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“Generation Y has a built-in bullshit detector”

Baby Boomers are proud of their achievements, Generation X is skeptical about the future and Generation Y is addicted to interactivity. Aljan de Boer, Brand Strategist & Keynote speaker, explains why different generations think, feel and act differently, and how increasing longevity affects them.

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Aljan de Boer, Brand Strategist & Keynote speaker at TRENDSACTIVE

You were born in 1985, so you are a member of Generation Y. What are the specific influences on your generation?
When I was three years old, I could use the rotary phone to call my grandmother. When I was ten years old, e-mail was invented. By the time I turned 20 the smartphone had been introduced and I was connected with my friends and my favourite brands 24/7. Generation Y grew up in a connected society, which exerts a lot of influence on their behaviour, as well as their expectations of organisations. They use multiple devices and multiple channels to meet their consumer needs. It comes as second nature, because they grew up with it. All that new technology also introduced a new language, a new dialect, and that is the visual dialect. Gen Y talks in emojis, shares pictures through Instagram, and uploads and watches videos on YouTube.

How do these influences shape the characteristics of your generation?
Actually a frequently misinterpreted characteristic of Gen Y is their allegedly me-centric behaviour. Gen Y is often described as being narcissistic, arrogant and egoistic. Our research shows this is unfair. First of all, they grew up in smaller families, which allowed their Baby Boomer parents to pay a lot of attention to them. Furthermore, they grew up in a negotiation household, where everything from what car daddy should buy to where to go on holidays this year is negotiated with the kids. Having been raised as professional negotiators and being the middle of attention makes Gen Y very expressive and confident, not arrogant or narcissistic. They are used to sharing their opinions and ideas.

How is Generation Y different from other generations, then?
Baby Boomers are the largest and wealthiest generation alive and therefore very powerful. They are proud of all they know and accomplished during their prosperous life. Look at the formative years of the Baby Boomer generation after the Second World War: They grew up in times of economic prosperity. This was not true of the members of Generation X, who were born between 1960 and 1980. So Xers, compared to Baby Boomers, are more skeptical about how the future will look. They are also often stressed, being involved in bringing up children, seeing to their parents and pursuing their career path, all at the same time. Yers are raised by Baby Boomers, so they are very much like the Baby Boomers: positive about the future.

For the first time in history, so many generations are working side by side. What challenges do you see for companies, and what consequences?
The big challenge is to make sure there is a mutual understanding of each other’s behaviour and quirks. Teams should be very aware of each other’s strengths and weaknesses. When you understand a generation’s mindset, you know how to motivate it, or better yet how to collaborate with it. Not understanding each other is a threat. What we know from research and from the companies we work with is that Xers often find Yers too naive or over-confident, whereas Yers think Xers are too cynical and not cooperative. Being aware of that could help decrease tensions when they work in teams together.

"For the financial industry there is still a lot to be gained in how different generations are targeted and addressed."
"Increasing longevity is an extremely relevant topic, especially for the younger generations."

So how can a company leverage the skills of people of all ages and reinforce intergenerational collaboration?
We know for example that Generation Y tends to go along with Baby Boomers a bit more readily than with Xers. We also know that Gen Y loves to learn and Baby Boomers like to share their knowledge. You can use Baby Boomers as trainers for young talents. In the future we will see more intergenerational teams and reverse mentoring programmes. 

How does increasing longevity affect the generations?
It is an extremely relevant topic, especially for the younger generations. Many young people don’t realise that a pension is important and becomes especially important when there is a good chance that you will turn 90 or even 100, which is the case for younger generations alive today. So there is definitely a huge relevancy, but I think particularly for the financial industry there is still a lot to be gained in how different generations are targeted and addressed.

Which generational trends have the most impact on consumer behaviour?
Baby Boomers are in their third age, meaning that most of them are still in good shape despite their advanced age. So it is important to create an active image and facilitate an active lifestyle when interacting with them. As Xers are quite skeptical, companies need to understand the struggles and uncertainties in the world the Xers face today, and offer them very pragmatic solutions. For its part, Generation Y is addicted to interactivity. So it is key to offer them an interactive experience, both online and off, when communicating with them. Furthermore, the Yers are aware of the role organisations play in society. They know about the organisational need to earn money and to make a profit. That’s OK for them, but only if some of that profit serves the greater good. You could consider Gen Y a generation with a built-in bullshit detector. When organisations make empty promises or indulge in bad behaviour, their detector gets switched on. They openly criticise organisations on social media, or just switch to a competitor. 

Let’s finish by discussing the youngest cohort, Generation Z. How do you think it will shape the generational landscape?
Gen Z will be even more digital and visual than previous generations. The oldest among the Gen Z generation were born when the iPhone was introduced, so we call them mobile natives. They grew up with tablets and smartphones and will live in a world that is “inline” – the offline and online world have become one. As employees, members of Gen Z will behave much like their Gen X parents: hard-working, independent and adaptable colleagues.

Interview: Michael Preisig

"When organisations make empty promises, Generation Y’s bullshit detector gets switched on."

Aljan de Boer

Aljan de Boer (1985) studied Marketing and Business Administration in the Netherlands and Mexico. He has a master’s degree in entrepreneurship, serves as an international visiting professor in marketing and has been working for international brands in B2C, B2B and non-profit. He is also a board member of PIM (Platform Innovatie in Marketing), a Dutch knowledge network.

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