We’ve Had It Wrong About Millennials All This Time

In a conversation in which I was tagged as a Millennial I ran into an interesting thread about Millennials and Generation X. At 48, born in 1969, I am most definitely NOT a Millennial by any definition. In replying as much, that’s where it got interesting; No one had the same perception as to who Gen Xers were from an age perspective nor from a size perspective.

As with everyone else, especially in marketing and business circles, I’ve been told that Millennials are the largest generation and that Gen X was the smallest. For several years I’d come across the same dates, or, more specifically, the same length timeline; Gen X had an 11 year timeline. While the Silent Generation and Baby Boomers had an 18 year birth span, and Millennials had a 23 year birth span and Gen (C or Z, I don’t think we’ve decided), Gen X was only given a birth span of 11 years. Well this would explain why it was such a small generation. Naturally I assumed that there was a standard government timeline (there isn’t) or some kind of cultural indicators (it depends on who you ask) but was wrong. There is no standard for measuring the birth timeline and therefore the size of a generation.

So, for many years we’ve been basing demographic, and to a degree, psychographic, marketing at on exact data. How inexact? I’m glad you asked.

I pulled birth data from the CDC for years covering 1909-2003. The Silent Generation is listed almost everywhere as being born between 1927 and 1945. Boomers are generally (and you’ll see why I say “generally” shortly) shown as being born between 1946 and 1964. This gives each a U.S. born population (immigration isn’t included in my dataset yet) of 49.6 million and 75.9 million respectively (A quick Google search says only 74.9 million Boomers, but considering their age, deaths may have outpaced immigration). Jump on Google and ask how many Millennials there are and the answer you’ll get from Pew Research is 75.4 in 2015.

So where are they getting these numbers? Well, their U.S. Census link is dead, but they define Millennials as being 18-34 in 2015, that’s 1981-1997. According to the CDC however, U.S. births from 81-97 are only 65.9 million. That’s a lot of immigrating teenagers and young adults! BTW, this timeline designation would mean there were only 54.9 million Gen Xers in the U.S. That’s odd. Because their website says 64.5 million. So what’s the deal?

As it turns out there are many sources with many different opinions on the size of Generation X. But the one that encompasses what the advertising and media industries are constantly saying are either Pew or MetLife, the insurance company, who says 49.7 million. A puny generation indeed. But here’s where it gets interesting: According to CDC data, all the numbers are wrong. Again, not taking into account immigration, Generation X is, in fact, anywhere from 41.1 million to 90.3 million. Well, that’s a problem. Here is a breakdown:

  • Pew Research: 1965-1980 = 54,910,604
  • David Foote: 1960-1979 = 72,117,394
  • National Geographic: 1961-1981 = 75,101,040
  • Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Study: 1965-1984 = 84,000,000
  • Strauss & Howe: 1961-1981 = 75,101,040
  • Yahoo!: 1963-1982 = 70,345,889
  • Masnick & Merkert: 1960-1984 = 90,347,501
  • Centro: 1962-1982 = 74,513,453
  • Gallup: 1965-1979 = 51,298,346
  • MetLife: 1965-1976 = 41,144,037

So what is the real number? It’s hard to say but it seems as if Pew, Gallup and MetLife have all decided to give Generation X the short shrift by only giving it around a decade. This seems a rather subjective treatment. But if we stick with the established pattern of a 2 decade birth range we can average out the more objective numbers to come to an average of 77 million for Generation X.

The next question I’d have for brands and marketers is this: “You’ve been ignoring Generation X to chase after Millennials for the better part of a decade based on the premise that Millennials are the largest generation, should you rethink your targeting efforts?”

Here’s a last bit of food for thought: Generation X is responsible for 45.3% of all consumer spending, more than Boomers at 42% and Millennials at 12.7%


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