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A TCI Book Review

Marketing to Generation X

Karen Ritchie
Lexington Books, New York, 1995, ISBN 0-02-926545-2

Karen Ritchie's main thesis is that baby boomers (who are now in charge of most marketing and business decisions within companies) are so obsessed with their own generation and with seeing themselves as young, that they have largely ignored the huge generation immediately behind them and coming up through the ranks. This generation, sandwiched immediately between the baby boomers and the baby boomers' children, she calls 'Generation X', after the term used in the Douglas Coupland book. (Others have termed this generation the 'Thirties', since they are the thirteenth generation since the founding of America.)

But first, some definitions. Ritchie defines the Baby Boom generation as those born between 1943 and 1960 (a slightly different definition than that given by some analysts, who define this generation as having been born between the years 1946 and 1964). At the time of writing of her book (1995), Boomers according to her definition, were about 70 million strong.

According to Ritchie's definition, Generation Xers were born in the two decades spanning 1961 and 1981. There were nearly 80 million of them in 1995 - 10 million more than there were Baby Boomers! So one of the biggest marketing myths is immediately exploded - that Baby Boomers are the largest generation ever produced in America. And yet, even though Generation Xers are a huge market (bigger than the Boomers themselves) they are largely ignored, for the reasons stated earlier.

There are several key differences between Generation X and the Boomers. Some of those articulated by Ritchie include:

  • they are twice as likely as Baby Boomers to be the children of divorced parents
  • (as a result) they are much more likely to have grown up in non-traditional family situations
  • (also as a result) they are much more likely to have had a job at an early age, because money was tight
  • however when they entered the labour force, all the best positions were occupied by Boomers who were unlikely to move out of those positions for a while, so Generation X was much more likely to go back to school or to stay in school
  • as a result they are the best educated generation in America
  • they are far less likely to marry young (in their twenties) than Boomers were at the same age
  • there is much more racial diversity among Generation X than among Boomers, and they are much more comfortable with multicultural relationships (e.g. working for a boss who is of a different racial background, interracial marriage, etc.)

Much of the book is spent analysing television as a medium to reach both Gen X and the Boomers, and contains a detailed analysis of how television programming has changed in the past four decades. Ritchie discusses how the two generations view television differently: Boomers see it as a mirror, reflecting their own values and concerns, while Generation X sees it as a window onto society (and particularly Boomer society). Now, a main focus of television is upon the Baby Boomers' children - not Generation X. Ritchie quotes one individual as saying : "They went straight from thirthysomething to Beverly Hills 90210. They skipped me completely." (p. 80)

Another result of Generation X's television watching habits is that they have become skeptical about the promises that television makes. As children, growing up in circumstances that were relatively less affluent than Boomers, they learned that their parent(s) may not be able to afford all the toys and goodies advertised on the tube (particularly since many of their early television experiences occurred before legislation governing the children's programming and advertising occurred). Ritchie warns that as a result it is difficult to advertise to this group:

"Generation X understands very well that watching television involves watching commercials. Many of Generation X learned the hard way, and at an early age, that cereal that sounds so healthy may not be good for your teeth, that a new game does not guarantee that your family will gather around you in a happy , loving circle, and that often the toy you want is too expensive for your mother to buy or much smaller than it looked on television. They learned, in short, that television tells "lies". This was a hard lesson. But it was learned by many children, and passed down by them to other children, to friends and siblings, as children talked together about what they saw on Saturday mornings while their working parents slept late or watched news in the next room.

This was another event in the series of life experiences for Xers which contributed to their well-deserved reputation as skeptics and scoffers and accounts in part for their strong aversion to "hype", particularly in advertising...We [Boomers] made skeptics of Generation X before they entered grade school, and since then we have done little to convince then that we can be trusted at all." (pp.96,97)


"Generation X has watched for years as Boomers have manipulated the media to reflect their point of view of the moment, even when it contradicts yesterday's point of view. News, to Generation X, is just more entertainment, except less trustworthy, because it purports to take itself seriously." (p. 110)

Ritchie also discusses the consumption patterns of Generation X. Some of the interesting points she makes:

  • they are much more likely to be interested in financial security than Boomers were at the same age, as a result of the generally harder financial circumstances facing them when they were growing up - in fact, like those raised during the Depression, Rictchie predicts that Generation X will never lose this concern for financial security
  • as a result of this financial concern (plus the fact that they are generally earning less than Boomers), they are very concerned about value for money when purchasing consumer goods, and are quite wary of hype and overselling - for example, they tend to be less swayed by brand identity as a factor in purchase decisions
  • they tend to appear more conservative than Boomers in their outward appearance and adherence to value systems, because they see that this kind of conformity is a route to financial security and success - however, Ritchie points out that Gen Xers regard this external facade as a mask that they can drop at will if they need to (such as when they are interacting with other Gen Xers)
  • because they are more likely to marry and/or settle down later in life than Boomers, those Gen Xers with steady jobs tend to have a relatively large amount of discretionary income - accordingly, they are actually more likely to travel than Boomers (except in certain categories, such as business travel)

In summary, Ritchie paints a picture of a generation short-changed and neglected:

"They were children when Jimmy Carter turned out the Christmas lights. The first gasoline shortages hit with full force just before they were old enough to get a driver's license. For many, there was the trauma and change of fortune associated with their parents' divorce. For others, school failed to live up to its billing. When they got to college, financial aid was scarce, and when they moved out into the job market, they couldn't find work. Since Generation X has been around, even the weather has been bad. " (p. 149)

Despite all this, Ritchie is fundamentally optimistic about the future, when Generation X takes over the reins. She sees Gen X as smart, cautious, and above all, responsible - contrary in many respects to the stereotype.

Marketing to Generation X provides quite an interesting and useful perspective on a neglected and little-understood generation. It is completely an American perspective - there are no references at all to Canada in the book - but much of the analysis would be equally applicable to Generation X in this country.






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