therefore, no longer worth specific targeting by mainstream brands.
Basically, we don’t fit into the 18-49 demographic box assigned to us by the same “experts” who predicted our Millennial kids would all morph into urban sophisticates biking and Ubering around trendy downtown enclaves.
Attention, experts! It’s time for some disruptive thinking.
There are around 110 million Americans in the 50+ space. Of these, 93 million fall into the Boomer-Plus Generation™, owners of over 70% of U.S. household net worth. Evolution and lifelong change has moved us from slide rules, black and white TV and station wagons to Facebook, solar panels and Whole Foods.
So, when it comes to generational stereotyping, remember, we’re America’s most adaptable; learn to engage us – outside the box.