Intergenerational Patterns of Consumer Behavior


Brent C. Miller (1975) ,"Intergenerational Patterns of Consumer Behavior", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 02, eds. Mary Jane Schlinger, Ann Abor, MI : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 93-102.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 2, 1975      Pages 93-102


Brent C. Miller, University of Minnesota

[Appreciation is expressed to Reuben Hill, Robert Ferber and David Klein for reading and commenting on an earlier version of this paper.]

[The author is a graduate student in the Department of Sociology and affiliated with the Family Study Center at the University of Minnesota, 1014 Social Science Building, Minneapolis, Minnesota 55455.]

Questions are posed about how socialization in the parental family influences consumer behavior. Conceptual and methodological issues regarding age strata research in general are discussed, with particular emphasis being given to analyses between generations of the same family lines. Data are presented which show the lineage transmission of consumer patterns, especially a syndrome of poor consumership, from Hill's (1970) study of grandparents, parents, and their married children. Parallel intergenerational effects are suggested from a study in which consumer choices were simulated by parents and children playing a laboratory game, and from life-span developmental data where the economic context of the home was a major differentiating variable.

Many scholars of consumer behavior view the individual as the appropriate focus of analysis and pay little attention to the family as a decision-making unit or as an explanatory variable. The family has not been completely ignored by consumer researchers, but as Ferber (1973) noted, it has received relatively little attention. A possible exception to this oversight is the area of differentiation of marital roles in consumer behavior; such studies are fairly numerous. (See, for example, Sharp and Mott, 1956; Wolfgast, 1958; Blood and Wolfe, 1960; Davis, 1970 and 1971; Davis and Rigaus, 1974.)

One area which seems to have been left relatively unconsidered is that of intergenerational patterns of consumption. We might ask whether or not the following questions have been addressed by consumer researchers, and if so, how fully they have been answered: Are general patterns- of spending, saving and management which are observed by children in the parental home reflected in similar behavior by these children after they become adults? To what extent are specific consumer choices made from generation to generation within family lines? Are there certain products or classes of products with high "brand loyalty" between generations? Apart from specific commodities, to what degree are global patterns of marital economic management and consumption -- styles of interacting, arbitrating, and deciding - transmitted? To what degree are broad value orientations which impinge on consumer behavior (the conservative penny-pincher and impulsive whim satisfier) passed on between parents and children? Finally, relative to other types of explanatory variables, how influential in explaining consumership is family socialization? From these tantalizing substantive questions, let me turn our attention to some of the methodological issues involved in studying consumer behavior in different age strata.


A useful framework for discussing intergenerational issues is found in an excellent article by Bengtson and Black (1973). While there are many ways in which the term "generation" has been used by social scientists (see Troll, 1970), Bengtson and Black emphasize two meanings, and their dichotomy can be most helpful in analyzing intergenerational research issues related to consumer behavior. First, the term "generation" can be defined as a cohort; that is, an aggregate of individuals who share some common characteristic. In a now classic article on cohort analysis, Ryder (1965,845) defined cohort as "the aggregate of individuals (within some population definition) who experienced the same event within the same time interval." Most commonly then, cohorts are age-based, which means that the individuals within cohorts will have experienced together - at about the same point in their personal developmental careers -- the impact of macrophenomena like wars, depressions, etc. Having similarly experienced such significant social events, the individuals in the cohort will thereby share some important and perhaps unrecognized characteristics that mark them as a social aggregate. Consumership analyses of changes and trends at the macro level would focus on cohort succession. For example, it appears that the generation of consumers who experienced the depression in their formative years has largely given way to a cohort of individuals who have known relative affluence for all of their lives. Cohort succession then is one basis for change in the social structure of the economic institution since patterns of money management, spending and saving are transformed by the turnover of generations. (The work by Eisenstadt, 1956, although not focused on consumer behavior, provides a nonempirical example of such macro analyses.)

At a second more micro level of analysis it might be observed that many consumer-related behaviors are transmitted between generations of the same family lines; that is, passed down from parent to child. Bengtson and Black have referred to this meaning of generation as lineage. Analyses cast at this micro level emphasize interpersonal interaction within family lines occurring in an individual or family developmental time frame, as opposed to cohort analyses in which there is a historical time dimension. In intergenerational analyses with the lineage focus, the emphasis is on individuals, the products of socialization. and the transmission of "private culture" within families.

