Generational cohorts. What do we know about anyone other than Civics?
Photo credit Guillermo Cardoso on Flickr

In my humble opinion, the greatest psycho-social divides in society are based on age. More specifically, we as a population are made up by what sociologists and marketers call ‘Generational Cohorts.’

The study of demographics first became ‘cool’ in Canada in 1996, when David K. Foot published his book Boom, Bust & Echo. In it, he simply described the phenomenon called the ‘Baby Boom’ (the boom), the small ‘Gen X’ generation that came next (the bust) and the ‘Millennial’ children off the baby boomers (the echo).

There are four distinct generational cohorts that all fundraisers should be literate with:

  1. The Civic (or WW2) Generation – born before 1946
  2. The Baby Boom Generation – born between 1946 and 1966
  3. Generation X (or Gen X) – born between 1967 and 1982
  4. The Millennial Generation (or Gen Y) – born after 1982

My take is that our personal outlooks are very much shaped by the age in which we come of age. Let me give you an example of each generation by using members of my family:

  • My dad – the Civic – was born (1933) when the Great Depression was hitting rock bottom. His life from age 6 to age 12 was dominated by World War 2. When he was young, he listened to crooners like Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra and Andy Williams. There was no TV in his house, and the movie playing in the local theatre was in black and white.
  • I was born in 1955 (the same age rock and roll was born) – and came of age in the late 60s and early 70s. Expo 67. The Apollo Moon Landing. Woodstock. The FLQ Crisis in Canada – and the Kent State shootings in the USA. The Beatles and the Rolling Stones battled for top spot on the radio – and my TV was my babysitter. I was very much shaped by an optimistic belief that we could do anything – coupled with a somewhat bitter resentment of arbitrary authority.
  • My wife Jennifer (1971) came of age in the 80s. Deep recession coupled with crippling interest rates. Empty music for the most part – covered up by ridiculous hair. Regan, Thatcher and Mulroney brought the dream of the social welfare state crashing down in the West, while the Cold War and the Soviet Bloc imploded in the East. It was a time of unsettling uncertainty, pessimism and frustration.
  • My daughter Rory (1988) was a part of the first generation in history in which parents outnumbered children. Helicopter parenting became a phrase, as my cohort members took our kids to every kind of practice, intervened with teachers and taught our kids that they were precious and one-of-a kind. This cohort grew up with the internet and mobile phones. To them, a mobile device is no more complicated that the fridge in the kitchen. This generation is entirely social and connected – to me, they swim in schools like fish.

What does that mean to us as fundraisers?

Simple – we only truly know one of these generations – that’s right, the oldest one.

We fundraisers have been kind of lazy. We’ve relied on the duty-driven generosity and loyalty of our Civic-Generation donors to the point where many of them have reached their expiry date (literally in some cases).

Don’t get me wrong. While Civics represent just under a fifth of the population, they give over a third of all charitable donations. And – income from this cohort will continue to grow as they leave lifetime gifts in their wills.

We know this generation. We know how to talk to them. We know how to write to them. We know how to listen to them. And, we know how to get money from them.

But, few of us (me included!) have much of a handle on the three generations that follow the Civics. When you think of it, the oldest Baby Boomer today has past her 65th birthday – and we’re still scratching our heads, trying to figure out what to do!

It’s time for somebody to step up. It’s time for somebody to do some serious research – and some serious field testing. It’s time for us to debate and discuss with each other. And most importantly, it’s time for ALL of us to really think and take some risks.

In his book, David K. Foot states that ‘demographics is two-thirds of everything.’ I think he might be right. And, I think we’re all  behind the demographic 8-ball.


Image credit: moodboard via Creative Commons