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Generation X
Generation Y

Npr Feature: Looking Forward To Gen X Nostalgia

I was interviewed for a story on National Public Radio's Marketplace about nostalgia marketing and entertainment last week. Click on the link above to listen to the story, or read it below: KAI RYSSDAL: When we were younger, my brother was the first kid in our neighborhood who could solve a Rubik's Cube. That kind of dates me, I guess, because the thing first got really popular back in the late '70s, early '80s. But look around the next time you're in a toy store. Because Rubik's Cubes are back, as are a whole bunch of pop items from the past. Marketplace's Caitlan Carroll reports on the comeback economy.

I was interviewed for a story on National Public Radio's Marketplace about nostalgia marketing and entertainment last week. Click on the link above to listen to the story, or read it below:KAI RYSSDAL: When we were younger, my brother was the first kid in our neighborhood who could solve a Rubik's Cube. That kind of dates me, I guess, because the thing first got really popular back in the late '70s, early '80s. But look around the next time you're in a toy store. Because Rubik's Cubes are back, as are a whole bunch of pop items from the past. Marketplace's Caitlan Carroll reports on the comeback economy.NEW KIDS ON THE BLOCK: [MUSIC] "Hang tough…."CAITLAN CARROLL: For those fans who have hung tough since that album went platinum in 1988, today is a big day. The '80s boy-turned-man band New Kids on the Block performed for the first time in 15 years. Fans outside of NBC studios stood 20-deep, craning their necks to catch a glimpse.President of the New Kids fan club Katrina Walker flew from L.A. to New York to see the New Kids comeback first-hand. It's the kick-off of a multimillion-dollar national tour.KATRINA WALKER: Some of us were like, Oh my god. We kind of reverted back to being 15. That excitement again about the group — it's something, it doesn't go away.Marketers count on that kind of reaction. They're always waiting for the tipping point when pop icons can become cool and profitable again. Marketing expert Sarah Sladek says 20 years is the magic number when it comes to nostalgia — and that time's arrived for Generation X.SARAH SLADEK: Generation X, which is now ages 26 to 44, have moved into parenting roles. They've moved into purchasing power, and they're driving the market.But their moving in so many directions that marketers are having trouble keeping up with them. Sladek says teenyboppers who once rocked out to New Kids' "Hanging Tough" album aren't willing to latch on to every trend that comes along.SLADEK: They grew up in dual-parent working households. They are very self-sufficient. They are not going to be persuaded by sales schemes.But as they move into quarter- and mid-life crises they can be persuaded by memories. At least that's what the entertainment industry's banking on. To get back dwindling and distracted audiences, the new fall TV lineup has a strangely old feel to it.The CW network is remaking "Beverly Hills 90210." Kitt, the talking car, will drive its way back into living rooms in new episodes of "Knight Rider." And "American Gladiator" continues to smash its way to top ratings.The CW network's Thom Sherman says a show like "90210" could strike advertising gold.THOM SHERMAN: This could be the perfect vehicle for us to capture a young audience of teens and also 18-34s who might have been fans of the show in the past.And when Gen X-ers sit down to watch TV with their kids or go with them to a New Kids concert, audiences can double or triple. Bigger audiences make for bigger payoffs.USC marketing professor Ken Wilbur says that's why companies are increasingly placing bets on known quantities.KEN WILBUR: As we fracture more and more and it gets tougher to justify the investment that a new TV series or a new band costs to produce then I think you'll see more and more applications of old formulas.Wilbur says "Married with Children," the "Real World" reunion, grunge, maybe even "The Cosby Show" could be the next throwback to comeback.WILBUR: Yeah, these can't be too far behind. Bill Cosby is sitting by a phone somewhere in Philadelphia right now.And while Bill waits, the TV and music industries pine for the good old days too. The days when cell phones, iPods and the Internet didn't steal their audiences and their profits.In Los Angeles, I'm Caitlan Carroll for Marketplace.

Zs came of age in an era of disruption

In many ways, it’s symbolic that Generation Z is named after the last letter in the alphabet because their arrival marks the end of clearly defined roles, traditions, and experiences. After all, Gen Z is coming of age on the heels of what has been referred to as the most disruptive decade of the last century. America has become an increasingly changing and complex place.

For example:

  • ‍Zs were born into a “modern family era” in which highly involved dads help out at home, and the nuclear family model (two parents, married, with children) represent only 46% of American households.
  • ‍Zs are the first generation to be born into a world where everything physical, from people to places to pennies, has a digital equivalent.
  • From the time they were infants, Zs had access to mobile technology. As a result, their brains have been trained to absorb large amounts of information, and Zs are especially adept at shifting between skills and subject matter.
  • Zs tend to have crystal-clear memories of sitting up for the first time at six months old because they can easily and quickly reference the photos and videos their parents shared on social media or saved in the “cloud”. 

