What The Police Taught Me About The Uniqueness Of Generation X

08/09/2016 10:45

I'm talking about Sting, Message in a Bottle, De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da; not the boys in blue. I heard a great tune from The Police playing this weekend while I was in the kitchen. First time I'd heard it for a while. Then someone said, "I love this, they make great sounds."

Was it the DJ or a visiting school friend? No, it was my 16-year-old, post-GCSE, festival-going, pants-showing son. "Do you know who this is?" I asked. To my immense joy and satisfaction, he replied, "Course I do Dad, I like a lot of your music on Spotify." Then he switched to Jamiroquai!

I'm about to hit 50. I wasn't worried, until it dawned on me that I'll soon be eligible for cheaper car insurance, Saga holidays and direct mail doormat-bombing from every charity under the sun. Prepare to be labelled, and not just as a mid-lifer. I'm going to be classified alongside my Dad!

It's time brands stopped treating everyone over 50 as a homogenous lump. With ever-extending life expectancy, that's almost half a lifetime. I love my dad very much, but I never really liked his music (ok, Queen excepted) and I certainly never borrowed his clothes, or talked with him about good holiday destinations, or what are the best grocery brands.

Gen X, my peers, are turning 50. But I feel much more in tune with my Gen Z kids than my dear old baby boomer parents. Yes, I'm sure my children see me as 'old', but we share so much in terms of culture, lifestyle and energy. Our favourite brands of clothing, for example. I got my son the same brand of shoes, and he is always wearing my jeans, even my shorts. We swap online videos, compare holiday wish lists and the best places to buy stuff we like. Meanwhile, my 14-year-old daughter is always on about the latest app and her knowledge of 'personal care' products has changed my shopping list of choices.

Herein lies the problem. Brands today are failing to recognise that Gen X is not the stereotypical over 50s consumer. We openly reject the label, want to be recognised as digital experts not interlopers, need brands to realise we get trends, explore new things (I'm a Lidl convert). And our choices are not made in isolation. I'm influenced by my Gen X kids as much as anyone, and vice versa.

Because baby boomers were such a scrutinised generation, along with Millennials who live their lives under the media's microscope, Gen X has become the silent generation. But that doesn't mean we aren't influential.

We've lived through and assiduously adapted to technological leaps. My mind returns to a time when we got excited about Crockett and Tubbs flouncing around Florida with mullets and mobiles the size of house bricks. Now that young TV audience has matured into tech-savvy festival goers checking out stage schedules on our wrist watches.

More than any other generation, we've become open to change through necessity, and now we're a catalyst for change among the age groups above and below ours. Even in the workplace, no longer near retirement age, we're adapting to different business models, daily working practices and, in many cases, completely new careers to seek personal and professional fulfilment.

As consumers turn 50, marketers make the mistake of expecting people's view of themselves and the world around them to change to a mindset of comfort and familiarity, not the sense of exploration we harbour. You see this a lot in women's fashion. I remember the Twiggy Effect of a few years when M&S launched its latest range. Get to 50 and you should be inspired by the likes of Helen Mirren, Twiggy, Susan Sarandon. These are lovely, successful women but they are in their mid-to-late 60s. It's the equivalent of a 30-year-old being told to dress like a 50-year-old!

I see many of my peers wearing clothes and behaving very much like Millennials. The biggest difference in this life-stage is the presence of kids starting to spread their wings (note to self: add tracker to my kids' smartphones so I can learn about the new places to go!). While Gen Xers are slowing down a bit too much and late nights aren't quite so attractive, we can still follow youth's lead and roll back the clock.

So it's time brands stopped stereotyping Gen X, and recognise what makes our key cultural and financial section of the UK population different to other age groups. There are lots of brands already positioned to serve the over 50s, but they need to rethink their messaging to reflect the different needs of specific generations within that vast demographic. I can get Saga car insurance, but would I be happy to say that to friends?

Rather than get fixated on the age 50, brands need to really understand who Gen X is. This is a generation that's wealthy, healthy and highly influential. While many are still supporting their Millennial usurpers (financially or at home), others are being liberated from familial duties and entering an entirely new life-stage unlike their predecessors. But it isn't about cruises, gardening hobbies and sensible cars.

So my "Message in a Bottle" to brands out there that want my attention:

We want to be recognised as distinct to my dear folks, as being highly engaged in so many sectors that have been the domain of Millennials. This has been a topic of discussion for so many years yet very few brands have met it head on. Many over 50s brands are suffering from an aging customer base and trying to find new ways to bring in Gen X. It needs fresh thinking. It isn't about showing grey hairs; it may not even mean overtly talking about age.

Rather than getting stuck on a Single Customer view, it's time to start thinking from a Single Household View. The buying power of a home of four with two teenage kids is high, and there exists a micro ecosystem of mutual influence among the generations. Start the conversation within the home... my kids and I are always sharing and talking about what brands we want to buy.

In the words of The Police, I currently feel like saying to all brands targeting the over 50s: "Don't Stand So Close To Me." I'd be more than happy to be "Wrapped Around Your Finger" - but you have to earn that interest and loyalty, and to do that you have to recognise that what matters to today's 50-year-old is quite different to previous generations.