Researchers spend years parsing core demographic and economic variables, trying to discern distinctive generational patterns. But justifying generational claims with data is more difficult than meets the eye, and the outcomes can be distorted.
A typical cohort analysis—plotting out cohort curves that compare different generations at the comparable age and across years—can help sort out claims of generational differences. But this requires longitudinal data spanning 20 years of longer. “Marketing, advertising and media research rarely have repeated cross-sectional data or panel data across such long time horizons.
“As a result, it is nearly impossible to ascertain empirically whether observed differences between generations result from their age difference or from real, persistent generational attributes.” —Scott McDonald
Millennials and Gen Z came of age during the accelerating expansion of Web-based media, but will they be affected differently than older generations by new developments, such as the Cambridge Analytica scandal and the nanosecond ad? McDonald points out that:
- Research to date has failed to demonstrate strong and consistent age differences in attitudes toward privacy and advertisement avoidance.
- Digital consumers of all ages seem to be making trade-offs between utility and privacy, but the evidence is weak that there are sharp and systematic age differences—much less true cohort differences.
- These implicit bargains around data privacy may become more explicit as laws (think GDPR) and norms evolve.
- Studies about digital ad blocking have not found strong and consistent age differences in negative consumer response to annoying digital ads, just as others have not reported age differences in TV-ad avoidance.
“Although it is fairly easy to find age differences in behavior and attitudes, it is much more difficult to extrapolate these to persistent generational differences,” McDonald writes. “This does not prevent pundits from making data-free assertions of big generational differences, especially regarding the young ‘digital-native’ cohorts who grew up first with the Internet and later with smartphones, tablets, and social media.” He concludes: Because age differences from cross-sectional data are much easier to verify than abiding generational attributes, we should approach grand claims of persistent generational difference with some skepticism.”