Members of this generation have undoubtedly been shaped by crisis and disruption. This generation will largely be responsible for confronting the aftermath of the Great Recession, high youth unemployment, the effects of climate change, terrorism, energy sustainability, and more. These dark events have undoubtedly made this generation more cautious and pragmatic, but they have also provided this generation with the inspiration to change the world – and their grit will likely allow them to do it.

Coming of age during disruption means that most Zs will be comfortable being the disruptors. While Millennials tend to be collaborative and innovative, this generation tends to be sincere, reflective, thick-skinned, and self-directed, and will likely approach work in much the same way.

Zs were raised to be competitive

In the era following World War II, Boomers (1946-1964) were born and eventually became the wealthiest, most prosperous generation in history. Raised to aspire for the American Dream, this very large generation moved into positions of power and influence, and served as the workforce majority for 34 years.

With the American Dream alive and well, Boomers had no reason to teach their children, mostly Millennials, about competition. Instead, they taught them to focus on academic achievement and to be team players because if everyone works hard, everyone can win.

Enter Generation X (1965-1981). In contrast Boomers, Xers came of age during a time when change and economic and political uncertainty began to take root. They have lived through four recessions, struggled with debt and economic decline most of their lives, and watched the best educated and accomplished generation of all time (Millennials) graduate during the Great Recession and become the most debt-ridden generation in history.

Gen Xers can be defined by their independence and anti-status quo approach to life, and they have taught their Gen Z children to be competitive, believing only the best can win. They have encouraged their children to be realists, finding something they are good at and aggressively pursuing it.

Xers have raised their Zs with an intense focus on competitiveness -- in academics, sports, and other activities. This approach to parenting has many implications, but one stands out in terms of business: Gen Z is likely to lead.

Millennials in the workplace created and aggressively advocated for collaborative work environments. In fact, their aversion to leadership has been so strong, some Millennials sought out companies that boasted boss-free or team-managed workplaces.

In contrast, Zs have been raised with an individualistic, realistic, and competitive nature. They have been taught the skills to successfully defy the norm. This means we’re going to see the pendulum shift away from collaborative workplaces towards a widespread demand for, and pursuit of, leadership development.

Zs are career-focused.

While Millennials have been criticized for their “delayed adulthood”, Gen Z is showing signs of “early adulthood”. Educators and parents often describe this generation as being more serious and contemplative about the world. Zs are thinking about their career paths and exposing themselves to career training at an earlier age than Millennials. It’s probable that some of this early onset of adulthood is caused by parents, who are pressuring their children to be competitive and successful and to avoid the debt that plagued both the Gen Xers and Millennials.

The numbers from our global research found 46% of Gen Z said they know what career to pursue and 51% have taken a class at school focused on their career interests. Forty percent joined an extracurricular program (team, club) based on their career interests.

Zs are seeking financial security. 

Zs have been shaped by the aftermath of the Great Recession. They watched Millennials become debt-ridden and are concerned about falling into the same trap. XYZ University’s survey results show 66% of Zs said financial stability is more important than doing work they enjoy, which is the exact opposite of Millennial survey results.  Also, 71% of survey-takers have a paying job.

Zs value leaders who are positive and trustworthy.

When presented a list of leadership traits, Zs ranked positive and trustworthy the highest. While Millennials and Gen Zs both value trust in a leader, Millennials usually cite collaboration and vision as most important. In other words, Millennials focus on the outcomes leaders inspire, whereas Zs are more likely to consider leaders’ attitudes and personalities. To Z, what leaders encourage others to do isn’t as valuable as how they make them feel.


Zs want to be challenged.

Both Millennials and Gen Zs place a very high value on feeling challenged and appreciated in the workplace. However, according to our survey results Millennials rank appreciation slightly higher than challenge, whereas Zs rank feeling challenged slightly higher than appreciation.

Time will tell how Zs go down in history, but we know this generation’s influence on history will be unlike any other.


Does your organization have what it takes to engage the next generation? Take this quiz to find out.


Sarah Sladek is CEO of XYZ University. Our generational intelligence can assist you with engaging and retaining young talent and members.

Sarah Sladek

Concerned about declining engagement in our nation’s membership associations, non-profits, and workplaces, Sarah Sladek founded XYZ University, the nation’s first and only generations-focused training and engagement strategy company, in 2002.

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