Demographics have been long used as a tool by which to predict behavior and differentiate between attitudes of population groups by age, ethnicity, gender, socioeconomic status, or geography. In the marketing arena, demographics have been kind of a holy grail for predicting consumer buying patterns and targeting products and services.
In the 21st century where we navigate the tricky intersection of analogue and digital communication, the generation gap is used as a way to explain the relative adaptation of different groups to digital communication tools. We live in a complex world. The global nature of business, afforded by technology, means that our workplaces are culturally and socially diverse and can have up to five generations working side-by-side.
While it has been standard practice to categorize employees or consumers by birth year and attendant behavioural typecasting, new research indicates that this method fails to address what it is that we truly have in common and what really drives our behaviour.
In his book, We Are All the Same Age Now: Valuegraphics, The End of Demographic Stereotypes (Lioncrest Books 2018), Vancouver author and consultant David Allison draws on big data to debunk what he sees as the outdated and inaccurate labels that result from demographic stereotyping. Allison conducted more than 500,000 surveys and found that globally Baby Boomers (for example) agree on something just 16% of the time. Similar numbers hold true for Gen X, Gen Z, and Millennials. The science simply doesn’t support predicting behaviour based on age grouping. Says Allison, “When you ask people what they care about—their shared core values, you get almost the complete inverse, 89% alignment.” It is not our age, but rather our values that determine alignment. Allison also warns against an insidious side-effect of what he calls “demographic shaming” which can promote ageism in the workplace.
Says Allison, “We might think it’s harmless calling each grumpy old men, crazy old ladies, or young punks, but the truth is, each of these insults reinforces notions about each other that are harmful, and those harmful notions are the basis for ageist practices. At its core, ageism is an attitude built around a set of faulty beliefs about a group of people who share nothing in common except their age.”
Despite including generation gap research into much of my written work, I’ve never been fully comfortable defining individuals by groupings. As Kristen Neff says in her book, Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself (HarperCollins 2015) “As long as we’re identifying with subsets of people rather than the entire human race, we’re creating divisions that separate us from our fellows.” In his work, Allison urges us to rethink these categories. “We have to stop using demographic labels to paint each other with broad brushes. The findings from our Valuegraphics database prove that there is no brush. Age, gender, income, marital status, education, number of kids—none of it indicates any kind of similarity. We’re all the same age now. Some of us just haven’t figured that out yet.”