Why I am more than my age

It is my birthday next week. So that makes me a year older, or maybe just a day older. Either way it gives me a new number to remember when people ask how old I am (turns out it gets easier to forget as you get older and aren’t counting the quarter years you used to when you were 7. Or maybe I am just in denial). A number, not that important really in the big scheme of things, but it also brings a set of expectations — what we are expected to do, to like, and the kinds of lives we are supposed to live (as demonstrated by all the Youtube ads about pregnancy tests I get served).

We like to put people in boxes (not literal boxes, although I’m sure some are into that), it gives us a short-cut to understanding a little bit more about each other. One of the main ways we do this is by age, and recently more and more emphasis has been placed on these categories, particularly understanding what ‘Millennials’ want, compared to ‘Baby Boomers’, or ‘Gen Z’ (it seems like Gen X are, for some reason, the less sexy generation).

A good friend of mine was at Davos this year, and apparently the buzzword being whispered amongst the great and powerful in between skiing and high powered meetings was ‘Millennials’ — what millennials want, think, drink, etc. The depressing thing was that she was actually one of the very few people, in a conference full of middle aged men, who fell within this category. Yet here they all were discussing her, and her ilk without any input from the people they were referring to.

We see this a lot, this idea that you can understand tens of millions of people by visiting some trendy coffee shops or co-working spaces. That this, or a few trend reports is enough for organisations to know what a bunch of people from a huge age range wants, feels, behaves is pretty ridiculous (as summed up perfectly in this article). Sure I understand why we do it this way — often it is cheaper, and it is nice to have it packaged in bite-sized chunks and summarised (‘social’, ‘purpose-led’, ‘impatient’). But inevitably it rings very hollow, and slightly insulting. In fact, as I am writing this Millennials are probably over and we should be focusing on Gen Z.

Mikey Burton

Real understanding, and going beyond that to empathy takes more time and effort. And entails a careful balance of understanding themes without summarising to ineffectual buzzwords. The best way to do this is have your target audience working with you, in your organisation, on your project team. And to spend time getting to know them and their lives (even briefly).

In short, avoid trying to understand any audience based on reading a few reports or visiting a few trendy shops. Avoid categorising to the point of it being meaningless. Avoid summarising into broad stereotypes. And finally, really spend time and effort to work with and understand different people and their lives.

Tania Ferreira is a Partner at Two Igloos who considers herself ‘social’, ‘purpose-led’ and ‘impatient’.

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