For People Like Me

The myth of generations.

This article originally appeared in re:generation quarterly, Fall 1999.

To understand the power of “generation” talk in America, you’ve got to think like a marketing executive.

One of the cornerstones of modern marketing—closely related to the all-important concept of brand—is the theory of segmentation. Once upon a time, soap manufacturers made soap, a product that pretty much everyone needs. Then along came Proctor & Gamble, who realized that they could make several different kinds of soap and market them to different audiences. In the process, they could sell not just soap (for which consumers would pay a certain price based on supply and demand) but also an additional intangible sense of quality—not necessarily the quality of being a better bar of soap, but the quality of being better for a particular kind of person (say, a housewife or a busy businessman). Consumers, P&G discovered along with every other modern corporation, would pay for that intangible quality of fitness “for people like me”—and since that quality was intangible and thus very cheap to produce, it was highly profitable.

The gospel does not fit the marketer’s (or the Pharisee’s) formula “for people like me.”

The goal of the modern marketer is to identify, or, if necessary, create these all-important, brand-defining differences, and sharpen their distinction in the mind of the consumer until he is unwilling to cross that sacred line between Ivory and Camay—much less leave the P&G fold altogether and buy Lever 2000—because that other product just isn’t “for him.” For maximum effect, one must create a self-consciousness in the consumer that encourages him to segment his own world—because once you have a customer with a pre-fabricated sense of where he fits in the consumer universe, the cost of pitching a new product goes down dramatically. The complex and expensive process of convincing your customer that your product meets one of his needs is much less important if you can appeal to a pre-existing set of identity markers. Simply invoke the tell-tale signs of his chosen segment, and he will know that your product is for people like me.

Segmentation works. Ford sells more station wagons by selling two versions, one called the Ford Taurus and the other called the Mercury Sable (can you guess which is for men and which is for women?), than it would if it sold just one—even though under the hood, the two cars are virtually identical. When used to reposition a fading brand—think of the Dewar’s Scotch campaign that took a product formerly associated with your rich, but rather elderly, great-uncle, and placed it in the hands of hip young professionals—segmentation can save a product line and even a company.

What I don’t understand is why so many people think that segmentation can save the church.

“Generation” is, to use a popular term these days, a construct: an artificial convention by which a society agrees to divide up a continuous range into discrete pieces—that is, segments. With one significant exception which we’ll get to in a minute, birth rates are a pretty continuous phenomenon. Babies have been born in North America every day for several thousand years. In some years more are born than others, and it would be fair to say that on average the folks born in one year are likely to be the parents of the folks born twenty-five years later, but there are no hard-and-fast rules. There are no boundaries on the birth charts any more than there is a line running through the soil at the boundary between the US and Mexico. (Of course, the US government has gone to great effort to construct a fence along much of that imaginary line, reflecting the uncomfortable reality that not everyone “sees” the boundary in the same way.)

So what is it that has made Americans so uniquely preoccupied in recent years with the construct of “generations,” whole groups of people who move through life, monolithically, with a common identity based solely on their date of birth? The answer, to oversimplify only slightly, comes down to the Baby Boomers.

The Baby Boomers are the significant exception to the continuous shape of the birth-rate curve in the U.S. since its inception. No one can miss the sharp uptrend in births following the end of World War II, when a generation that had been postponing marriage and childbirth got busy. A whole lot of kids were born in the years after 1945, and they grew up in an America that was experiencing a sudden and rapid economic expansion. We may all be tired of hearing about the Baby Boomers, but the Baby Boom was a genuine, and exceptional, event in American history, precipitated by and accompanied by cataclysmic historical events.

By contrast, the so-called “millennial” generation, which includes the babies being perambulated down your neighborhood street, will be numerically larger than the Baby Boom—but there is no similar confluence of distinct events that has contributed to this new boom, rather a more mundane convergence of trends that include the Boomers’ own delay in having children. Other American generations were, and are, an arbitrary time frame—the Boomers were (to use the language of their youth) a happening.

But while these features of the cultural tsunami known as the Baby Boom are well known, what’s less often remarked is how, for the Baby Boomers and those who marketed to them, generation became a key means of market segmentation. One famous slogan captures that strategy in its early stages: “Not your father’s Oldsmobile.” This slogan, pursuing the same effect as late-‘90s Dewar’s subway ads, was one of the first attempts to employ the new generation-consciousness to conjure up a consumer segment and reposition a brand. For the first time, a car was being sold, not just as the best form of transportation, but as the best for a particular age group—a group which apparently had needs in a car that their fathers didn’t have, needs that they themselves may not have been aware of before reading that sly and flattering tagline.

