Professional Jeweler Archive: Understanding Generation X

July 2000


Understanding Generation X

Childhood experiences have left them skeptical, so approach them with candor on the sales floor

Cynical. Self-reliant. Entrepreneurial. Yearning for traditional values. That’s David Bersoff’s shorthand description of Generation X – people born between 1965 and 1978. And while demographic expert Bersoff has a few things to say about Gen-Xers’ elders and juniors, 22- to 35-year-olds should now be retailers’ top concern, he says.

Who’s Buying Now

The World War II generation is past its prime. Baby Boomers’ buying habits are fixed. And the Millennial Generation – those born since 1979 – has yet to be heard from on the retail sales front. But Gen-X – with its needs, desires and quirks – is forming buying habits now, says Bersoff, a director of Yankelovich Partners who spoke to retailers at the recent GlobalShop store fixturing show held in Chicago, IL.

“Gen-Xers are the people with whom we’re least familiar, but they are the most important to understand,” he says. To understand Gen-X, or any demographic group, you have to understand their early life experiences. Unlike Boomers and the World War II generation, Gen-Xers experienced turmoil during their childhoods. Divorce rates shot up, the nation suffered military defeat in Vietnam, we learned we weren’t as self-sufficient as we thought during the oil embargoes of the 1970s and the world witnessed the rise of terrorism such as the Iran hostage crisis in 1979-’81.

This left Gen-Xers with a perpetual feeling someone is about to pull the rug out from under them. They feel an imperative to provide for their own future. In 1997, 69% of 25-year-olds told pollsters they felt a need to plan for their own retirement, vs. 51% of 25-year-olds who were asked the same question in 1974.

The downside – especially for retailers – is a deep skepticism about virtually everything they are told. Plus, some would rather save their money than spend it on jewelry.

“Gen-Xers believe there are no assurances,” says Bersoff. “They’ve seen that antibiotics can cure disease but also breed superviruses. Computers? They give you flexibility but also take your free time. A booming economy? It breeds anxiety about when it’s all going to crash.” In short, Gen-Xers tend to look for the cloud around the silver lining.

Selling to Skeptics

Selling to Gen-Xers, therefore, is a specialty. This is a group that appreciates at least the appearance of candor. Example: The bookstore that advertised college textbooks with this ad: “You know you need them, but we won’t rip you off as much.” (Jewelers could take a page from that book with an ad that says: “We can’t guarantee this necklace will make your retirement secure, but at least you’ll look good and feel successful!”)

“That [bookstore] ad was a tribute to customers’ savvy,” says Bersoff. “Between the lines, it agreed with the presumption college texts cost way too much. It just made the minimalist promise not to cheat the customer ‘as much’ as the competition.”

To Gen-Xers, that sort of promise resonates.

– by Mark E. Dixon

Copyright © 2001 by Bond Communications