It was almost inevitable, if you think about it. A generation that— at its widest definition — spanned 25 years was never going to migrate as one through life. Which raises questions as to whether it should have ever been grouped collectively in the first place.
Until this point, Millennials, the cohort born somewhere between the 1980s and the early 2000s, have been lumped together in an amorphous youth blob, described with clichéd stereotypes of entitlement, social media extravagance and financial fatalism (if buying a flat is impossible, why not splurge the salary on trips to Ibiza and daily Kombucha?)
But as the upper reaches of Millennials hit their mid-30s, enter professional maturity, and start families, the cracks in the ‘millennial’ grouping are starting to show. Older Millennials may indeed be social media savvy. They may also not be able to buy properties. But they are launching companies, having children, travelling and starting to emerge from the flames of the 2008 atomic financial bomb that blighted their years as graduates. They’re approaching adulthood in new ways, and with new priorities and expectations. But they’re a world away from the hapless hipster personas presented in the hit TV show, Girls.
Beyond Middle Age
The same discrepancy is occurring in the definition of Generation X. Tropes of Gen X cynicism, raves, politics, and latch-key living don’t really feel relevant to people in their late-30s to mid-40s. Neither does the notion of "middle age". Gen Xers are believed to be born in the early to mid-1960s, up to the late 1970s and early 1980s – a 15-year span. But ask 45-year-old Gwyneth Paltrow, or 42-year-old David Beckham, if they feel like Gen X and they’d probably say not.
This is the fitness-first, surfing, entrepreneurial group — many of whom still have young kids or are new to parenthood entirely. Or, are choosing happily to remain single. Having occupied a hinterland space in pop culture, "adulthood" is finally being addressed in the form of shows such as Catastrophe, Younger, and The Divorce.
Singledom is also getting a fresh look in this era. Previously infantilised by marketers as a failure, it’s being redefined in a more nuanced light, from Bridget Jones’s Diary where this time, she’s successful and independent, and the man (while great) is incidental, to talk show host Chelsea Handler, whose regular segment "Kids: They’re not that great" pokes fun at parenting as the ultimate calling in life, while highlighting Chelsea’s free, and luxurious child-free life.
Do we need to rethink these outdated definitions of generations? In my group at J Walter Thompson we’ve been examining this in depth. What’s emerging is a cohort between the stereotypes of millennial and Gen X. A group, somewhere between 30- and 45-years-old, who share more in common with each other than with the term "Millennial" or "X". They’ve been called "Xennials" in some places, and "midults" in other discourse.
A radical shift in experience
They’re experiencing adulthood in a radically different way to their parents, shaped by the age we live in — of social media, economic scars of 2008, and seismic cultural shift. We’ve called this group, for now, the "New Adult". We fielded an original 1,000 consumer survey in both the UK and US, exploring what the new rules of marketing to this group are. We’ve also done in-depth qualitative interviews to identify the new typologies and lifestyle tribes in this group.
What’s striking is the hybrid nature of this group. They are, at once, investing, having families and reaching the heights of their careers, but similarly not ready to take on fusty notions of "grown-up". Their experiences or adulthood vary by sexual orientation, circumstance, and family unit — but common priorities are emerging. Wellbeing, travel and experience, whether you have three kids or not, is one. Another is demanding high-quality, transparent, and purposeful brands, in every sphere of what they consume.
New symbols of adulthood
The New Adult’s experiences of life-changing events from politics (the rise neoliberalism), to the advent of social media and widespread tech (this group migrated from Hotmail and AOL to Gmail) are widely different to the generations above and below. They are digitally savvy, not digital natives. They witnessed the transition of Apple from niche computer company for creatives to being a global, pervasive, supplier of phones, TVs, and consumer projects (iPod Nano anyone?). They probably joined Facebook after they’d graduated university. They got the last of the jobs in dying creative industries but were faced with a stagnant job market where the only way to get ahead was to work their asses off — they’re the antithesis of the lazy millennial stereotype.
The notion of being ‘grown-up’ and the symbols of adulthood are in flux for them too. It’s less about stages, and more about psychographic tribes. Move to the suburbs? Nope, this urbane group are instead turning to second cities, reinventing them with new creative scenes and trappings of London and Manhattan (at a fraction of the cost, which means they can still have families). They grew up with celebrity chefs, and are applying foodie standards to the way they feed their families. Package family holidays in Majorca or Florida? This is the gap year generation, and this group are applying their adventurous spirit to family travel, embarking on backpacking trips with kids in tow.
Cursed with a hostile economic climate, many have been inspired by start-up culture, side-stepping conditions by setting up companies which are now reaching maturity (Facebook founder Zuckerberg is 35). They’re also entering political maturity. Many are candidate age meaning that, please god, they might transform the political landscape with a progressive, digitally savvy, egalitarian approach. And many, after the events of Brexit and the US election, are moving from political apathy to political engagement.
Lucie Greene is worldwide director of The Innovation Group at J Walter Thompson