Cohort Generational Influences on Consumer Socialization

ABSTRACT - Consumer researchers have long recognized the pervasive influence that social structural variables have on consumer socialization. However, they have largely ignored the role of history in defining generational distinctions among consumers born in different eras. This paper introduces consumer researchers to the concept of cohort generations, and presents a conceptual model of their role in consumer socialization. To explore this model, the paper profiles five year subsets of two of America's most noteworthy generations, the Baby Boomers born between 1950-1955, and the Baby Busters born between 1965-1970, and offers a set of empirically testable propositions of both direct and indirect socialization effects of their generational membership.


Aric Rindfleisch (1994) ,"Cohort Generational Influences on Consumer Socialization", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 21, eds. Chris T. Allen and Deborah Roedder John, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 470-476.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 21, 1994      Pages 470-476


Aric Rindfleisch, University of Wisconsin-Madison


Consumer researchers have long recognized the pervasive influence that social structural variables have on consumer socialization. However, they have largely ignored the role of history in defining generational distinctions among consumers born in different eras. This paper introduces consumer researchers to the concept of cohort generations, and presents a conceptual model of their role in consumer socialization. To explore this model, the paper profiles five year subsets of two of America's most noteworthy generations, the Baby Boomers born between 1950-1955, and the Baby Busters born between 1965-1970, and offers a set of empirically testable propositions of both direct and indirect socialization effects of their generational membership.

Over the past twenty years, consumer researchers have devoted a considerable amount of effort to gain a better understanding of how people learn to participate effectively as consumers in the marketplace. Consumer socialization researchers have suggested that consumer-related skills, knowledge, attitudes and behavior are both directly and indirectly influenced by a broad range of social structural variables such as social class, race and gender (Moschis 1987; Moschis and Churchill 1978). These variables define the social environment in which consumer learning occurs, and place a consumer within a social unit whose members tend to exhibit relatively homogeneous patterns of consumer behavior (Moschis 1987).

In defining the social setting in which consumer learning takes place, consumer researchers have largely ignored the potential influences that cohort generation membership may have on consumer socialization. A cohort generation is a group of persons born during a limited span of years who share a common and distinct social character shaped by their shared experiences through time (Mannheim 1952; Marias 1970). Unlike family generations, which are based on biological lineages, cohort generations are based on shared historical experiences.

The concept of cohort generations as groups of coevals sharing a unique location in the stream of history has intrigued philosophers and scientists over the past two hundred years, and can be found in the writings of Auguste Comte, John Stuart Mill and Karl Mannheim (Marias 1970). Despite its long history, the cohort generation is a concept that has lingered in intellectual obscurity, and is given only cursory attention by most social scientists. Part of the problem lies in the nature of the concept itself. Most generational writings are multidisciplinary, being employed by political scientists to account for intergenerational shifts in political values (Inglehart 1981), by sociologists to examine patterns of family planning (Hill 1970), by psychologists to understand the impact of historical influences on human development (Schaie et al. 1973), and by marketers to explain beverage consumption trends among consumers of various ages (Rentz and Reynolds 1991; Rentz et al. 1983)

The objective of this paper is to draw attention to this fairly neglected aspect of consumer research by offering both a conceptual framework and a specific set of propositions suggesting how consumer socialization may differ among Americans belonging to different cohort generations. This paper first provides a more detailed elaboration of the important distinctions between family and cohort generations, and introduces a conceptual model of the role of cohort generations in consumer socialization. After laying this conceptual foundation, it then profiles five year subsets of two of America's best known generations, the Baby Boomers and the Baby Busters. Along with these generational profiles, a set of empirically testable propositions suggest how these two generations directly and indirectly impact the consumer socialization of their members. This paper concludes with a discussion of theoretical implications and research design issues to help guide future research.


The terms "cohort" and "generation" are often confused by social scientists, the mass media and the general public (Jaworski and Sauer 1985). Therefore, before developing an explanation of cohort generational influences, it is necessary to first define the terms family generation, cohort generation and cohort.

