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Most businesses are well aware of how to market to Generation X (those born 1961-1981), mainly because so many people in business today are part of Generation X.

But as Gen Xers move into midlife (the oldest are 48, and youngest are 28), we are seeing a dramatic shift in how they view the world and purchase things.

One of the biggest shifts is the focus on family. Gen Xers grew up in a world that was not particularly interested in kids (during the '60s and '70s) and spent young adulthood trying to find their own way (in the '80s and '90s). They are, as a rule, a fairly independent bunch and don't believe that institutions or groups really have their best interest in mind.

But as this pragmatic and individualist generation is now well into the age of parenthood, some of their values are shifting.

As parents, most Gen Xers want to give their children the nurturing and protection that they never enjoyed in their youth. Although Baby Boomers (those born 1943-1960) also are generally nurturing parents, Gen Xers take it one step further. Most Gen Xers are very results-oriented and will make big sacrifices for their children's welfare.

Who are their children? For the most part, they are the generation known as Millennials (those born 1982-2005) although Gen Xers are predominantly the parents of the later portion of that generation. And that is why understanding how they parent is so important right now.

The general profile of the three most recent generations is as follows:

  • Boomer: Focused on values and individuality with a strong inner sense of what is right
  • Generation X: Pragmatic and individualistic, with a desire to protect themselves and those close to them
  • Millennials: Enthusiastic and motivated with a team spirit and a wish to change the world for the better

Millennials are still moving through the K-12 system (although the leading group has already graduated from college and moved into the workforce), but the makeup of their parents has shifted from Boomer to Generation X.

Primary-school teachers have noticed the change already, probably in grades 6-8. Gen-X parents have become more demanding and less inclined to trust a school's judgment. They also tend to be focused solely on the welfare of their own children rather than that of   the entire class or school.

They are relatively laid back—until they feel they have been wronged... and then may quickly apply pressure to make big changes fast. They expect transparency and accountability, just as it is expected of them in the marketplace.

That has created tremendous pressure on schools across the country, and it's affecting marketing as well, but in a less obvious way.

It is well known that the Millennial generation is more in tune with their parents than were the last two generations. For the most part, they trust their parents' judgments and will often look to them for guidance when making decisions.

That is the source of the so-called "co-purchase," whereby young Millennials buy things after consulting with their parents and vice versa. Gen Xers might ask their teenager what iPod they should get, and Millennials would definitely want to consult with their parents on what car to buy. It's a two-way street, and marketers need to be aware of that dynamic.

There are lots of great ideas about how to market to Millennials. Millennials and the Pop Culture by William Strauss and Neil Howe clearly defines how to sell to this rising generation.

Marketing to the aging Gen Xer is different from marketing to Millennials or Gen Xers in their youth. Gen Xers have calmed down a bit since their young-adult years, but they are no less cynical.

Midlife Gen Xers are pragmatic and have little confidence in institutions and organizations. But their new role as the main parents in our society has given them a sense of responsibility and, in many, a desire to make the world a better place.

One example of getting the marketing to Gen-X parents wrong is the recent debate set off by former VP Al Gore after speaking to a group of Millennial kids. Gore tried to convince the kids that they should doubt their parents' judgment, and there was a strong backlash after the event.

Another example is an AARP (a Boomer-dominated organization) advertisement that pits Millennials against Generation X in a clever poem written by a Millennial. Although pitting one generation against another can create press, it won't win over either group if you are looking to build trust.

Much of the focus for selling to older Gen Xers should be on protecting and nurturing their children. If the value of a product or service can be put into those terms, it will do well with Gen Xers. Of course, marketers can always appeal to the Gen-X sense of nostalgia, but that is a well-worn path because so many of today's marketers are Gen Xers themselves.

When selling to Gen-X parents, marketers should drive home messages about child safety and health, and the connection Gen Xers have with their children. For many Gen Xers, having children is the thing they are most proud of in their lives, because the rest of their lives has just been about survival.

Although many Gen Xers grumble about the "cheerleader" attitudes of Millennials in the workforce, avoid using that approach in your marketing efforts.

Gen Xers may bristle at young people's sense of entitlement in general, but if they are parents they won't want to apply that label to their kids. Much of our pop culture today still pokes fun at the Millennial "we can do it" attitude because the source is often jaded Gen Xers.

What are the rules for marketing to Gen Xers today?

  • Appeal to Gen Xers' sense of pride in their children.
  • Co-market to Gen Xers and Millennials with messages that will resonate with both generations.
  • The message should be personal and focused on the individual bond between parent and child, rather than just on children in general.

Understanding the generations in the market can give you a real leg up in addressing their needs. That is especially true as each generation moves into new life stages and its needs change.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Dave Sohigian has more than 10 years of experience in software sales and marketing. Read more of his thoughts on generations on his blog, The Gen-X Files (www.thegenxfiles.com). Contact him via dave.sohigian.com.