OPINION12 March 2015

Talking about my Generation X


Brands need to be ready for the ticking toxic time-bomb that is Generation X because they will refuse to follow the stereotypes of 55+ behaviour says Andrew Wiseman.

If you’re classified as what is known as ‘Generation X’, then in the next decade you are likely to enter the nebulous age group you often hear market researchers (very irritatingly) refer to as ‘55+’ or ‘older consumers’.

I say irritating because there are 16m of them in the UK, that is, 35% of the adult population. They certainly aren’t one homogeneous demographic group. In the 10 years to 2011, almost two million people qualified for this group making it the fastest growing segment of the UK’s population. So however you cut the age breaks, older people are without question an attractive (if often misunderstood) target market.

In our research into the ‘Toxic Consumer’, we identified that older people are currently less likely than younger consumers to publish complaints and criticisms on social media specifically to damage brands. Just over two in 10 ( 22%) of 55+ have ever posted comments on social media, regardless of sentiment, versus 27% of 18- to 34-year-olds, and 25% of 35- to 54-year-olds.

But what is interesting about this group is that while they aren’t creating or sharing as much content as others – negative or otherwise – they are most certainly influenced by it and prepared to act upon it. One third ( 36%) have read online feedback about companies in the past month, and four in 10 ( 43%) said it made a “big” or “some” difference to their opinion. And when it comes to parting with their cash, almost one quarter ( 23%) had changed their mind about a specific purchase, 30% had considered alternative products, and 14% had reconsidered but remained with their original decision. Only 30% said comments on social media hadn’t impacted their ultimate purchase decision.

In separate research we carried out in February, people aged 55+ were most likely to say they were aware that Tesco was facing an investigation from the supermarket ombudsman over its treatment of suppliers. As a result, more of these older shoppers than any other age group said they were less likely to shop there. But at 32% agreeing with the statement, the figures are only one percentage point higher than Generation X ( 45- to 55-year-olds).

We then ran the same question for HSBC, this time in the news for apparently helping its customers evade tax. Here we delved a little deeper to test our theory. More older consumers knew of the news story than any other age group surveyed: 92% on any media, again closely followed by 45- to 54-year-olds ( 81%).  Fifty-two per cent of those aged 55+ would consider HSBC products and services “much less” or “somewhat less” seriously based on the news story. Only 45- to 54-year-olds, Gen X, topped that – at 53% combined for both measures. 

So the 55+ consumer is well-informed, influenced by both mainstream news and social media, and prepared to avoid brands if they don’t like how they act. But coming up close behind them both in attitude and age are the Gen Xers, and our data suggests this is the group to watch.

Brands needs to be prepared for what is a ticking ‘toxic’ time bomb. As today’s tech savvy Gen Xers hit 55, they aren’t going to sink back into researchers’ and marketers stereotypes. Instead we expect them to take to social media even more to ‘air and share’ their grievances about brands that get it wrong.

They will become tomorrow’s influencers, educating and informing consumers of all ages. So if you think the power of today’s quarter of a million Toxic Consumers to use social media to influence people’s opinions of brands and purchase decisions is of concern now, get ready for the Gen Xers to supersize it.

Andrew Wiseman is managing director, ICM Unlimited