A family generation is the set of children born to a mother and father. The family generation has traditionally been viewed as a thirty year time period because thirty years is considered the average span between the birth of an individual and the birth of his or her offspring (Strauss and Howe 1991). Consumer skills, knowledge, attitudes and behavior are transmitted between family generations, and family members are influential socialization agents (Moschis 1987). However, family generational influences are limited within the confines of the kinship group and generally have a marginal impact on the socialization of persons outside of the family unit (Jaworski and Sauer 1985).

A cohort generation refers to a group of persons born during a specific span of time who share a unique character created by their common age location in history (Mannheim 1952). The length of a cohort generation has been arbitrarily estimated to range anywhere from 15 to 33 years (Strauss and Howe 1991). Unlike a family generation, which acts as a socialization agent, a cohort generation is a social structural variable akin to social class, race or gender (Mannheim 1952; Ryder 1965). According to Ryder (1965):

As a minimum, the cohort is a structural category with the same kind of analytic utility as a variable like social class. Conceptually the cohort resembles most closely the ethnic group: membership is determined at birth, and often has considerable capacity to explain variance, but need not imply that the category is an organized group (p. 847).

Like these other social structural variables, a cohort generation defines the environment in which consumer socialization occurs and locates a person within a specific social grouping whose members share a distinctive social character (Ryder 1965). For reasons of conceptual parsimony, this paper discusses generational membership in terms of an aggregate of all persons born during a specific time period. However, within each cohort generation important differences in socialization processes and outcomes are likely to exist among consumers differentiated by other critical social structural variables such as sex, race and social class (Mannheim 1952; Riley et al. 1988). In fact, any given generation may contain several distinct "generational units" whose members develop a shared identity by responding in a similar manner to common historical events (Mannheim 1952). For example, during the late 1960s and early 1970s the upper middle class antiwar activist and the working class Vietnam foot soldier represented two separate generational units within the Baby Boom generation.

A cohort is a group of individuals born within the same time interval (Ryder 1965). The key distinction between cohorts and cohort generations lies in the processes used to identify them. Cohorts are arbitrarily specified groups that are usually defined based on data availability considerations. For example, demographers often examine cohorts in ten year intervals based on data from decennial censuses. Cohort generations are cohorts that are defined based on a theory of how individuals at different stages of life are influenced by important historical and social events (Strauss and Howe 1991).

The Status of Cohort Generations in Consumer Research

While a number of consumer researchers have examined the socialization influence of family generations (Moschis 1987), the study of cohort generations has been largely ignored in socialization studies as well as in many other areas of consumer research. Although a few consumer researchers have acknowledged the importance of cohort influences (e.g. Belk 1986, 1985; Holbrook and Schindler 1992; Schaninger and Danko 1993), few systematic explorations of cohort phenomena have appeared in the consumer behavior literature. Rentz and his colleagues have introduced and demonstrated the utility of cohort analysis techniques, but do not discuss the broader issue of cohort generations (Rentz and Reynolds 1991; Rentz et al. 1983; Reynolds and Rentz 1981). Hill and his colleagues (Hill 1980) have conducted an extensive study of the consumption patterns of three family generations (e.g. grandparents, parents and adult children) which provides a number of interesting empirical findings and theoretical implications. Unfortunately, this study also confounds the aforementioned distinction between family and cohort generations. The most extensive conceptual treatment of various cohort-related issues to appear in the consumer behavior literature is Jaworski and Sauer's (1985) review of cohort analysis, cohort adaptation and cohort variation. Although Jaworski and Sauer provide a lucid elaboration of the distinctions between cohorts and (family) generations, their discussion excludes any mention of cohort generations.

Jaworski and Sauer also refer to the scarcity of cohort-related studies, and offer a number of reasons why the cohort perspective has not gained much attention from consumer researchers. Their list of potential limiting factors include the convenience of simply explaining age-related differences as age effects, and the fact that the cohort perspective does not fit in well with the psychological orientation of most consumer researchers. While these issues may be key contributing factors, the biggest blockade to research interest appears to be the abstractness and atheoretical nature of most generational writings. As Strauss and Howe (1991) put it, "The cohort generation has been confined by experts to the shadow world of unproven hypothesis" (p. 440). The paucity of tenable cohort-based theories can be directly attributed to what Mannheim (1952) termed "the problem of generations."

