Don’t call them “Generation Z”

For more than a decade, wine marketers have fervently sought the hearts and palates of the Millennial generation.  Though still focused on Millennials, some wine marketers are beginning to pay attention to the oldest members of a new generation who are now in their early 20s and entering the beverage alcohol market.

The first issue to address?  What to call them.

For many pundits and business writers outside and inside the wine industry, “Generation Z” is often used to describe those who are younger than Millennials.  This is a misnomer that does not take into consideration the generational research and work of demographers in weighing the factors that go into generational boundaries and definitions.

There is, of course, a “Generation X,” which led briefly to “Generation Y” and now to “Generation Z.”  But before “Generation X” became a description of the smaller generation following Baby Boomers, demographers referred to them as the “Baby Bust” generation, using the same metrics of rising and falling U.S. birth rates that defined Baby Boomers.

In 1946, when American service men and women returned from WW II, the birth rate in the U.S. literally boomed, and did not decline significantly until 1965, when the birth control pill was deemed a constitutional right of privacy by the U.S. Supreme Court.  Thus, the Baby Boom generation was bracketed by birth years from 1946 through 1964.  Those born from 1965 until 1976 (when the birth rate rose once more) were called the Baby Bust generation until a 1991 best-selling novel written by Douglas Coupland (a Canadian writer who is himself a Baby Boomer) painted an enduring portrait of disaffected “20-something” Southern Californians who held in common a disdain for the generation preceding them and its culture.  The term “McJob” originated in the novel, as did the protestation “I am not a target audience.”

To Coupland, the “X” in “Generation X” had nothing to do with alphabetical order but referred to an “unknown,” as in mathematics.  The term “Generation X” stuck because it perfectly described the demographic cohort it represented, and has been accepted by marketers and academics alike.

“Generation Y” was a short-lived “placeholder” term, replaced by one that is truly defining – Millennial – an apt description for the first wave of Americans to enter adulthood in the new millennium.  So, just as there was no “Generation W” preceding Generation X, there will be no “Generation Z” following the Millennial generation.

There are no governing bodies or universally accepted methods for defining and naming the generations.  In fact, the Baby Boom generation is the only generation with an established definition accepted by the U.S. Census Bureau.  But there are two authoritative groups with a long history of tracking and reporting on the subject of generations – the publishers of the American Generations series of reports, and the Pew Research Center.

These two organizations are fairly close in the age ranges they set and the terminology they use to define the generations.  A comparison of their definitions can be seen in the chart below, which shows the age ranges of the generations in 2019.

At Wine Opinions, we use the definitions set by the 8th Edition of American Generations to analyze survey data by generation.  Pew Research has set an age range for Millennials that is the same span (16 years) as their age range for Generation X.  The age range for Millennials set by American Generations uses the guidelines they have adopted for setting the span of other generations – the rising and falling of the birth rate in the U.S.  Each of these methods is sensible and offers some advantages.

While generational comparisons and analysis are often useful in consumer research, these broad age segments are not always key drivers of behavior.  At Wine Opinions we often analyze behavior and attitudes by gender, “age bands” (20s, 30s, 40s, etc.), region, media usage, and other such demographic or behavioral groupings.

With regard to the generation following Millennials, Pew Research issued a statement in March of 2018 stating that they had set their cutoff birth year for Millennials as 1996.  Anyone born from 1997 through 2012, in the view of Pew Research, belongs to a generation they refer to as “Post-Millennials.”  Pew believes it is too early to name this youngest generation, and they caution that their Post-Millennial ending birth year is still subject to revision.  In American Generations, though, those definitions have been set.  Noting that the birth rate in the U.S. stabilized in the mid-1990s, and fell once more in the onset of the Great Recession, the group they call the “iGeneration” is defined by the birth years 1995 through 2009.

In her book, “iGen,” Jean M. Twenge Ph.D., a professor of social psychology, notes that today’s teens are the first generation to have spent their entire adolescence in the age of the smartphone, and that social media and texting have replaced other activities for them.  Dr. Twenge’s work draws on surveys of 11 million young people, as well as interviews, and details how the changing world around them has affected them.

At Wine Opinions, we are now getting consumer survey responses from the first wave of iGeneration young adults, ages 21 – 24.  While the numbers are not sufficient yet for statistical significance, we are finding that when they are compared to the very youngest Millennials (25 – 29) there are a few encouraging signs.  For example, in a very recent survey we found that wine consumption frequency of the two groups was only slightly higher for Millennials.  Perhaps not surprisingly, the iGeneration group is somewhat more reliant than the Millennial group on wine advice from friends or family members, and they also gave a bit more weight to the value of wine scores or ratings when choosing a new wine, compared to Millennials.

In the coming year, we will learn more about the leading-edge iGeneration members as they enter the world of wine.  We are now recruiting this age 21 – 24 cohort to our national Wine Opinions consumer panel and look forward to providing insights on their wine preferences, attitudes, behaviors, brand familiarity, media consumption, and other factors of interest to wine marketers through 2019 and beyond.  Meanwhile, please call them the “iGeneration,” or “Post-Millennials.”  Or wait for the Pew Research Center to offer its alternative.


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