Is Gen X A Global Concept? How Generations Get Lost In Translation

Reineke Reitsma [Posted by Reineke Reitsma]

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Last week Friday I've posted a Data Digest on US Consumers' Shopping Attitudes By Generation. This brought back memories of a document I wrote a couple of months ago called ‘Think Locally To Reach Generations Globally’. The reason for writing that specific report was that Forrester got a number of remarks with regards to our global usage of ‘Generation Y’. I dived into the world of generations and found some very interesting insights I’d like to share with you.

Just to clarify, the difference between 'age groups' and 'generational groups' is that age groups are defined by age (so they move from one group to another as they get older), where generational groups are defined by the year they were born. Their outlook is shaped by common experiences as they grow up.

The key element for the comparable behavior of certain generations is the impact of external factors on their development, such as significant political events, their economic prospects, and the traditions and culture of their society.

The basis of Baby Boomers for example lies in the history of the past 60 years in developed countries, including World War II and the economic growth that followed. We find Baby Boomers all around the world, but when we zoom in at a local level, the differences start to show. In the US, the term is used for an 18-year cohort born between 1946 and 1963; in Japan, baby boomers, or Dankai no sedai, is used for people born in just the three years from 1947 to 1949. And in Russia, they are called the Sputnik Generation. These Russian 'Baby Boomers' have a totally different background: they grew up under communism, reached middle age during the Gorbachev Revolution, and have lived through the transition to a Russian-style market economy.

Another confusing term globally is Generation X. In the US this stands for people born between 1964 and 1975, where for example in India this term refers to the younger Westernized and urban generation. And many Western European countries have a generation similar to the American Generation X, but they are called differently: Generation Golf in Germany, Génération Bof (Generation Whatever) in France, and Generation Niks (Generation Nothing) in the Netherlands.

It's so easy to get this wrong (as we experienced ourselves). When you’re working in an international environment you should try understand the research best practices of the regions you’re working with, when the local agencies usually don't report generations neither should you probably. And take some history lessons: Understanding a country’s past and development phases will help you interpret respondents’ reactions better. Finally, nothing beats talking to locals: speak, whenever possible, to people from the countries you research to understand the nuances of their culture, tradition, and politics.

The lesson we learned? At Forrester we decided to take the safe side. We will only report on Generational Groupings for the US and Canada, for all the other regions we now use age bands.