The Problem of Generations

The problem of generations has plagued generation theorists for over a hundred years (Marias 1970). This "problem" refers to the difficulty that generation theorists have had in defining generations and developing this fuzzy concept into a concrete theory (Marias 1970). The problem of generations appears to center around three principle questions: (1) how long is a generation, (2) when does an old generation end and a new one begin, and (3) what sort of impact does a generation have on the socialization of its members? Since any propositions regarding generational influences must be based on answers to these queries, the first two questions are specifically addressed below, and the last question is the central topic addressed in the rest of this paper.

How Long is A Generation? Unlike family generations, whose length can be easily determined by chronological age, cohort generations have an indeterminate length (Mannheim 1952). Various generation theorists have estimated the length of a generation to be anywhere from 15 to 33 years (Strauss and Howe 1991). While few agree on the exact length, most agree that the duration of a cohort generation should be linked to stages of life rather than family genealogy (Marias 1970, Ryder 1965). Strauss and Howe (1991) explain:

Parents give birth to children at widely differing ages, and children intermarry with other families with equally wide birth distributions. Each chain of parent-to-child lineage produces a single thread of family time, but combining millions of such threads produces no single rope of social time (p. 60).

Generation theorists, much like consumer socialization researchers, are proponents of the notion that socialization processes differ among individuals occupying various stages of life (Marias 1970; Moschis 1987; Strauss and Howe 1991). These stages define the key social roles that individuals play as they move through time. Strauss and Howe (1991), for example, specify four phases of life: youth (central role: dependence), rising adulthood (central role: activity), midlife (central role: leadership), and elderhood (central role: stewardship). Since both generation theorists (Mannheim 1952; Marias 1970) and consumer socialization researchers (Moschis 1987; Ward 1974) recognize the critical importance of early life experiences, the propositions advanced in this paper place emphasis on consumer socialization occurring from childhood through early adulthood.

When Do Generations Begin and End? Most generation theorists believe that cohort generations form around traumatic historical events and sweeping social changes such as wars, revolutions or spiritual movements (Mannheim 1952; Marias 1970; Ryder 1965; Strauss and Howe 1991). Since these events affect people quite differently according to their stage of life, they serve as generational dividers and give each generation a distinctive character (Marias 1970; Strauss and Howe 1991). For example, the Vietnam War had a much different type of socialization effect on the cohort of 1950 (many of whom fought in it, demonstrated against it, or tried to avoid it), than it did on the cohort of 1965 (most of whom may only remember glimpses of it on television) (Mills 1987). Although these monumental historical events will affect the socialization of persons at any age, both generation theorists (Mannheim 1952; Ryder 1965) and developmental psychologists (Cavanaugh 1990) suggest that they have their greatest impact on individuals in their formative years (adolescence through early twenties). The theoretical importance of early life experiences is supported by a broad range of empirical research ranging from Schuman and Scott's (1989) finding that adolescence and early adulthood is the primary period for the imprinting of important historical events, to Holbrook and Schindler's (1991) discovery that the development of musical tastes peaks around age 24. Therefore, although consumer socialization is a continuous process, "early socialization seems to carry greater weight than later socialization" (Inglehart 1981, p. 881).


The figure depicts a conceptual model of the impact of cohort generational influences on consumer socialization. This model, which is adapted from a widely accepted general model of consumer socialization (Moschis and Churchill 1978), portrays the process of consumer socialization in terms of its antecedent variables, socialization processes, and outcomes. Since the general model is fully described by Moschis and Churchill (1978), the discussion of this adapted model will focus on, (1) the indirect and direct effects of cohort generations on consumer socialization, and (2) this model's unique separation of life stage and age.



Just like any other social structural variable, cohort generations have both direct and indirect effects on socialization outcomes. These outcomes, or learning effects represent the specific consumer attitudes, behavior, skills and knowledge that individuals acquire via the socialization process (Moschis 1987).

Indirect Effects of Cohort Generations

The indirect effects of cohort generations are mediated via their impact on learner-agent relationships, and include such learning effects as the degree to which a child's requests influence family purchasing decisions, and the propensity to model parental consumption behavior (Moschis 1987). In addition to family generations, other important socialization agents include peers, school and the mass media (Moschis 1987). Generation theorists posit that generational membership plays a key role in defining learner-agent relationships (Strauss and Howe 1991). For example, in 1970, only 10% of all births were to unmarried women, by 1990, this figure rose to 25% (Ahlburg and De Vita 1992). Since the vast majority of these single parent families are headed by women, the consumption patterns of America's youngest generation should exhibit much weaker paternal influences compared to previous generations.

