Are we heading for a post-demographic future?

category - generation z
category - society
sector - youth
type - opinion
Generational terms such as Baby Boomer and Millennial have shaped the way we conduct research. But are they helping to predict the future – or holding us back?

Our industry is obsessed with putting people into categories. Since the 20th century, everyone from market researchers to designers and advertising agencies have relied on the distinct binaries of age demographics – and the hyper-specific behaviours and habits associated with them – to market products and services.

But for these marketing shortcuts to work effectively, they rely on larges swathes of people – billions in fact: Generation Z alone account for 32% of the global population, some 2.47bn people – acting in nearly identical ways. As a society, we both understand and champion the quirks of individuals, but as businesses, we still insist on lumping people together by the relatively insignificant division of age.

These labels could become a thing of the past, however, as experts draw attention to their shortcomings. In May 2021, hundreds of science researchers signed an open letter urging global authority Pew Research Center to end its use of generational terms, arguing that such labels are counter-productive. While the researchers agree that the experience of growing up as a Baby Boomer is very different from that of Generation Alpha, the most interesting part of their argument is that generational terms can shape people’s behaviour, rather than vice versa.

By assigning Gen Z, for example, the distinct character of progressive, TikTok-addicted activists, marketers are in danger of imposing such qualities on hugely diverse populations, which then feeds a vicious cycle of cultural parody. There’s also the fact that people are now identifying as members of different types of groups; those based on shared values, climate goals, the same neighbourhoods or even digitally driven DAOs, as spotlighted in our latest macrotrend Neo-collectivism.

Published by:

4 April 2022

Author: Holly Friend

Image: Gucci and The North Face with Highsnobiety, Photography by Ronan Gallagher



Sociologist Philip Cohen, who is at the helm of the post-demographic movement and penned the open letter to Pew, highlights the differing experiences between Black and white people, immigrants and natives, and children with and without iPads as paradoxes that shape our behaviours just as much as age.

‘People experience history differently based on their backgrounds,’ he writes. ‘So throwing everyone together by year of birth often misses all the glorious conflict and complexity in social change.’ As a result of Cohen’s passion, Pew is now in a period of reflection, inviting researchers such as Cohen to share their perspectives on the future of generational labels.

It’s probably a matter of time until the most forward-thinking businesses take the initiative to shun these labels, instead involving their communities in the decision about how they are addressed. But while the marketing world will be most responsible for implementing these changes, creative solutions are already appearing in the design sector.

In a recent manifesto by creative research lab IAM, co-founders Lucy Black-Swan and Andres Colmenares called for ‘design for plurality', which they described as ‘designing against the polarisation of societies by dissolving the binarism of us vs. them’. It’s an idea that, in practice, could use design to ease our reliance on lazy segregations, from gender to political leaning.

It's an exciting time for those working in our industry. As Neo-collectivism begins to take hold, and citizens sharpen their understanding of themselves as members of wider, more complex groups as opposed to consumer types sketched by mid-level marketing associates, we can expect these false dichotomies to be replaced by language that speaks to the age-agnostic communities of the future.

‘It’s probably a matter of time until the most forward-thinking businesses shun these labels, instead asking their communities how they wish to be addressed’

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