Research shows that grouping people by age and other labels doesn’t tell us much about who they are, what they have in common and how they will behave
In the first instalment of his new column for BCBusiness since ending his popular weekly rant One Brand Clapping, David Allison sets the stage for what’s next—in this space, and in the world around us.
Let’s start this way...think for a moment about your circle of friends. Are they all the same age, income, gender and marital status? Chances are, they aren’t. If you wonder why that is, the answer is simple. We don’t hang out with people because of what they are but because of who they are.
My mother-in-law can’t understand how some of our friends can be older than she is. But it’s not her fault. Until the past decade or two, you would probably only have been chummy with people who made more or less the same money as you, had the same number of birthdays under their belt and (more than likely) belonged to the same race and gender.
But those days of demographic segregation are increasingly behind us. Yes, we still have a lot of work to do on the equality front, but the direction we’re headed seems, with rare exception, to be firmly set. In fact, many Googleable sources agree, we’re living in a post-demographic world. Hence the name of this column.
Now don’t get me wrong: demographics have been a useful way to describe groups of people for a very long time, and they remain handy for that purpose. However, we run into trouble when we use demographics to assume what people in a group are all about. Millennials like avocado toast, men like sports, girls like pink, and rich people want luxury logos, right? Well, actually, no.
Many researchers are looking into this. One study published in the Journal of Managerial Psychology followed 600,000 people over an eight-year span and concluded that only 2 percent of our thoughts, feelings and behaviours can be attributed to our age. I’ve spent the past three years researching this idea of a post-demographic worldview myself, amassing responses to 75,000 surveys with eye-popping results.
For example, my study measures 380 metrics about what we value, want, need and expect, and baby boomers only agree on any of those things 13 percent of the time. Generation X agrees with each other a measly 11 percent of the time. And millennials, those poor millennials who have been the brunt of so much finger-pointing and angry exhortations about ruining entire industries? They only agree with each other on anything 15 percent of the time.
So despite what you read in the media, millennials are largely an imaginary construct. None of these groupings serves a purpose other than to identify when its members were born.
It doesn’t stop with age-based labels. If you look at how much agreement there is among the members of any other demographic segment, like gender, income, marital status, number of children and so on, you get similarly low percentages. People within these traditional categories don’t resemble each other very much at all.
The idea of a post-demographic world isn’t a recent lightbulb moment or sudden new trend in management thinking. The flattening forces of technology and the widespread availability of information have created this era where we can live without social judginess cramping our style. We’re able to more or less do what we want, when we want, with whoever we want, and curate a life and identity of our own devising.
In the post-demographic world, you can be the CEO of a Fortune 500 company at age 29, and then cash out and adopt children from a faraway country. You can create your own TV station without having a billion dollars in startup costs. You can get married, or not, at any age, and start your fifth career, or not, at any age, too. You can make great discoveries or invent new technologies that can change the world from your home in rural Albania.
So let’s explore how this is all shaping up, shall we? In this space I’ll keep bringing you stories about people, companies and ideas that are smashing demographic stereotypes to smithereens. If you’ve got suggestions, shoot them my way at email@example.com. It’s a brave new post-demographic world out there. Let’s check it out together.
David Allison is a Vancouver author, researcher and consumer behaviour expert. He speaks internationally about his pioneering research with Valuegraphics, the first database that profiles shared audience values. His best-selling book, We Are All the Same Age Now, was chosen by Inc. magazine as one of the top leadership books of the year. Find out more at Valuegraphics.com