I have three step kids. Two are generation X. The youngest is generation Y. Just looking at them, you can see a clear difference in their personalities and aspirations. My older step kids are more individualistic. The younger one is more oriented to group and collective interests. It’s a fundamental difference that speaks by-and-large to both generations. And it’s a difference we need to understand given the troublesome economic climate we face.
You know that one of the major points of my research is that the millennial generation will neither fully replace nor surpass the boomers the way every single generation in history has before (not to mention the millennials are much smaller in most developed countries).
This is something most can’t wrap their head around, because the millennial generation is indeed larger than the boomers. But they’re larger only in terms of total numbers. They started out with higher birth rates, and their birth surge lasted longer. However, they never have peaks in births, adjusted for immigration, quite as high as the baby boom. In other words, this generation will never take us to new heights in stocks, in home buying, car buying or most any other sector of our economy!
And that is more critical for their future economic impact.
The chart below comes from the seminal book Generations by William Strauss and Neil Howe. It shows how there are four broad personality types that emerge in two birth waves every 80 years or so.
There’s another point about generations most people don’t get. Strauss and Howe went back centuries to document their findings. Their research adds a social/political dimension to the economic cycles we’ve identified.What this shows is that for every birth wave that is more individualistic, inner-directed, or me-oriented…another follows that is more conformist, outer-directed, or we-oriented.
And each wave changes as it rises and falls.
Riding the Generational Waves
At the start of the individualistic generation comes a rising and more dominant “idealist” group. In our case, this is the baby boomers, and the Henry Ford generation before them.
Then comes a declining “reactive” group, like generation X.
The idealists want to change the world radically. Throw out the baby with the bath water! Sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll! But they also bring about major revolutions like automobiles and personal computing.
Coming off that high, the reactives want to change the world and improve it in more practical terms, like with the Internet and global communities.
The civics follow in the next rising birth wave. This group is more collective. They’re all for the good of the whole. They were the Bob Hope generation, the World War II GIs that banded together in tough times. That is the same group as the millennials emerging today. And when it comes down to it, these guys get the most stuff done due to their collective instincts. That’s why Tom Brokaw called them: “The Greatest Generation.”
The adaptives that follow them are also known as the “silents.” They’re collective like the civics, but they’re more obedient to societal norms. They’re “The Organization Man” in 1970s Corporate America – they believed groups made better decisions than individuals.
We’re in another silent generation now (though it hasn’t been named), starting in 2008 and rounding out in 2023, with declining births along the way.
A recent article in Investor’s Business Daily talked about the difference between these individualistic and conformist generations – specifically, our boomers and millennials. It’s key that the “sharing economy” emerged with the more collective millennials. They’d rather share experiences and services, preferring to spend money hanging out with friends at a café over shopping at the department store.
In other words – they value experiences over things. They value the collective over the individual. Hence, department stores and malls have been declining for over a decade while restaurants and bars do better. Unlike the boomers that grew up in the Happy Days of the 1950s, the millennials are more cautious, especially since 2008. They’re less likely to buy homes. More likely to rent or live with parents longer. And less likely to take on credit card debt. The Bob Hope generation, like them, never had the propensity for debt and risk-taking that the boomers to follow them did.
But – they spend more than ever on electronics and personal communication devices. Why? Those things allow them to connect with the collective, the group, the world. They communicate heavily through the Internet and mobile devices, much more so than aging boomers. They’d rather shop online at Amazon.com (AMZN) and have the world at their beck and call than shop at a brick-and-mortar store. They form communities of similar interests around the world, not just locally.
Again, they’re more interested in what’s in their pocket – their phone – than what they’re wearing. They don’t need to stand out and be as individualistic as the boomers. So whatever business you are in or work for, understand that you need to be selling experiences more than things. Focus on collective association more than individuality. And understand that your kids, like every generation, will be different from you as their parent (one reason why kids get along better with grandparents).
The Bob Hope generation fought their baby boomer children’s individuality. Boomers should not fight this new generation’s collective instincts.
What could be more important? In an increasingly global and polarized world created out of the extreme innovation and individuality of the last generation, we need their collective instincts to help balance things out. Everything runs in cycles.
After all – it will be up to the millennials, not the boomers, to bring us out of the ever more challenging economic winter season. And we are blessed to have one of the larger millennial generations to follow, compared to most of Europe and East Asia.
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