Direct Effects of Cohort Generations

Direct effects of cohort generations on consumer socialization represent unmediated outcomes of generational membership, and include such learning effects as materialism and dysfunctional consumer behavior (Moschis 1987). According to generation theorists, consumer attitudes and behaviors may be influenced by generational membership (Ryder 1965). For example, Baby Boomers may be less materialistic than Baby Busters because they were socialized during an era in which materialism symbolized a form of social oppression (Light 1988).

Cohort Generation Effects on Consumer Life Stage

In contrast to consumer socialization researchers, who treat life stage primarily as a biological variable and largely ignore historical influences (Moschis 1987), generation theorists, developmental psychologists and age sociologists suggest that an individual's life cycle is strongly influenced by both developmental factors (age) and generational membership (Cavanaugh 1990; Riley et al. 1988; Strauss and Howe 1991). Although many aspects of the human life cycle are clearly linked to developmental factors, cohort generations play an important part in defining the social roles that are enacted at various ages. For example, as the American Civil War drew to a close, the Confederate Army conscripted many children in their early teens to bolster their sagging ranks (Strauss and Howe 1991). Undoubtedly, the major roles (soldier, defender and hero) that these children fulfilled were much different than the roles played by the majority of today's adolescents. According to Riley et al. (1988), each cohort generation follows a unique life course pattern and different cohorts "age" in different ways.


The cohort generations selected for study include the two generations commonly known as the post-World War II Baby Boom generation and the succeeding Baby Bust generation. These two generations were selected based on both their familiarity and their significant marketplace presence (Herbig et al. 1993). In order to avoid the problem of generations described earlier, it is necessary to define both the length of each generation and their point of demarcation.

How long are the Baby Boom and Baby Bust generations? The answer to this question is hardly clear-cut. According to demographers, the Baby Boom generation includes those individuals born during the years 1946-1964 (Light 1988; Mills 1987). Throughout this 19 year period, annual births averaged more than four million and the total fertility rate remained over three births per woman in every year except 1946 (Bouvier 1980). These Boomers are immediately followed by a significantly smaller Baby Bust generation, starting in 1965, and ending in the early 1980s. During this period, the total fertility rate dropped to less than two births per woman, and annual births averaged only three and a half million (Bouvier 1980). Since these guidelines are based on a demographic measure (fertility) rather than historical events, they are useful in defining cohorts, but not generations (Howe and Strauss 1993).

The cohort generation perspective on this issue is represented by Strauss and Howe (1991), who posit that the Baby Boom generation includes persons born between 1943 and 1960, while the Baby Bust generation includes those born between 1961 and 1981. These dates are based on extensive historical analysis, which links the separation of these two generations to the traumatic social events and changing values and norms during the late 1960s and early 1970s (Yankelovich 1981).

Ultimately, the exact dates of either generation is an empirical issue that is yet unresolved. Therefore, in order to avoid the danger of over-generalization, this paper offers profiles and propositions directed towards the Boomers born between 1950 and 1955, and the Busters born between 1965 and 1970. Hopefully, these attenuated five year subgroups will enhance the predictive validity of these propositions by minimizing the variance within each generation while maximizing the variance between generations.

In searching for a dividing line between these two generations, all signs point to America's "Consciousness Revolution" of the late 1960s and early 1970s (Howe and Strauss 1993; Light 1988). Traumatic historical events during this period include the heaviest fighting of the Vietnam War, massive student demonstrations and protests, the Apollo space missions, rapid expansion of the civil rights and feminist movements, the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy, and Woodstock (World Almanac 1991). During this period, America was redefining its attitudes towards women, minorities, sex, education, government and almost every other facet of social life (Gottlieb 1987). Gottlieb (1987) refers to this period as experiencing, "the disintegration of a culture" (p. 38). During the late 1960s and early 1970s, the Boomers were adolescents and young adults who witnessed or participated in many of these events, while the Busters were children or yet unborn with little or no memory of this period. Hence, these two generational subgroups clearly represent two points lying on different sides of this monumental social divide.

