FEATURE12 January 2017

Talking about my generation

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Features Impact UK Youth

Attitudes towards generations are shifting, as are thoughts around age-appropriate behaviour and lifestyles. Research from OMD and house51 explores the British public’s preconceptions. By Ian Murray, of house51, and Sarah Gale, of OMD UK


As the euphoria of the London Olympic Games faded and the worst recession for more than 100 years rolled on, Britain underwent a significant change to its society and culture. At OMD UK, we understood that lives were changing fundamentally and recognised that this demanded insight and thought leadership that reached beyond the usual assumptions. 

Each year, Future of Britain, which has been running annually since the post-London Olympics period in 2013, has used the latest research approaches to offer a new perspective on real people’s lives. This year’s phase, The Future of Generations, focused on the generational myths in British society.

In recent decades, attitudes about youth, middle age and the elderly have changed significantly, accompanied by a redrawing of traditional boundaries around age-appropriate behaviour and lifestyles. There are a range of hypotheses about age compression and the blurring of generations: we hear about kids growing up faster; young adults enjoying an extended adolescence and being reluctant to fly the nest; new mid-lifers – all of which have profound implications for marketers and wider society.

OMD UK is part of an industry that plans, buys and sells billions of pounds of media every year, often using age as a core target variable. So getting a handle on age  compression – and an accurate understanding of generational identities, attitudes and relationships – is fundamental to our work. That’s precisely what Future of Generations is designed to do.

inspired by academic work on stereotypes

Researching generational attitudes presents significant challenges. Mahzarin Banaji and Anthony Greenwald, the psychologists who invented the Implicit Association Test (IAT), have shown that age stereotypes are one of many unconscious ‘blind spots’ – others include race, gender and religion – that underpin what they describe as ‘the hidden biases of good people’. They also find that stereotypes about age are stronger and more resistant to change than those about race or gender. 

Social psychology and behavioural economics tells us that people’s attitudes are driven by powerful social norms and are highly dependent on framing and context effects. Furthermore, people learn who they are through a process of identity negotiation – of mutual give and take interactions with others. 

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innovation through collaboration

Future of Generations was conceived as an extensive, multi-stage research study that would employ several methods to capture the nuances of generational attitudes and help marketers get under the skin of different generations and the relationships they have with brands.  

The role of unconscious attitudes (blind spots) and multiple identities (we tend to see ourselves differently from how others see us) were key areas that we needed to address. Behavioural economics research and strategy collective, house51, developed fast and oblique question techniques that captured the nuances of generational attitudes. 

House51 used a modified version of the implicit response test. This uses the core principles of the academic IAT – priming and reaction times – to discriminate between fast and slow responses, and identify attitudes that are more automatic and psychologically certain. The IRT was modified to address the challenge of multiple identities by measuring personality and image attributes from three separate frames or reference points: me, my generation and other generations. This enabled us to measure the congruence of people’s self-ratings with their ratings of their own and of other generations. 

beyond stereotypes to blurring generations 

It is clear that, at a general level, some predictable stereotypes are at play. Overall, younger generations are associated with words such as ‘adventurous’ and ‘creative’, whereas older generations are more likely to be seen as polite, generous and fair. But examining these attitudes from different frames and reference points reveals significant differences in how individuals see themselves  – compared with their peers – and how they are perceived by other generations.

For example, only four in 10 of us rate teens as polite, while 97% of teens rate themselves as polite. But self-perceptions are not all positively biased. Teens see themselves as less creative and adventurous than others perceive them to be, as well as rating themselves as less adventurous and creative than their peer group. By contrasting different frames and reference points, our implicit data shows we often have preconceptions about our peer group that don’t resonate with our self-view.

Focusing on people’s self-view and individual identity confirms our age-compression and blurring-of-generations hypothesis. We perceive other generations through the lens of traditional stereotypes. When we think of our own identity, many of these differences simply melt away. If we accept that we all have preconceptions that don’t resonate with members of different age groups – and we often use age as a core anchor to plan and buy media – how can we avoid producing work that doesn’t resonate or, at worst, alienates people?

Marketing communications should aim to be congruent with how people see themselves, not how others see them. We should work to understand our preconceptions, using insight and data from our target audiences to understand the truth about their identities and how this influences how they act, feel and behave.

Ian Murray is a partner at house51 and Sarah Gale is head of insight at OMD UK