Born-Free or Generation Y: It’s time to localise our analysis of generational trends
Posted by
Al Mackay at 12:00

Generational studies are a bit like horoscopes: there are character traits that are broad enough to see yourself in them, but they're probably not an accurate reflection of everyone who happens to have been born within that time frame.

Generational dynamics are broad strokes, but they can still be very useful for marketers and we often read about them in our profession. We hear about the differing psyches and leadership styles of Baby Boomers versus Generation X, for example. Or how people my age (Generation Y) need a sense of purpose in our work and have high expectations for digital and social communication. All of this is important when building employer brands to attract talent, or when choosing channels and social causes to connect with younger consumers.  

But are these generational bands relevant to the majority of South Africans? Most of the thinking behind them was developed in the West, particularly the USA. The values and expectations of these generational bands come about from a particular set of circumstances in the USA, such as post-WWII government spending making the Baby Boomers grow up wealthier than any generation before them, or the working women revolution of the 1970s giving Generation X their 'latchkey kids' name. Millennials like myself were apparently mollycoddled by our parents.

But I would imagine it's the contexts and circumstances of South Africa that shaped our generations. With the exception, perhaps, of our wealthiest and most 'Westernised' citizens, does it make any sense to view our different age cohorts through a Western lens when the events that impacted on us were so very different from the dynamics explained above?

We have a number of interesting local segmentations, but no broader generational studies have found their way into the everyday language and thinking of marketers in South Africa. We have no agreed nomenclature for our cohorts.

An obvious generational split for me is between the Born Frees and those born before the end of Apartheid. There is probably another paradigmatic split between the generation who were at school during the Soweto Uprising, and those who came before. The children of South Africa's new black middle class may well be Millenials in their digital consumption behaviour, but I bet there are more specific cultural traits, aspirations and fears that brands could connect with.

Generational analysis is useful for marketers to understand shifting cultural context. It can help build more insightful brands for both consumers and employees. But I think it's time we agreed on a South African system, and gave up pretending our generations map accurately onto those moulded in another part of the world. 

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