Constructs are useful—there’s no question about that. All society proceeds on the basis of agreed-upon divisions of reality, from national borders to ZIP codes. But few constructs are useful to everyone equally, and for that reason very few constructs are simply self-generating. The question to ask about any construct is, to whom is this artifice useful, and for what? In the case of “generation,” the Baby Boom (itself more than a construct) became the century’s greatest gift to marketers desperate for a way to differentiate their brands from every capitalist’s nightmare: a product that simply, anonymously, did its job.

In the 1980s, as the Baby Boomers reached their prime earning and spending years, marketers discovered more and more ways to use their unique generational consciousness to create market segments. They turned to the pop-culture artifacts that had accompanied the Baby Boomers’ adolescence, licensing everything from the Rolling Stones to Bob Dylan. These artists became totems for footwear and flavored water less for their rebellious or prophetic character than for their ability to conjure up generational solidarity.

At this point it was clear that the generational shtick was too useful to be allowed to expire with the passing of the Boomers. So Madison Avenue must have breathed a huge collective sigh of relief when a young Canadian writer hit the best-seller charts with a self-deprecating novel of sorts called Generation X: Tales For an Accelerated Culture. Within a year, Douglas Coupland was being offered five-figure fees to speak to corporate marketers about the new “generation” and how to “reach” them with their own brands—offers which fell on ears strangely deaf to commercial success.

Undaunted by Coupland’s unwillingness to sell his generation’s then-tortured identity for a very large mess of pottage, America’s endlessly inventive consumer culture went to work defining a generation whose principal characteristic, everyone agreed, was its resistance to being defined. This blank slate was, in fact, the generation’s greatest asset from a marketing point of view. The Baby Boomers, after all, had an annoying tendency towards idealism and even—danger!—anti-materialism that had to be carefully massaged into commercially friendly forms. The ad agencies had certainly been up to the challenge, but it was infinitely easier to create a generational consciousness ex nihilo.

Now America is suffused with generational consciousness, even though “generation” as usually defined is a hopelessly blunt instrument. Whole generations (defined as people sharing a common range of birthdates) have very little in common in a country as diverse as the U.S., even in the age of pop culture. If you doubt this, put a ten-year-old from Palo Alto in the same room with the daughter of a migrant farmworker from the Central Valley, and see what they have to say to one another. There ought to be a warning label on most every work of generational analysis published for popular consumption (as opposed to professional marketers and sociologists, who know better): “Applies to Affluent Suburbanites Only.” Massive fissures in American culture are obscured by generationalism’s relentlessly broad brush.

True, the eagerness of the Baby Boomers to tap into, and if necessary create, powerful “generational” identities in order to market more effectively has something of the effect of a self-fulfilling prophecy. But it’s remarkable how inaccurate many predictions about generations have been, beginning with the Baby Boomers, who were going to be anti-authoritarian and pro-environment, until they read the latest research on smoking’s links with cancer and got behind the wheel of a Ford Expedition, respectively. Gen Xers were doomed to a life of slackerdom, until nine-figure IPOs and Palm Vs were dangled in front of them. Today the Millennials are civic-minded, teamwork-oriented, industrious do-gooders (when they’re not pale-skinned Quake addicts shooting up their high school); tomorrow, who knows?

Two of the most accomplished, and in some ways nuanced, practitioners of this sort of analysis are Neil Howe and William Strauss, whose book Thirteenth Gen: Abort, Retry, Fail? did much to cement generation-speak in the popular lexicon. Strauss and Howe see our country’s history as a kind of grand cycle in which every fourth generation is “civic-heroic.” The GI generation, Strauss and Howe say, was the last civic-heroic generation; the Millennials, now beginning college, are the next. But this kind of analysis, as effective it may be at observation, is incredibly shaky as prediction, because it founders upon the first law of statistics (ignored by stock traders everywhere): past performance is no guarantee of future results, and past patterns are as likely to be ex post facto artifacts of eager researchers as they are to be genuine recurring trends. How would we have known that the GIs were a great civic-heroic generation if not for the obliging world events of the Great Depression and the Second World War, undoubtedly conjured up by fate to reveal that generation’s latent heroism? This kind of analysis has the virtue, and the vice, of being able to explain anything, as long as it’s already happened. Abort, Retry, Fail? was a great title for a book about Gen X in 1993, but because Strauss and Howe (like nearly every other cultural commentator) failed to predict the stunning economic renaissance driven by technologies which their “thirteenth gen” controlled, only a few years later it seems hopelessly off course. (Memo to Strauss and Howe: DOS is, like, so 1980s.)

