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Who is Generation X? If only marketers knew

Timothy Dewhirst is an associate professor in the marketing and consumer studies department at the University of Guelph's College of Business and Economics.

Who is Generation X? This question prompts inconsistent responses among business professionals.

This year marks the 25th anniversary of Douglas Coupland's Generation X. When the book was first published in 1991, Mr. Coupland identified this generation as being in their 20s. He explicitly refers to Generation Xers as being born in the late 1950s and 1960s.

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Based on that definition, those in Generation X are likely now in their late 40s or 50s. Yet, polling and market research firms commonly identify this cohort as much younger.

Michael Adams, president of Environics Research Group and author of the bestseller Sex in the Snow, for example, defines Generation Xers as born between the mid-1960s and the early 1980s.

Many leading marketing textbooks and academic articles provide a similar classification for this cohort.

Justin Trudeau, who was sworn in as Canada's Prime Minister at 43, was commonly proclaimed as the country's first Generation X leader. But if we're true to Mr. Coupland's definition, Mr. Trudeau is not a member of Generation X.

Even the exhibition Douglas Coupland: Everywhere is Anywhere is Anything is Everything, organized by the Vancouver Art Gallery and showing at Toronto's Royal Ontario Museum and Museum of Contemporary Art this past year, incorrectly said Mr. Coupland's novel placed Generation Xers between the early 1960s and late 1970s.

Such observations suggest that there is considerable confusion about who Generation X is. Given that Generation Y and Generation Z have emerged as terms to describe subsequent cohorts, confusion is likely to extend to the classification of other generations as well.

Marketing strategies are supposed to begin with a clear target market. And market segmentation involves identifying target consumers for products and services by dividing a mass market into subsets on the basis of demographics, geography, psychographics or behavioural components.

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Generation X identified a specific age group that were described as intensely private and unpredictable, accepting of diversity and individuality, overeducated and underemployed. He insightfully portrayed the postsecondary graduation experiences of a particular cohort born during a specified period.

Market researchers, on the other hand, seem to commonly misidentify Generation X by applying the term to a stage of life, commonly experienced when aged twentysomething.

Generation X is often equated with the "lost generation." Although many were entrepreneurially driven, those from Generation X were exceptionally disadvantaged by living in the immediate shadow of the baby boomers.

Generation X stereotypically brings to mind a slacker or someone who habitually shuns work. But Gen Xers found themselves long ago. They grew up and are now likely to have grey or receding hairlines.

The milestone anniversary of Mr. Coupland's novel provides an opportunity to critically reflect on who Generation X is. Reaching a common definition would make the practice of market segmentation and examining social, cultural and demographic influences of the marketing environment far more efficient and effective.

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