Reality Bites Back: The Fall and Rise of Generation X

Pity the poor Gen Xer.  Sandwiched between the narcissistic Baby Boomers and coddled Millennials, Generation X is the typical middle child of demographic groups.  Composed of people born from the mid-1960s to early 1980s, there are only 64 million Xers in the US, compared to the nearly 80 million people that make up the other cohorts.  As a result, they are of little interest to marketers or the pop culture machine.  Sure, they had a brief moment in the sun, but it was neither flattering nor fair.  Labeled “slackers” for their perceived cynicism and detachment – a natural response to the endless activism and futile chaos of their parents – Gen X was dismissed as culturally irrelevant.  All eyes turned to the emerging Millennial and, like Prince Charles, an entire generation became a footnote to a far more interesting heir.

Now they’re turning 50 and, like Gen X icon Winona Ryder in Stranger Things… they’re back!  After all, in our no carb world, the only thing left of the sandwich is the meat in the middle.  Out of the spotlight, liberated by the lack of attention, Generation X has blossomed into the dependable, pragmatic and satisfied group of adults it was always destined to be.  Soccer moms, swing voters, social progressives and fiscal conservatives, Gen Xers are the last line of defense against the madness of the King.  No Nukes is more than a banner or a concert, it is the real world of relative peace and stability they grew up in, a measured balance between dual goals of personal achievement and global progress.

Of course, while fifty can be fabulous, it also marks the end of not having to try too hard.  First, the AARP card arrives, even though retirement is a dim prospect, followed by the shock of becoming the bullseye of the healthcare industry.  Just ask the Boomers, who believed their capacity to change the world extended to their own meager life expectancy.  “I’m not old!” is a typical refrain we hear from Boomers turning 70.  Part denial, part wishful thinking, part reflection of a youthful attitude if not body, they don’t identify with their image of what old looks like.  And so, like burning a draft card or refusing to retire, they just say no to senior citizenry.  It is, they believe, nothing a little Botox won’t hide.

Only it can’t.  Because as Ponce de Leon discovered 500 years ago, the Fountain of Youth doesn’t exist.  Instead, ironically there was only Florida.  A lifetime of healthy behavior is required to prevent the most common diseases like lung cancer, heart disease and diabetes.  Finding religion upon diagnosis is better than nothing, but it can’t reverse the damage done.  For Boomers, it’s been easier to fall back in love with that temptress of their youth – chemicals – only this time legal, prescribed by a doctor and paid for by someone else.

But they put cracks in the ceiling.  Baby Boomers initiated powerful attitudinal and behavioral changes about staying healthy.  They are the ones who dared to break the fourth wall of the physician’s office and speak directly to the actors on the stage.  No longer content to sit passively, nodding in agreement like their parents, Boomers needed to understand what was being said and what it meant.  They asked questions – a lot of them – and wanted a second and third opinion.  For them, information was power, and while they may not have the knowledge to make critical health decisions, they insisted on the illusion of control that came from a perception of partnership with their doctors.

For all their rebellion, however, Boomers experience of healthcare is more similar to their parents than different.  In the same way they listened to Dylan, then became bankers, Baby Boomers denounced the healthcare system and vowed to replace it, then proceeded to consume more of it than anyone, anywhere, anytime in history.

Enter Gen X, the New Health Consumers, at a time of growing uncertainty and massive disruption in an industry with failing economics and relatively poor outcomes.  It is this challenge, societal and personal, that falls to them.  Sure, Millennials are digital natives and blue sky thinkers who will advance the revolution, but their need is twenty years in the future.  Since it is not yet about them, it doesn’t exist.

For Generation X, that future is now.  And fortunately, they are primed for the challenge.  Highly educated, confident and consistently employed, they are fiercely independent and not wedded to institutions.  They have one foot in the past and one in the future, a critical bridge between cultural moments.  They grew up with landlines but cannot live without cell phones.  They couldn’t wait to drive and get a car but rely on Uber.  They work at corporations but think like freelancers.  And they grew up seeing any doctor they liked without permission or cost, but now grudgingly view it as a luxury they can no longer afford.  They will be the stars of transforming healthcare, and are ready for their close up.

What does that change look like?  It starts with a tectonic shift in how we view the role of the patient, going beyond engagement to ownership and accountability.  We believe the New Health Consumers will view and value their health and wellness as a tangible asset to be invested in and protected just like their homes and retirement plans.  While they are comfortable seeking advice from experts, they understand the institutions put in place to protect them are failing and they need to be their own advocate in all areas of life.  So they crunch numbers, refinance mortgages, move out of Treasuries, go organic, buy a hybrid, switch to solar and check the homework.  It is on them, and they step up.

But unlike in financial services, retail, travel, automotive and more, the self-service tools and digital experiences required to take ownership of health are slow in coming.  Our medical records, which contain the best intelligence about our health from birth on, don’t exist or are impossible to get.  The evidence they hold and history they reveal remain disconnected and unanalyzed, reflecting isolated data points from a single moment in time.  Technically, we own them, but most of us have no clue where they are.  It is one example of the distance we need to travel to become heroes of our own health stories.

This is the opportunity for smart health brands to become leaders in their category.  Say goodbye to Boomers and forget Millennials.  It is time to partner with the New Health Consumers of Generation X and give them the tools they need to take control.  Share data.  Support decision-making.  Personalize experiences.  Motivate behavioral change.  Celebrate results.  These are the innovation strategies that have transformed industries for ten years, taking out giants and creating vast wealth by elevating the customer to an exalted position.  Transparency, efficiency, convenience, value.  Not exactly what comes to mind when we talk about healthcare.  Gen X is waiting for a new conversation.  Serious.  Ambitious.  Most Likely to Succeed.  To them, anything less is just a slacker.

Marty LaiksComment