Yet understanding consumers today takes an increasingly discerning eye. Even objective numbers can be misleading. For instance, Americans are older today than they were 20 years ago--not just individually but as a group. In 1977, the median age of the population was 29.2 years. Today, it's 34.8. Last year, the oldest of the baby boomers turned 50. Americans don't simply feel older; they are older.
But don't expect a run on lavender hair dye and orthopedic shoes. If contemporary consumers dislike being viewed according to stereotypes, they also refuse to conform to predefined roles.
"The baby boomers have always seen themselves as the youth generation, and they still do, even though they're no longer chronologically young," says Langer. "People used to say `I'm 50. I'm middle-aged now, and I should act middle-aged.' They don't feel that way anymore. People are climbing mountains in their 50s. Look at Tina Turner with those great legs. Now people say `If I don't feel old, I'm not.' "
As a result, says Langer, "you see much more generational bonding today. A great example of this is the [clothing retailer] Gap. It was named for the generation gap--a place that kids loved and parents wouldn't be caught dead in. Now it's more like a generation bridge: Kids and adults both love shopping there."
Again, the message for entrepreneurs is to transcend stereotypes. Market niches are not what they once seemed. Consider the case of Generation X. For starters, says Janine Lopiano-Misdom, co-founder of Sputnik Inc., a New York City marketing firm that specializes in the 16-to-29-year-old segment, they don't identify themselves as "Generation X." They are not slackers. And they don't watch MTV.
"This generation has been so misunderstood and misrepresented in the media," says Lopiano-Misdom. Like the whole of American society in 1997, today's young adults aren't signing on to the usual groupthink. "Twenty years ago, everybody wanted to belong to something," says Lopiano-Misdom. "Now everyone's an individual."