Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Useful Travel Links and Marketing to Generation X

If you yourself have an interest in traveling to Europe, here are some fabulous links I've gotten from friends and family:


I've also been giving some thought to marketing to my own generation, Gen X (born 1963-1977 or thereabouts). Gen Y is the hot topic for marketers, given their size and potential future influence. However, not nearly as much attention has been given to Gen X because we're smaller, even though we're soon to be taking over the reins of power and money. Here's a list of primary cultural influences I came up with off the top of my head:

  • Space: Apollo 11, Apollo 13, Skylab, Shuttle when it was new
  • OPEC Oil Embargo/gas lines
  • Environmental movement born (“Earth Day,” energy conservation, 55 mph speed limit, etc.)
  • Watergate
  • Fall of Vietnam
  • “Stagflation”/Misery Index
  • Iranian hostage crisis
  • Soviet invasion of Afghanistan/1980 Olympic Boycott
  • Reagan shot
  • Challenger
  • Gulf War I
  • Network TV shows: Norman Lear, M*A*S*H, Happy Days, Three’s Company, Cheers, Cosby, Star Trek: The Next Generation
  • Cable TV: HBO, MTV, CNN
  • Movies: Star Wars, Star Trek, Ordinary People, The Godfather, Kramer vs. Kramer, The China Syndrome, and an endless series of horror and disaster films
  • Other items: increase in divorces, “latch-key” kids (I was one), and working moms; disco, classic rock, and “hair bands”; micromarketing; “upscale” everything

I invited friends and family members to suggest other trends or influences. Responses have ranged from the cogent (video games, personal computers, the 1972 Olympic Massacre, the Cold War and its end) to the silly (Dorothy Hamill haircuts). I look forward to others. These influences and mindsets need to be understood as clearly as Gen Y, since once the Boomers retire--if some of them ever do--the next generational clash will occur between those two groups.

My own personal take on the Gen X experience runs something like this. I believe my peers inherited the radical individualism of the '60s, but have overlaid do-your-own-thingism with a cynical mistrust of mass protests, radicalism, and government action. The golden age of hippiedom was essentially over by the time we were able to understand what was going on in the news. Our first awareness of government was probably Watergate, which was an example of executive malpractice. Our next examples of government action (or inaction, more to the point) were the energy shocks of the '70s, the joys of stagflation and the "misery index" of the last serious recession, and even the inability of the U.S. military to rescue 52 American hostages.

Divorce was on the rise, as was distrust of established institutions, ranging from the church to the Boy Scouts. Cops were on the take. Priests were manhandling young boys. Scout masters and teachers weren't doing much better. The environment, we were told, was going to hell and we would all be frozen from a new global ice age in 20 years. American competitiveness was starting to slip, our cars were no damn good, and our morals weren't much better. So institutional trust has been hard to come by.

As near as I can tell, most of my peers are "fiscally conservative, socially liberal." By this they generally mean that they don't think it's a bright idea for the federal government to be spending gobs of money on welfare programs that don't work, but they also don't want the government intruding on matters of personal behavior. This sort of thinking drives ideologues of the left and right insane, because that essentially makes a lot of us disaffected moderates or Libertarians. And if you look at the average Ron Paul rally, you'll see what I mean.

I think Gen X was much more capitalistic and money-focused in its college years than the Boomers, which at least claimed to be idealistic. (I'm thinking of Winona Ryder in Heathers telling her former-hippie teacher to "Get a life!")

There seems to be more of a "looking out for number one" attitude among us, with money seen as a means to an end. A lot of Gen Xers got sucked up into the Dot Com bubble, which wiped out a lot of fortunes (yet another example of insecurity and dashed hopes--you'd think some of us would've learned our lessons from the '70s). The Dot Com revolution also created a lot of computer engineers and not a lot of aerospace engineers. After all, we tend to follow the money. Aerospace was going south by the time we graduated, thanks to the end of the Cold War, with job cuts happening in large numbers. NASA, while a source of pride, was no longer a crucial part of American identity (thanks, again, to the end of the Cold War). And thanks to Challenger, we began to doubt governmental space efforts as well.

Gen Xers haven't all been disappointed or failures, by any stretch. Those who survived the Dot Bomb did so with style. Consider Elon Musk, for example, who formed and sold two or three different companies before founding his own space launch company. Another major supporter of privately funded space travel is Rick Tumlinson. While I'm not certain of his age, he has an Xer attitude about space development, particularly in his cutting remarks about and distrust toward government-run space ventures.

Another thing in Gen X's favor is the fact that we have endured the first birth pangs of the computer revolution. While we've had our share of disappointments (see above), we've also gotten used to constant change. In a sense, we were the first generation to live with the consequences of what the '60s hath wrought, for good and ill.

