Coming of Age: 2020, a Generation-Defining Year for Gen X and Boomers

By the end of this decade, most global consumers are expected to be older than 60.

Though the global population is aging and people are having fewer babies, the power and influence of older groups in the marketplace seems to have been largely lost on some marketers. As Generation Z have taken the pedestal from under millennials as the newest enigma for the modern marketer, Generation X or Gen X and baby boomers have often been left at the margin.

“Old” and “young” stereotypes becoming old-fashioned

Younger generations attract such attention for a reason – they break the status quo in society, demand new innovation in products, and reset long-held expectations.

But in terms of digital behavior, the “generation-defining” year of 2020 has been much more impactful for Gen X and boomers compared to their younger counterparts.

Barely any part of their online lives has been left untouched by the pandemic.

As lockdown restrictions came into effect, spikes in digital activity followed. For younger groups, it didn’t take long for these spikes to settle down. For older groups, their engagement continued to flourish.

As lockdowns eased, older groups were doing much more than just browsing Facebook, Amazon, and Netflix. These shifts represent a step-change in how the internet fulfills the basic needs of older consumers, and how much they’ll rely on the internet in the future.

Three areas stand out: commerce, finance, and social-connectedness.

A source of sustenance

Although many categories saw increased online spend, online grocery has been the most insightful into how habits developed during the pandemic can impact future behavior. Unlike the odd online purchase of clothing or electronics, purchases of high-frequency items online like groceries are much more powerful in forming habits and keeping online options front-of-mind.

This is a matter of sustenance, rather than materialism. Just as UK online grocer Ocado has found, once people realize the ease of carrying out a weekly necessity from the comfort and safety of their homes, they’re unlikely to look back.

The biggest growth in online grocery shopping has come from Europe, LatAm, and particularly NorthAm; markets where growth before the pandemic was hard-won, especially among older consumers. In these regions, Gen X and boomers typically comprise the vast majority of household food shoppers.

A Source of Security

Much like online grocery, wholesale digital transformation in financial services has been hampered by older consumers sticking to managing their finances offline.

Over the course of 2020, adoption of internet banking and finance apps accelerated among older groups in NorthAm, LatAm, and Europe. Mobile payments also gained momentum, and a growing number were managing their finances exclusively on their smartphones.

There’s a lot of moving parts here. Fintech ecosystems are much more developed than they were a few years ago, but traditional banks are still the main interface between consumers and their money. For banks looking to shore up their balance sheets, the smoke is yet to clear on the extent of bankruptcies and loan defaults postponed by government rescue packages.

Bank branches are costly, and closures were already happening before the pandemic. Given the sizable base of older consumers in Western countries with older-skewing populations, the future banking landscape will be more determined by the current choices of older consumers than you’d expect.

A Source of Social-Fulfillment

Until March, Facebook usage and social media usage were largely one and the same for Gen X and, especially, boomers.

Messaging apps in particular have found ways to embed themselves in older groups’ day-to-days; coinciding with increased daily time spent online on mobiles. The “killer app” quite predictably has been voice and video calling, which older groups have adopted in swaths. Rather than just scrolling through updates, social media has proved itself as a viable source of belonging and social connection for older groups. They’re now relying on seeing and hearing their friends and family on their smartphones.

This has consequences on the makeup of marketing mixes. In Western countries with older – faster aging – populations, younger social media engagement hasn’t always persuaded marketers to move the needle toward digital over traditional channels. The growing adoption among older users could prove decisive in changing that.

Why They Matter

There’s a reason why millennials are referred to as “generation rent”. Many were priced out of the property ladder after the 2008 recession. Yet depending on where you’re standing, their parents’ generations were lucky – or savvy – enough to cash in on lower tertiary education costs, more affordable property deposits before massive price booms, and generous pension schemes (by today’s standards) thought to be unsustainable for younger workers.

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This isn’t to take sides on the perennial generation debate about who got luckiest; younger generations benefit from opportunities and freedoms which their parents could only dream of. It’s to show that older groups already have the most market power, and this will only increase as populations age.

Their attitudes toward advertising and spending indicate a willingness to use this purchasing power, too. They’re characteristically loyal to the brands they like, they can be vocal advocates, they’re keen online shoppers, and they tend to be very accepting of advertising in general. Yet only 13% say they feel represented in the advertising they see, dropping to as low as 8% in North America and just 5% in Europe. This might well be one of the most important obstacles for marketers to overcome as this group comes of age.

Looking Forward

Whether a vaccine arrives tomorrow or if new cases begin to decline to the extent that “normality” rears its head, the precedent has been set in older consumers’ technology attitudes.

If the vaccine waiting game is excessively long and heavier restrictions follow, technology will again be the main connection between us, the services we need to sustain ourselves, and our friends and family.

The digital knowledge gap is wider among older consumers, but most tech is so intuitive that the major hurdle is in exposing people to new ways of doing things in the first place. Heavy restrictions will close this gap fairly rapidly as reliance on the internet strengthens.

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