Apparently, we only get better as we age, says a survey examining Americans’ attitudes towards various generational cohorts. Baby Boomers and the Silent Generation are widely considered to be the most generous age group, and the Silent Generation and the Greatest Generation are the most greatly admired of the cohorts. By contrast, Millennials (Generation Y) and Generation X are considered to be the most self-indulgent, though Gen Xers are deemed the most innovative.
The survey, conducted by Harris Interactive for Charles Schwab and Age Wave, questioned nearly 4,000 Americans aged 21 to 83 about their opinions of the five living generations, including Generation Y (defined in this poll as those aged 13 to 31), Generation X (32 to 43), Baby Boomers (44 to 62), the Silent Generation (63 to 83), and the Greatest Generation (84 and older).
Key findings indicate that some negative stereotypes regarding the generations and how they are viewed are false; older cohorts are far more admired and respected than previously thought. For instance, though recently Boomers have been criticized for shutting younger cohorts out of the real estate market, and have in the past been known as the “Me Generation,” more than a third (35 percent) of respondents named them as “having the most positive effect on society.” The former “Slacker Generation”—Generation X—followed, with one quarter (25 percent) of respondents calling them the generation that has had the most positive effect on our society.
Productivity and having a positive effect on society are related qualities; 45 percent of respondents named Baby Boomers the most productive cohort, and nearly a third (32 percent) named Gen X as the top producers.
The public perception of Baby Boomers continued to be positive; while poll respondents named the Silent Generation as the most generous cohort (40 percent), a third (33 percent) called Baby Boomers the most giving.
Why the changes in public perception of Baby Boomers and Generation X? Could the joys and demands of advancing life stages have forced Boomer grandparents to be more generous and Gen Xers to grow up and get jobs?
“Boomers used to be called the ‘Me Generation’ and Gen X the ‘Slacker Generation’—yet now Boomers are viewed as the most generous cohort, and Boomers and Gen X as the most productive and innovative. So it’s clear that self-indulgence is an attribute of life stage not generation,” says Kristin K. Nauth of global research and consulting firm Social Technologies. Nauth is leader of its Global Lifestyles research program; Social Technologies has offices in Washington DC, London, and Shanghai (www.socialtechnologies.com).
Meanwhile, the youngest cohort—the Millennial generation—has been named the most self-indulgent, even by a majority of its own members. More than half of respondents (53 percent) named Millennials the most self-indulgent cohort, including 58 percent of Millennials. Moreover, Generation Y was also named as the greediest cohort of all. Over half of respondents (55 percent) called this group the greediest, including almost two-thirds (62 percent) of Gen Y itself. Generation X followed behind at less than half that number, with under a quarter (22 percent) deeming this cohort the greediest.
Are Millennials considered greedy and self-indulgent because of their youth—most have no one to consider but themselves—or is this a function of values created by a culture obsessed with instant gratification?
“Generosity does tend to increase with age—not just because people have more money, but because their priorities shift,” Nauth states. “In the future, I believe, Gen Xers and Millennials will be deemed as generous as Boomers and Silents are today.”
“I would agree 100% with the notion that characteristics change as you age. You can’t compare kids to grandparents,” says demographer Ken Gronbach, author of The Age Curve: How to Profit from the Coming Demographic Storm. He is also a futurist and generational marketer.
Gronbach credits population size as the strongest influence on a generational cohort’s characteristics, because that affects their level of competition for jobs and other advantages. “The single biggest thing that shapes the psychographics or the personality of a generation is their size,” Gronbach maintains. “It dictates how much competition they will face to get what they want in life, how hard they will have to work, and shapes who they are.”
Boomers are generous, he maintains, not merely due to their life stage roles as doting grandmas and grandpas, but because their large size forced them to overcome specific challenges, shaping their character. “The Boomers, because of their mass and the absence of infrastructure to support them, created their own world and competed for everything. It brought out the best in them and made them generous and willing to share,” Gronbach says.
One-quarter of respondents named Generation X as the most self-indulgent cohort, placing them second in selfishness after Millennials. Gronbach blames the small size of the cohort. “The self-indulgent Generation X repeated the Silents’ saga [also a less populated cohort] and thought it was their own excellence that made them so sought after by marketers and employers when in fact it was simply their small size compared to the Boomers,” he contends.
“When there are no jobs, it makes people very competitive. When Gen X entered the work force, they landed on the footprints left by the Baby Boomers, so Gen X was in demand, giving them the feeling of entitlement, that jobs come easily, and shaped their attitude,” Gronbach explains.
Nauth admits that the notion of a self-indulgent Generation X was unexpected. “I was a little surprised to see Gen Xers viewed as self-indulgent, since they are in the throes of building families and careers and juggling multiple responsibilities to others,” she notes.
The reason for that statistic, she adds, may be due to the fact that many members of Generation X choose to prioritize their families over their careers. “I think the self-indulgent label might reflect a true generational attribute of Gen Xers: their strong intent to maintain a healthy work-life balance and make sure their children receive full parental attention,” she explains.
“While Gen Xers’ insistence on ‘family first’ would look anything but self-indulgent to their kids, it might look that way to their bosses and companies,” Nauth adds. “Because of them, many companies have been compelled to adopt more family-friendly policies in the last decade.”
They may be particularly committed to these values due to the challenges they faced growing up, which would have also influenced their responses to specific survey questions. “As former ‘latchkey kids,’ many Gen Xers feel they didn’t get enough attention from their own Silent and Boomer parents—a belief that might be reflected in the relatively low scores they gave Silents and Boomers for ‘positive effect on society,’” Nauth explains.
Some of the most positive results of the survey involved the admiration that the younger cohorts have for the older generations. Besides being deemed the most generous cohort, the Silent Generation is also the most widely admired, having been chosen by a third of respondents as the most admirable cohort (33 percent). The Greatest Generation was a close second (30 percent), followed by Baby Boomers, who were chosen by just under a quarter of respondents (22 percent).
“The cross-generational admiration and affection that seem to shine through the numbers is noteworthy and heartening,” Nauth says.
As the population ages, the younger cohorts may also enjoy the admiration of future generations, says Nauth. “Over time, I think Gen Y/the Internet Generation will be viewed as a very positive and innovative influence on society.”
Gronbach agrees, but credits the large number of Millennials for their developing character, as they are facing the same challenges the Boomers faced in their youth. “Generation Y is already bigger than the Boomers by ten million. They will have an uphill battle in life, fighting for everything from the starting line up in high school sports to officers’ positions in the military,” he explains. “This fierce competition will make them strong and humble, probably the best and most giving generation this Nation has ever seen.”
Ken Gronbach’s The Age Curve: How to Profit from the Coming Demographic Storm was recently published by the American Management Association and released in July 2008. Go to http://www.kgcdirect.com for more information.