Since any attempt to profile a social unit as large and diverse as a generation within the confines of a few pages is likely to be shallow and incomplete at best, the following profiles and propositions represent only a brief outline of a few indirect and direct generational influences that are likely to have important effects on the learning outcomes of consumer socialization.

Indirect Influences: Profiles and Propositions

Family/Peer Influences. Perhaps the sharpest distinction between these two generations lies in their childhood and early family experiences. The 1950-1955 Baby Boom cohort members were born and spent most of their childhood during what Light (1988) refers to as, "a period of profoundly pro-child social values" (p. 24). Many Baby Boomers were nurtured in the traditional American two-parent family in which dad was the breadwinner and mom was the homemaker (Ahlburg and De Vita 1992). Only 2% of all Boomers attended institutional child care, and as of 1960, less than 23% of all children lived with one divorced parent (World Almanac 1991).

In contrast, the Baby Busters born between 1965 and 1970 were much more likely to be brought up in a non-traditional household. America's divorce rate doubled between 1965 and 1975 (Howe and Strauss 1993), and as of 1980, 42% of all children lived with one divorced parent (World Almanac 1991). In conjunction with this increasing divorce rate, a growing number of women sought work outside of the home, and by the mid 1970s, the dual worker family replaced the traditional breadwinner/homemaker as America's dominant family model (Ahlburg and De Vita 1992). The Busters became America's first "latchkey" children, and had to learn to fend for themselves during the "Me Decade" of the 1970s (Herbig et al. 1993; Howe and Strauss 1993). All of these factors point to a generation faced with a confusing mix of parental consumption role models and a much lower degree of parental guidance in consumption matters compared to Boomers. Therefore,

P1: Baby Busters are less likely than Baby Boomers to model themselves after parental consumption patterns.

Faced with absentee fathers, working mothers and an adult-oriented society, many Baby Busters turned to their peers for increased guidance and dependence (Gross and Scott 1990). This shifting of socialization influence is in line with the generational supposition that a decline in family-based influence is compensated for by other socialization agents such as school or peers (Ryder 1965). In addition, consumer socialization researchers such as Moschis (1987) suggest that peer and family influences are negatively related, and that peer influence is greater among persons who have received little parental attention. Hence,

P2: Baby Busters are more likely than Baby Boomers to model themselves after peer consumption patterns.

Mass Media Influences. According to Moschis (1987), social structural variables influence the effects of mass media on consumer socialization. Although the Boomers are America's first television generation, it is the Busters who perfected television watching into an artform, and to whom the television was a surrogate for absentee parents (Gross and Scott 1990). While many Boomers spent relatively little time watching television during their early childhood, it is estimated that the average Buster spent close to 5,000 hours in front of the television before reaching the age of five (Howe and Strauss 1993). According to one survey, Baby Busters spent more time watching television than interacting with their parents (Gross and Scott 1990). Furthermore, the reduction in parental guidance suggests that television images and messages were able to exert a direct influence on many young Busters with little adult intervention. In addition to watching more television compared to Boomers, Busters also saw a higher percentage of commercials as the number of network advertisements increased 119% between 1967 and 1981 (Light 1988). Although increased exposure could possibly lead to greater cynicism toward advertising, many contemporary advertising critics believe that advertising's pervasive, repetitive and professionally crafted seductions lull consumers into an "intellectual submission (that) seems almost inescapable" (Pollay 1986, p. 26). Thus,

P3: Baby Busters are more likely than Baby Boomers to use television advertisements in making consumption decisions.

In conjunction with watching more television, Busters spent less time reading than their Boomer counterparts (Howe and Strauss 1993). This decline in reading is symptomatic of the larger educational malaise that afflicted many Busters. Uncompetitive teacher salaries, unsuccessful school reforms and declining educational standards resulted in an inferior education for many Baby Busters. Evidence of the decline in Buster academic achievement is well-documented (Howe and Strauss 1993). For example, the mean SAT scores for the high school class of 1968 was over 950, while mean scores for the class of 1983 dipped below 900 (Howe and Strauss 1993). The combination of increased television viewing and declining educational attainment suggests that Busters are less attuned to print media compared to their Boomer counterparts. Therefore,

P4: Baby Busters are less likely than Baby Boomers to use print advertisements in making consumption decisions.