Old timers like me can already amuse, horrify, and bore our younger coworkers with stories of working with typewriters or Apple IIc computers in grade school or by talking about the relative merits of Pong, the Atari 2600, Commodore 64, TRS-80, or the original Nintendo entertainment system. We were the first to stake out claims and benefit financially from the Internet. However, we are almost dinosaurs in our attachment to print and stable forms of ownership, like physical books, CDs, records, tapes, and copyright laws. We are already fighting a serious battle between those who prefer virtual ownership and rights and those who expect to be paid for every piece of paper work. We are also the last generation of Cold Warriors, the last group to whom "commie" was a deadly serious and nasty epithet--at least to those of us who considered ourselves children of Reagan.

Today the most likely place you'll find an Xer is as a consultant or independent contributor. Rather than focus on front-line jobs, we tend to gravitate toward positions that allow us to demonstrate our strengths and sink or swim by our own efforts. We pride ourselves in being tech-savvy, but I know that I for one use computers as electronic versions of paper-based processes, like mail, documents, or contracts that could still change. I suspect that Gen X and Gen Y have very different ideas about the permanence of the written word. The "real" thing for me is the signed paper, not some electronic form. I can't speak for others on this issue, but I'd say I have an appreciation of how things were done before while still being tech-savvy enough to navigate a computer without freaking out. I don't worry that I'm going to crash the computer, I just want to know how a new toy works and whether it's useful or not.

I'm a laggard when it comes to embracing the latest toys, like the Internet or cell phones, but eventually I was dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st century. For me, the constant presence of electronic gadgetry is an intrusion on my privacy, and my best revenge is to just turn the damn things off when I get home or if I want to be left alone. Other Xer and Boomer bosses I know live by their crackberries, and they're welcome to them. Given my pre-Boomer parents, I suppose I grew up with a profounder respect for privacy. That, too, might be going out the window with Gen Y, who bring their cell phones (with cameras) everywhere.

I couldn't say what the trend is for Xers, but I suspect we're not nearly as hep to all the gadgetry as our younger cousins. I would say this about Gen X workers: we take our personal performance very seriously. We appear to be less than patient when others drop the ball. And we're very task-driven. Give us a cool assignment, leave us alone to finish it, and then we'll come back for the next project.

A coworker pointed out that we are used to entertaining ourselves (again, a function of the single-parent household), and that also means "rugged individualism" runs rampant through our cultural DNA. I was accused by a manager a couple years ago of being rather "transaction-oriented" in my business relationships, which I've learned is also an Xer trait: we'll call you when we need you. In a corporate world where "team building" and "team playing" are the big buzzwords, Xers can look like the odd man/woman out. However, that's often why we end up as consultants--not part of the traditional management culture, able to come in, analyze and criticize what's wrong without the responsibility for implementing, and then move on to the next client/task. If there's still a "hired gun" left in the corporate world, that gun is probaby being fired by an Xer.

So what we're left with is an odd conglomeration of individuals. We can be broadly categorized as a group that hates categories. We don't always play well with others, but we'll work our asses off on individual projects if we can see the point or gain in it. We were also the first generation to get comfortable with the idea of career development and job hopping, a mindset Gen Y has in spades. I read somewhere that America breeds the most ineffectual 18-year-olds and the most competent 30-year-olds anywhere, and that's probably true. When I was graduating high school, we were being disparaged in the media as "mall rats" and "slackers." The depressing strains of Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and related grunge made up the musical mindset after a decade of pop music that was performed by people with strange hair and whose output ranged from decent to deplorable. None of us learned to dance, or at least dance well, because everyone was told to just "do your own thing." And a lot of the music you couldn't dance to anyway, just play "air guitar" to--a phenomenon that has now turned into a video game. If one statement covers the Gen-X world view, "Do your own thing" would be it.

It'll be interesting to see how well we manage to get along with Gen Y, as opposed to the Boomers. We have a common interest in technology, but obviously a different relationship with it, as we struggled while they're used to things working well and at a high level. Gen Yers tend to be more group-oriented, more trusting of authority (but like us in their willingness to question it), and much more optimistic about the future. For instance, I recall with chagrin once trying to explain to a younger coworker what a "recession" was. The ruthless capitalist in me likes to think that Xers will have a decent future ahead of us, as there are so few of us, we'll have to be in demand--won't we? Not necessarily. The Gen Y kids are go-getters, and not shy about pushing for the next promotion. Still, when push comes to shove, is a Boomer CEO going to hand the reins over to a snarky but more experienced Xer or an inexperienced but team-player Millennial? I guess time will tell.

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