To summarize and clarify these conceptions of generation, and to highlight the problem's attendant in the study of age strata, Figure 1 has been included. This particular figure is from a paper by Hill (1974) patterned after a similar figure in Riley et al (1972). Hill's figure appears here because it depicts three actual marital cohorts which will later be described in this paper. Each of the three cohorts represented is composed of couples married at approximately the same time. Riley (1973) points out that it is fundamental to understand that two basic processes occur simultaneously. First, within each cohort people age and individual marriages pass through various stages along their developmental courses. Second, new cohorts are continually formed as changes in the macro social structure occur as represented by the historical events along the time line. When family researchers take a cross sectional slice through such a layered age structure, the married couples in their sample differ in regard to both the stage of the family life cycle which they are at, and the marital cohorts to which they belong. As a consequence, differences which are observed between generations reflect a combination of marital career differences and cohort differences. Having briefly mentioned several key issues in the study of intergenerational phenomena, consumption-related data from several multi-generational analyses will now be presented. (For more in-depth treatments of these and related methodological issues, the reader is referred to excellent articles by Clausen, 1972; Riley, 1973; and Riley et al., 1972.)




An impressive study of consumership across several generations is reported in detail by Hill and collaborators in Family Development in Three Generations (1970). Only a few summary statements can be presented here from the vast pool of intergenerational data available in the monograph. (See Hill, 1965,for a condensed account of this research.) Briefly, the sample consisted of 312 intact families linked through three generations living within the metropolitan area of the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul. The data were obtained in four panel interviews scheduled over a twelve-month period covering the decisions undertaken in seven areas: residential location, remodeling, redecorating, acquisition of automobile and durable goods, changes in financial investments and insurances and job changes.

In comparing the three generations it was no surprise to find educational and occupational upgrading from oldest to youngest generation. However, by comparing the percentage of each generation within lineages which were similar regarding various values, attitudes, and behavior, analyses were conducted to see to what extent there was intergenerational continuity or transmission. Religion was one heritage which appeared to be transmitted without marked change from generation to generation; the predominant pattern was stability within lineages, especially among wives of the married child generation where 80 per cent remained stable. In comparing broad value orientations between generations within the same family lines, the overall impression was one of similarity. To quote Hill (1970,44), "There appears to be high transmission of value orientations from generation to generation." Data on residential location suggested that "there is a strong tendency for neighborhood grades to be the same from generation to generation; that is, married child, parent and grandparent units will be living in similar type neighborhoods" (Hill, 1970: 31). By contrast, differences within family lineages were most apparent regarding conceptions about "proper" parent and child behavior. The shift to developmentalism was greatest from grandparents to parents, and persisted to the third generation. This pattern of greater differences between the two older generations is in line with the educational and occupational differences observed.

Looking more specifically at the decision process in consumership, Hill conceptualized the consumption cycle in four major phases: (1) the identification of unmet needs in the form of plans; (2) the process of choosing the best course of action, (3) an action of purchase or consumption; and (4) an evaluation of the action as satisfying or dissatisfying. The findings relative to phases one and three clearly showed how the generations differed in both the number of plans and actions taken during the year of study. (See Table 6.6 in Hill, 1965, and Chapter 9 in Hill, 1970.) The child generation was by far the most active, making more plans and taking more actions in the consumption areas enumerated, with the grandparent generation making fewest plans and taking fewest actions, and with the parent generation located between the oldest and youngest generations. However, plan fulfillment analyses revealed that the grandparent generation fulfilled the highest proportion of its less frequent plans. (See Table 6.8 in Hill, 1965.)

In phase two (the choice making process) a measure of rationality was devised based on the family's attempts to maximize information inputs before making a consumption choice. Examples of the criteria used were the extent of collection of information from family members, seeking alternatives, following a family policy, and seeking information from experts outside the family. The younger the generation, the higher the rationality tended to be. (See Chart 9.02 in Hill, 1970,205.)

At the evaluation phase satisfaction with outcomes was unexpectedly lower in the youngest generation, and yet this might have reflected a greater tendency to justify past actions among the older generations. Almost paradoxically, within each generation those who made the most plans, had the highest ratio of plan fulfillment, and preplanned most of their consumer actions, tended to be least satisfied with the outcomes. Only the rationality of the decision process turned out as expected to be highly predictive (r = .74) of satisfaction with the consumption process and outcome. (See Chapter 10 in Hill, 1970.)

Perhaps the most salient evidence available for looking at the lineage transmission of patterns of consumership is Hill's data showing the number of plans which were fulfilled in combination with the number of actions taken which were preplanned. This composite consumership variable was used for a key analysis to determine the extent to which there was intergenerational continuity in consumer behavior. Operationally defined, similarity in the type of consumership for all three generations of the same family line constituted high continuity; similarity between any two generations of the same family line constituted moderate continuity, and no similarity among the generations was taken to indicate discontinuity.