Direct Influences: Profiles and Propositions

Materialism. Materialism is defined as, "The importance a consumer attaches to worldly possessions" (Belk 1985, p. 265). Compared to Baby Boomers, the Baby Bust generation appears to be much more pragmatic, pro-business and materialistic (Herbig et al. 1993; Light 1988). Pollay (1986) suggests that one of the cultural consequences of modern advertising is the deification and reinforcement of a materialistic lifestyle. Considering the vast number of consumption-oriented messages that Busters have been exposed to during their formative years, it is not surprising that they are often characterized as, "very acquisition minded and conditioned to expect instant gratification in every aspect of their lives" (Herbig et al. 1993). According to UCLA's annual survey of American college freshman, Busters are noticeably more materialistic compared to their Boomer predecessors:

In the clearest split between the 1960s and the 1980s, students of today are much more concerned with making money than with developing a meaningful philosophy of life. The number who place money as their top priority has grown 30% over the past two decades, while the search for meaning has dropped 40 percent (Light 1988, p. 31).

Howe and Strauss (1993) suggest that this distinct generational split in materialistic attitudes can be linked to the economic conditions of each generation's childhood. While the Boomers of 1950-1955 were born into and raised during a time of economic abundance which allowed them to think about such lofty motives as tolerance and free expression, the Busters of 1965-1970 were raised during a time of oil crises, stagflation and recession (Herbig et al. 1993). Unlike many young Boomers coming-of-age in the late 1960s, who rejected materialism and saw it as the basis for social oppression, the Buster experience is quite the opposite. Furthermore, for many Busters the dramatic fall of communism in the late 1980s may have reinforced the value of capitalism and a materialistic lifestyle. Hence,

P5: Baby Busters are more materialistic than Baby Boomers.

Dysfunctional Consumption Behaviors. Dysfunctional consumer behavior refers to consumption behavior that result in negative outcomes to the consumer, to others or to society. Examples of dysfunctional consumer behavior include shoplifting and compulsive consumption (Hirschman 1992; Moschis 1987). The combination of decreased parental contact, lower educational attainment, increased television viewing and higher materialistic attitudes paints a rather negative picture of the Baby Bust generation. According to Howe and Strauss (1993), Baby Busters are the most incarcerated generation in American history and carry many of their early pathologies of neglect with them. It is estimated that one out of every seven Busters will contemplate suicide and that one in 40 will attempt it (Herbig et al. 1993).

Compared to the Boomers of 1950-1955, the Busters of 1965-1970 face lower real incomes, occupy lower-skilled jobs, and have a lower chance of ever owning a home (Gross and Scott 1990). According to consumer socialization research, persons with lower educational attainment, children from disadvantaged socioeconomic backgrounds and males raised in fatherless families are more likely to engage in dysfunctional consumer behavior (Moschis 1987). Furthermore, consumers with addictive-compulsive personalities are often raised in broken families, exhibit a high degree of impulsiveness, and have a strong need for immediate gratifications (Hirschman 1992). Therefore,

P6: Baby Busters are more likely than Baby Boomers to engage in dysfunctional consumer behavior.


Theoretical Implications

The concept of cohort generations holds a number of important theoretical implications for consumer researchers. First of all, since cohort generations are defined by historical events, the concept forces researchers to adopt a longer-term perspective, and to consider the role of history in shaping consumer behavior. All too often, consumer researchers may be guilty of what Riley et al. (1988) labels the "life-course fallacy." This fallacy refers to research that overlooks the possibility that cross-sectional studies among persons of various ages may contain variance due to differences in both age and cohort generational membership (Riley et al. 1988). This life course fallacy may be one reason why consumer researchers have been unable to develop a consumer/family life cycle model that holds up over time (Schaninger and Danko 1993). Most life cycles are developed using cross sectional data of consumers of different ages at a specific point in time. This type of data confounds age, period and cohort effects, and results in a life cycle that no one has ever lived (Ryder 1965). Therefore, any life cycle model should account for generational differences in consumer roles. Cohort generational differences may also provide new insights into other age-related areas such as adolescent and elderly consumer research.

