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This chapter is from the book

How Marketing Created the “Multigenerational Workforce”

When the Industrial Revolution really got going, it didn’t take the producers of goods and services very long to figure out that they needed to have markets in which to sell those goods and services—and the more markets they could find, the more goods and services they’d be able to sell. So they hired marketers to go around inventing new markets.

And those marketers were very, very successful:

  • George Frederick Earnshaw, president of Earnshaw Knitting Company in Chicago, published the children’s wear industry’s first trade journal in 1917, titled The Infants’ Department. Its aim was to help clothiers increase their sales by targeting infants as a distinct market, which had previously been an ill-defined or non-existent demographic.
  • The term toddler was coined to describe a distinct demographic around 1936 to distinguish between infants and children—again as a way to sell more clothes.
  • In 1997, the book What Kids Buy: The Psychology of Marketing to Children identified the tween as a demographic distinct from childhood and adolescence and, therefore, a new market for companies to target. (There’s a good chance, by the way, that the word tween was first used by J.R.R. Tolkien to describe hobbits. In case you, like me, find that kind of thing interesting.)

I could go on, but you get the point. As recently as a century ago, there were exactly three stages of life: infancy, childhood, and adulthood. Now, we’ve broken it down something like this:

  • Infant—0 to 12 or 24 months.
  • Toddler—1 to 3 years old, according to the CDC
  • Child—3 to 10-ish years old
  • Tween—8 to 12 years old (or 10 to 12, depending on the source)
  • Junior teen—13 to 15 years old
  • Teen—Technically 13 to 19 years old, but National Miss America says 16 to 18, and other groups have different age ranges
  • Young adult—10 to 20 years old, or 12 to 18, or 14 to 21, or even 20 to 40 if you go by Erik Erikson’s stages of human development

That’s eight overlapping stages of life, and unless you go by Erik Erikson’s definition for young adult, we haven’t even made it out of college yet. If I kept going with all the stages of adulthood that we’ve created—young professional, parent, middle-aged, retired, old age, and so on—we’d easily get this list up to 15 categories. Is human life truly five times as complicated and nuanced now as it was a century ago? Or have we segmented ourselves into ever smaller cohorts in order to make it easier to target specific ideas, products, and services to particular populations?

We can also look at music. According to the Music Genres List, there are 23 types of rock music (acid rock, alternative rock, American traditional rock, arena rock, blues rock, British invasion, heavy metal, death metal, hair metal, gothic metal, glam rock, hard rock, noise rock, progressive rock, jam band, psychedelic rock, rock ‘n’ roll, rockabilly, roots rock, singer/songwriter rock, southern rock, surf rock, and tex-mex). I’m not sure many people would be able to describe the difference between hair metal and glam rock, and yet there are undoubtedly some music aficionados who would be quick to point out that some important genres are missing. And I haven’t even mentioned the 12 brands of country, or 16 genres of dance music and 14 flavors of electronic music, nor the fact that inside the alternative rock label there are 9 further divisions, each one more and more difficult to distinguish from the others. Dr. M. Duffett, commenting on Simon Reynolds’ analysis of indie music for The Guardian, puts it very well: “It is as if popular music criticism is now a laboratory which dissects the genetic codes of the tunes in order to guide packs of hungry consumers.”

The upshot of our relentless push toward more and more segmentation is that it has the tendency to make marketing easier but living harder. Take clothing, for example, which is really where this process began. We all know what section to visit in every store or on every website in order to find the things we want, and that’s enormously convenient. And at the same time, parents often lament that their children aren’t simply children anymore; now they belong to subcategories of childhood that seem to be changing on them every time they buy their kids a new outfit. That’s worse than inconvenient—it’s destructive. Today’s children are being placed into categories that didn’t exist for the parents who are raising them. Are children magically different today than they were in the 1940s or 1970s? Or are we making things more complicated than they need to be?

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