The prophets of generationalism are, of course, right in predicting tremendous change in our country over time. Nonetheless, such massive changes aren’t generally tied to a particular age group but tend to overtake large segments of the population at once. For example, one’s opinion about the appropriateness of interracial marriage is correlated with one’s age—that is, generation—but opinions on this subject have moved in all age groups towards approval (at least in principle) of interracial marriage, in an overall cultural shift that far outweighs the generational distinctives. Furthermore, the major changes in American society are a bizarre and inherently unpredictable combination of continuity (sex outside of marriage is firmly entrenched, even after AIDS) and discontinuity (see hard-partying George W. Bush, circa 1975, and faith-and-values George W. Bush, circa 1999). Against both the despair (and nostalgia) of cultural conservatives who see our country entering a death-defying spiral of immorality, and the cheery progressivism of the Bridge-Builders to the Twenty-First Century, it’s hard to see our country’s overall direction as anything other than a random walk.

“Generation,” then, is a convenient fiction born of equal parts historical accident, marketing genius, and over-simplification. Like every construct, it is a useful tool for those who maintain it—mostly, those whose businesses require a segmented market and those who make their living at cultural commentary and prognostication. But is it useful for the church?

Unlike some, I do not find this a simple question to answer. For one thing, I’ve spent the last nine years working with 18- to 22-year-olds as a campus minister with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship—a segmented ministry if ever there was one. Like the construct called “college,” the construct called “generation” is real even if it is artificial. Many generationally-targeted ministries are simply pragmatic responses to our culture’s effectiveness at convincing kids that they shouldn’t be caught dead in their father’s church any more than their father’s Oldsmobile. Segmentation, which middle-class Americans imbibe along with their Pepsi or Coke (which do you prefer?), is an inescapable feature of our environment. Within this milieu one can hardly question the sincerity, commitment, or ingenuity of pastors and lay people who are carving out creative niches for ministry.

But there’s such a thing as too much of a good thing. The segmentation of the American church is dangerous to its health, because the church is not in the business of marketing a product. Segmentation, when not practiced with great care, self-consciousness, and humility, can be fatal, because the real danger of segmentation is that we will forget the gospel.

For surely one of the scandalous things about the gospel—indicated by Jesus’ own practices of welcoming sinners and eating with them, calling tax collectors along with fishermen to be his disciples, and praying for the forgiveness of his executioners—is that it does not fit the marketer’s (or the Pharisee’s) formula “for people like me.” It is in fact for people not like me—unless they are “a wretch like me,” and wretchedness was never the basis of a successful marketing campaign. Christianity is not a product that can be added seamlessly into the lives of consumers like one more lifestyle-enhancing appliance. It is instead a call to a completely different way of viewing the world, one in which the one who looks least like me is at a minimum my “neighbor” (Luke 10:29-37) and could well be Jesus himself (Matt. 25).

Certainly, behind some “contemporary services” or new church plants are thoughtful evangelists who are contextualizing this scandalous gospel. Equally certainly, behind some others are self-absorbed young people who just want to run something all by themselves, No Grownups Allowed. But behind the majority of segmented ministries, I suspect, is a failure to welcome the stranger.

It’s as if established churches have decided that the prodigal son had the right idea in asking Dad to split up the family farm. Like stressed-out parents sending their junior-high kids off to a summer of tennis camp, established churches give their young adults a generous send-off gift to start their own thing. They do this out of love, of course, and even in the name of “empowerment.” But secretly, more than a few pastors and elders are happy to see a segmented “contemporary service” or “Gen X church” thrive as long as nothing in their world will have to change. It certainly is easier to send Junior off to the big city than to keep him at home, where the inescapable strangeness and, yes, immaturity of the young (accentuated but not invented by pop culture) threatens the orderly powers that be. All the more so if the church growth consultants assure us that more of “the new generation” will be “reached.”

Meanwhile, as the experiences of countless energetic and entrepreneurial young adults can attest, the ease, and the thrill, of starting something new “for people like us” is mighty tempting when set next to the plodding rate of change in established, multi-generational organizations which seem unwilling to share power or reward initiative. Add in a world view which takes consumer culture’s generational segmentation for granted, and new churches (or, ahem, new magazines) can seem like the only way to go.

Yet what is needed is almost exactly the opposite: to form in every generation the will to love the stranger in every other generation. This is not a matter of creating ministries, be they worship services, small group Bible studies, or sermon series, that appeal to one or another age group—however useful a transitional step that might be. Rather, it is the task of forming young and old into hearts that welcome those who are different from themselves. This runs straight against the grain of our atomizing culture, but without it the multigenerational promise of Joel that “your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams” (quoted by Peter at Pentecost) becomes null and void.

Indeed, God himself has something to say about generational segmentation in a double-edged prophecy in Malachi 4:5: the prophet called “Elijah ... will turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents, so that I will not come and strike the land with a curse.” Here in the wasteland of a segmented culture, we already know the curse; the promise is that God still has ways to overcome our alienation from one another. Those people with whom modern culture has convinced me I have nothing in common actually are “people like me.”

The church, if it is to be the church, will undo what the marketers have done.