UMass Amherst Author Says Generational Cohorts Are Much More Than a Tool for Business and Marketing

AMHERST, Mass. - Charles Schewe, professor of marketing at the University of Massachusetts and business consultant and author, says his research into seven generational cohorts living in the U.S provides a powerful tool not only for business, but also in social research and public policy analysis.

The concept of generational cohorts indicates that groups of people develop a different and distinct set of core values for their entire lifetime that are formed by so-called "coming-of-age experiences" between the ages of 17 and 23. Schewe explores the business implications of cohorts in a book he co-authored with Geoff Meredith called "Defining Markets-Defining Moments," (Wiley, 2002) and he has written another book, "Managing by Defining Moments," (Wiley, 2002) to be published next month.

Schewe says, for example, knowing that President Bill Clinton was a "leading-edge" Baby Boomer, a cohort known both for social activism and hedonism and self-indulgence, helps understand how his administration and conduct in office differed from that of the senior George Bush, who grew up in the World War II generation, where being a team player and patriotism are the hallmarks. And in the 1996 presidential campaign, Robert Dole called for "family values" such as locking our doors, something most Baby Boomers couldn’t fathom.

For Americans coming of age now, the so-called N-Generation cohort, Schewe says, the advent of the Internet is the defining experience for them and the "engine" for their values. Their coming of age during a time of instant information that is technologically transmitted makes them more impersonal in their social relations, relying on e-mail, instant messaging, and pagers. They are ethnically and racially diverse, and idealistic and social-cause oriented without being cynical, Schewe says.

Schewe also says it’s too early to say whether the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 will become one of the "coming-of-age" experiences for the N-Generation that will form those lifelong values. A key to answering that question may be whether those aged 17 to 23 have fundamentally changed the way that age group did on Dec. 8, 1941, or following the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., and Robert F. Kennedy.

But the idea is much more powerful than just a marketing tool, Schewe says. "What is so interesting to everyone about this idea is that it allows them to see themselves and others at different ages in a new light," Schewe says. "Knowing the different values held by, say, one’s grandparents, parents, or even children, and being able to trace them to having shared common events such as wars, assassinations, or economic changes, opens up an entire world of understanding differences."

For example, Schewe says, one woman who listened to a talk he gave rushed up to tell him how she, a Baby Boomer, and her husband, a Post-War, were in severe conflict over their son signing up for the selective service. "He was patriotic while she was dead set against her son condoning war by signing up," Schewe says. "So the value of this theory goes way beyond business."

"We are all affected by the environment in which we became responsible economic adults, our coming-of-age years," Schewe says. "Companies can reflect these values in the products they offer and especially in the persuasive promotional campaigns they create. But the fun lies in understanding one’s own motivational forces and in realizing that difference between age groups come from what they experienced as they morphed into adulthood."