As discussed throughout this paper, cohort generations present a new conceptual variable that may help researchers gain a better understanding of consumer socialization processes and outcomes. Like most social structural variables, cohort generations will most likely account for only part of the variance in any particular study. However, this does not reduce their importance in consumer behavior. As a minimum, researchers conducting studies among persons of widely different ages should at least control for the possibility of generational influences, because failing to do so may lead to false conclusions (see Rentz and Reynolds 1991 for an example).

Cohort generations also force researchers to question the way the world is defined for them. The terms Baby Boom and Baby Bust are frequently employed by the mass media, social scientists and the general public. However, as shown earlier, the dates associated with these generations are defined by demographic measures that have little direct linkage to historical events. In fact, many persons born in the early 1960s feel more like Busters than Boomers (Gross and Scott 1990). The generational perspective allows researchers to think about cohort generations in a more analytical and critical manner.

Research Design Issues

This paper's propositions offer researchers a starting point for further exploration of this intriguing concept. Unfortunately, as with most any cohort-based investigation, these six propositions could be explained in terms of either historical (cohort generation) or developmental (age) effects. For example, empirical support for P1 could be explained as either evidence for a generational shift in parental modelling or a general tendency for young adults to rebel against parental influence. Since it is widely recognized that simple cross-sectional designs do not allow researchers to untangle these two intertwined effects, many researchers advocate the use of longitudinal, mixed, or sequential designs (Cavanaugh 1990; Schaie et al. 1973). Unfortunately, even these more "advanced" designs are severely limited by a number of practical (e.g. a large investment in time and energy) and methodological (e.g. linear dependency between age, cohort and period effects) issues (Cavanaugh 1990; Glenn 1976; Riley et al. 1988; Rodgers 1982).

Since traditional research designs have been found lacking, a few researchers have begun to look for alternative means of exploring generational phenomena (Cavanaugh 1990; Riley et al. 1988). Many of these alternative techniques such as naturalistic inquiry and historical analysis are also gaining increased acceptance among consumer researchers. A less well known but quite promising alternative methodology is to simply replace chronological age with direct measures-of the theoretical variables it indirectly represents (Riley et al. 1988; Rodgers 1982). For example, in their study of alumni values ten years after college, Hoge and Hoge (1984) specify age effects as an indirect indicant of both occupational and family-related influences. This innovative technique is based on a well accepted premise among age researchers that chronological age is little more than an index of an individual's level of biological, psychological and social development (Bengtson and Lovejoy 1973; Cavanaugh 1990), According to Bengtson and Lovejoy (1973):

It is obvious that years since birthdate is only a rough indicator of what age really means - the culmination of events (biological, psychological, and social) as they have impinged on an individual's life (p. 891).

The substitution of chronological age for more direct measures has been successfully employed in a number of empirical studies by both developmental psychologists and generation researchers (Riley et al. 1988; Rodgers 1982). Since biological age differences between twenty five (e.g. Busters) and forty year olds (e.g. Boomers) are believed to be relatively minimal (Cavanaugh 1990), a direct measure which focuses on psychological and/or social age, such as the one offered by Bengtson and Lovejoy (1973), presents a viable and innovative means of exploring these propositions by allowing researchers to more precisely assess cohort generational influences by removing the variance due to developmental effects. Currently, this technique appears to represent the most appropriate solution to the problem of generations that has plagued researchers over the past hundred years (Riley et al. 1988).


Cohort generations represent a potentially important but largely neglected social structural variable which may directly and indirectly influence consumer attitudes, behavior, skills and knowledge. Any cohort generation research effort must answer three primary questions: (1) how long is a generation, (2) when does an old generation end and a new one begin, and (3) what sort of impact does a generation have on the socialization of its members? This paper's brief generational profiles and propositions are a modest attempt to answer these questions and stimulate future cohort generation research. The concept of cohort generations presents researchers with a unique and fresh perspective of the impact of historical events and social change upon consumers born in different eras.


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Aric Rindfleisch, University of Wisconsin-Madison


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 21 | 1994

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