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Why Generation X gets no respect in the marketplace

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Generation Xers were born when Rodney Dangerfield was in his forties and fifties – between 1961 and 1984, according to one definition, from 1965 to 1980 according to another. But as Quentin Ferrell, writing for the Wall Street Journal June 27, Jason Notte, writing online for MSN Money or most Xers themselves would tell you, they're the Rodney Dangerfield generation. They don't get no respect – in the workplace, in the marketplace, or in life overall.

Now "creeping into its 40s and even 50s," Notte (an Xer himself) writes, this cohort is "well into parenthood despite having children far later than the generations that came before. They're old enough to actively compare U.S. economic recessions and don't know where everybody got this idea of 'economic stability' from. They've been told since they were young that they were going to be the first American generation to do worse than their parents and watched as market and global forces conspired to make that true."

Oh, and just in case you hadn't noticed, they seem to have an exaggerated sense of victimhood.

Notte's lament notwithstanding, "market and global forces" didn't single out his g-g-g-generation. If anything's responsible for their existential angst, it's first, their parents and second, their own responses to those evilly conspiring market and global forces.

No respect in the marketplace

Only one notable product stands out as having been specifically created for and marketed to Xers, and that's MTV. So if they feel that "market forces" such as marketing, advertising and media have overlooked them, they may actually have something there.

That's because those "market forces" pay attention to two things – numbers and dollars. And Generation X is just a wee bit short on both.

They're short on numbers because their Baby Boomer parents decided to have fewer babies.

Roughly 75 million Baby Boomers gave birth to only 49 million baby Xers. By comparison, the next generation – Millennials – is some 89 million strong.

To marketers, that looks like a shortage of customers. No wonder marketers are more attentive to the tastes and habits of Boomer and Millennial consumers.

If that weren't enough, Xers are short on assets and long on debt.

According to Pew Charitable Trust research, Generation X lost about 45 percent of its wealth during the Obama economy – from an average of $75,000 net worth in 2007 to $42,000 in 2010. That's less than half of what Baby Boomers lost, but since the Boomers had more assets going into the Great Recession, they had more left over to fall back on.

Xers were the first demographic cohort to get into big-time college debt, and their participation in the massive expansion of consumer lending (i.e., credit-card buying and stated-income mortgages) that characterized the 1980s and '90s put them further in the hole.

As of 2010, Xers' assets were only double their debts, while Boomers' debt-to-asset ratios were 1:4 and the Silent Generation (born 1930-45) had assets 27 times their debts.

Marketers don't find it very productive to invest advertising dollars in consumers who can't afford to buy their products.

No respect in the workplace

As working Boomers retire, they create new marketing opportunities – in grandparenting and grandchild-related purchases; in travel; in business equipment and supplies for second careers; in caregiving, health care, durable medical equipment, and presecription and OTC meds.

These all cost money, which Xers, when they reach their sixties, aren't likely to have anywhere near enough of.

According to a 2012 Insured Retirement Institute report, 59 percent of Gen Xers haven't even figured out how much money they'll need to save for their retirement. Half of them, a 2012 MetLife-sponsored survey found, were behind on their retirement savings, and 7 percent hadn't even started. During the recession, the IRI reported, "15 percent of Xers made early withdrawals from their 401k plans, 23 percent stopped contributing to their retirement accounts, and 22 percent stopped contributing to college savings plans."

Xers can't even count on higher future earnings, as they climb their way up the hierarchy at work, to help. While 58 percent of Xer men and 41 percent of Xer women want to be CEOs and COOs someday, Boomers who already hold those jobs may make sure that someday never comes. According to a Gallup poll, old Boomers in the workplace, unlike old soldiers in the song, have no plans whatever to just fade away. Some 39 percent plan to go right on workingpast 65, thank you, and 10 percent plan to retire only feet first. Meanwhile, Millennials, whom employers prize as the first generation to have spent all their lives in a digital world, are nipping at the Xers' heels.

Which means that business-to-business marketers may ignore Gneration Xers in the workplace the way business-to-consumer marketers have ignored them everywhere else.

One saving grace

One possible bright spot in Generation X's economic future is something no one may ever have expected – Social Security. That's because the one feature that makes its future very doubtful right now could eventually be its, and the Xers', salvation.

You see, Social Security's business model is based on a Ponzi scheme's, in that its "solvency" requires an ever-growing number of people paying in to supply the cash the system pays out to a dwindling number of recipients. Two factors have put the whammy on this model: First, increased longevity, already into the eighties, is rapidly draining a system set up on the premise that most beneficiaries would, in accordance with 1930s life expectancy figures, conveniently curl up and die. Second, the combination of a smaller demographic (i.e., the Xers) paying into the system to cover monthly checks for a larger cohort (the Boomers), coupled with five years of record-low workforce participation, has reduced the amount of money coming in.

But a younger, larger cohort is on the way. As noted above, Millennials already outnumber Boomers in the total population, and soon they'll outnumber them in the workforce. While they may take away those top jobs the Xers aspire to, their growing number of FICA withholdings can, assuming Social Security survives, contribute more to the Xers' retirements than many Xers themselves did.

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