Generational generalisations – and how they got here

jon neale

London may see itself as the world’s greatest city, but perhaps more than ever, its cultural innovations are borrowed from elsewhere – mostly across the Atlantic. From coffee culture to farmers’ markets, craft beer to gourmet burgers, it is not difficult to compile a list of cutting-edge trends that began a bit earlier in New York, San Francisco, Portland or Austin. In some ways, it was ever thus – denim jeans, chewing gum and Kellogg’s breakfast cereals were just as eagerly snapped up by earlier generations of British people. The same goes for slang: when I cringe when I hear a twentysomething use “awesome” in a non-ironic way, I am echoing the sentiments of my parents when they heard a teenage me use “cool” in the same context.

There is nothing inherently negative about this – after all, we share a common language and the US is a larger and, ahem, awesomely creative nation. But there does need to be a level of scrutiny – a level of adapting for our own climate – when we integrate these often great things into our culture. Which brings me onto demographics. To be specific, generational demographics.

It has become very common in the property industry (or should I say the real estate industry) to use generational jargon – millennials, generation Y, baby boomers. But these terms are imported, without criticism, from the US. And the US has a rather different demographic history to the UK – one that can be seen quite clearly from the graph attached. It shows US and UK fertility rates – the number of children produced by women of childbearing age – indexed to the 2009 level. I’ve added the common demographic groupings and the accepted birth dates, together with their ages today.

It is evident that there are some big differences. The first, and most obvious, is among the ‘baby boomers’. In the US, this is one large ‘boom’ that climaxes in the mid 1950s. This is the huge generation that entered the US workforce from the late 1960s through to the late 1970s. And as can be seen from the graph, it is truly huge. The UK experience was somewhat different. After a slight, short boom marking the end of the war, there was  a definite lull, with a second boom starting in the mid 1950s (when the US experience peaked) and not really reaching its apex until the mid 1960s.

This means that the ‘baby boomer’ group in the UK really needs to be split into two. Firstly, those born immediately after the war, the teenagers of the 1960s, who have just passed retirement age. This is actually a less significant group, although the media tends to talk about baby boomers as if they are all around this age. Far more important is a second group, those born in the mid-60s. These are Thatcher’s children, coming into maturity in the 1980s.

Most of this group are in their fifties now; they do not retire for at least another decade. One only has to consider how different British society was – the assumptions, the politics, the housing market – between 1965 and 1985 (or 1970 and 1990) to realise that the experiences of these two groups must be radically different, and that it is ridiculous to call them all ‘baby boomers’. And that is before we get to the point that the second UK ‘baby boomer’ group needs to be extended to at least, ooh, 1970. These are the people who grew up with terrible 80s pop music (sorry), who were precisely the right age to benefit from the huge increase in the housing market from 1996 to 2006, and are now in senior management or running the country (I’m looking at you, Mr Cameron). In contrast, the early baby boomers grew up with the Beatles and the Stones, the counterculture and an unquestioned welfare state; while important in the US, they are less significant here.

As for Generation X (of which I am a member), this seems to have a bit more transatlantic viability. It was coined by US marketeers, and popularised by the novelist Douglas Coupland, to identify a group that was being ignored by companies because it was, in relatively terms, so small compared to the baby boomers. Thus the X – so unimportant numerically it was barely worth labelling. I was born in 1975, which was a post-war low in the birth rate (unsurprising given the state of the UK at the time, perhaps), and I remember throughout the late 1980s local schools closing as a result of lack of pupils. However, given that the importance here is the ‘shadowing’ effect of the baby boomers – the experience of growing up as a smaller generation – the British generation X cohort would probably need to be extended to 1985 (or those aged thirty today), for the simple reason that the baby boomer generation here is almost a decade or so younger than in the US.

So what of Generation Y, the millennials, the ones with the beards, the iPhones, the ones who value work-life balance but seem to tolerate an mingling of work and leisure time? What of them? Well, again, there is some commonality; this is about trying to understand what makes today’s twentysomethings tick, given that they have been through two transformational events – the digital revolution and the global financial crisis – that make them distinctively different from those born earlier. They are the ‘digital natives’ for whom technology is second nature. And as the workplace changes with technology, that is interesting in itself.

However, in the US, the millennial generation is seen as being important because of its size. The older term for them is ‘echo boomers’ – something I came across while reading about the reasons for the growth of the multi-family residential sector (‘PRS’ or ‘build to rent’ here) in the US.  If you look back at the graph above, you’ll notice that in the second half of the 1980s there was a pronounced uptick in the US birth rate. This is the ‘echo boom’ of the Reagan years, as the peak of the post war baby boomer generation hit their thirties under a period of economic boom.

Now this uptick looks slight compared to the vast boom of the 1950s – and indeed it is. But the important point here is that the baby boomer generation in the US is now retiring, meaning that the millennial generation  will, within years, be the most important in the workplace. In the UK this is not the case. Not only was the birth rate in the 80s no different to the 70s or 90s (and in some cases lower), the baby boomer generation in the UK is younger and that huge bulk of sixties babies will be around in the workplace for another decade and a half. So the millennial generation is no more important than generation X on this side of the pond. In other words, the US hype about the importance of  millennials needs to be toned down in the UK as (i) they are not as numerous and (ii) they will be sharing the workplace with the baby boomers for a long time yet.

One other, crucial, difference. Look at the graph again. The UK birth rate has been ticking upwards since 2000 and is now the highest it has been since the 1970s. We are having our echo boom now. It is generation Z that will be important in the UK: the people that will enter the workforce between 2020 and 2030. By then, the boomer generation will have retired, and gen Z will outnumber millennials and X’ers by a significant margin. That is the shift we need to start thinking about here, rather than slavishly copying American trends and jargon.

(It’s more complicated than this, by the way — we also need to think about immigration trends. I will discuss this in my next post….)


About the Author

Jon Neale Head of UK Research

As well as heading the 17-strong UK research team, Jon is responsible for guiding and shaping UK-specific research outputs for JLL – ranging from publications and consultancy work to public speaking and social media. Recent successes include the ‘Digital London’ report on Shoreditch, Clerkenwell and Aldgate, the JLL-Glenigan commercial construction index and the annual alternative property survey. Jon has over ten years’ experience of working in property, and his career has spanned both commercial and residential as well as the public and private sectors. His current interests include the rise of the alternative property sectors and the growing focus on regional economic performance and devolution, but his real passion is urban design and placemaking.

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