Table 1 is presented to show the patterns of intergenerational continuity in the ratio of plans fulfilled and percentage of actions preplanned. The table reveals that low consumership (low plans fulfilled and low actions pre-planned) is more likely to persist over three generations than any other behavior pattern. Nine of the fifteen families in three generation lines who had similar consumership behavior were of this indiscriminate planning, impulsive acting-without-planning type. High consumership is transmitted, however, since 34 of 59 (62.5 per cent) high consumership families were alike over two or more generations. These data present the most convincing evidence available that important consumer behaviors, particularly at the impulsive end of the scale, are transmitted intergenerationally.



A related bit of evidence can be drawn from a game-simulation called SIMCAR (standing for SIMulation of CAReer patterns) which has been developed at the University of Minnesota for studying family interaction under laboratory conditions (Tallman et al., 1974). It is essentially a simplified model of career and consumption choices which typically are made by and for children in late adolescence and early adulthood. SIMCAR is constructed on the basis of an economic consumption model so that the most points are earned by players if they choose alternatives which maximize financial return. Indeed, points earned are redeemable for real money at the end of the game. Doing well in the game implicitly emphasizes deferred gratification and occupational-career orientations. Players are given play money and tokens representing time, and they are allowed to invest as much of each as they wish in consumption, religious, marital, educational, and occupational choices.

There are two halves in the simulation-game; in the first half parents play the game with the child, and in the second half the child plays the game alone. The experimental manipulation is the creation of a success or failure condition in the family game by means of unplanned event cards which are interjected into the game as a normal feature. What the families do not know is that "success" or "failure" conditions are created by stacking the cards for or against them in such a way that the unplanned event cards either impede or facilitate their success at the game. Consequently, the child's game which is played alone can be influenced by the family failure or success in the previous game.

One fascinating finding is that boys (in Minneapolis and from villages and a city in Mexico) who experienced the failure conditions with their families scored much lower in the second round than those who had experienced the success condition (Tallman and Wilson, 1974)- It would be even more impressive if the failure and success conditions produced lower and higher scores respectively than the control or neutral condition. Nevertheless, the findings suggest that, over the short term at least, boys who experienced "failure" with their parents while engaged in a simulation of adolescent consumption and career choices were influenced to follow a less economically rational route when going through the simulation a second time alone. If this effect could be shown to be long lasting and persistent, it would seem to imply that real-life consumption experiences could be influenced by earlier "failures" in the family context. Of course this is the implication of Hill's data showing intergenerational transmission of low consumership.

Elder's (1974) fascinating cohort analysis of the Children of the Great Depression is a repository of rich life course data related to these issues. Members of the panel were born in 1920-21, and with the most recent assessments in the mid-1960's, Elder has constructed a splendid account of the impact of the depression experience on the life courses of these individuals. Trying to extract only a single overall generalization or so is inadequate, but a primary finding seems to be that for both men and women raised in depression-deprived homes, the importance of the family and children is significantly higher than for those from less deprived homes.

We can answer affirmatively to only a few questions posed at the beginning of this paper. There is evidence of intergenerational transmission of various consumer behaviors. Particularly striking is the continuity between generations in syndromes of unfulfilled plans and/or making consumer actions impulsively. However, there are also a great many cohort and-developmental subtleties which make analyses of lineage continuities very complex.

One of the neglected issues is that intergenerational studies which take marriages or families as the unit of analysis really should consider prior generational patterns coming out of two different kin structures - those of both the husband and wife. Each of the marital partners brings with them different family backgrounds and socialization experiences (Hill and Aldous, 1969). This fact probably reduces considerably the lineage transmission of consumer patterns. Since divergent patterns will usually be negotiated and compromised by marital partners, the degree of difference in the lineage backgrounds is likely to significantly affect continuities between vertical generations.

Finally, while it is sensible to consider parental socialization of children into behavior patterns, we should not forget that intergenerational transmission occurs bilaterally -- socialization is reciprocal. How much are parental and marital consumption patterns altered by the presence and characteristics of children? What young adult has not attempted (sometimes successfully) to get his parents to try some new product? It seems inescapable that the further study of the complexities of intergenerational relations will produce answers to interesting and important questions, and provide a more complete picture of why families and consumers behave as they do.


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Riley, M. W., Johnson, M., & Foner, A. Elements in a model of age stratification. In M. W. Riley, M. Johnson, & A. Foner (Eds.), Aging and society III: A sociology of age stratification. New York: Russell Sage, 1972.

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Wolfgast, E. H. Do husbands or wives make the purchasing decisions? Journal of Marketing, 1958, 23, 151-158.



Brent C. Miller, University of Minnesota


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 02 | 1975

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