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Insight and Opinion: Don't call them "Generation Z"

by John Gillespie
April 15, 2019

John Gillespie is the founder and CEO of Wine Opinions LLC, a leading U.S. wine market research provider.

For more than a decade, wine marketers have fervently sought the hearts and palates of the Millennial generation. Though still focused on Millennials, some wine marketers are beginning to pay attention to the oldest members of a new generation who are now in their early 20s and entering the beverage alcohol market.

Many business writers and marketers outside and inside the wine industry refer to these youngest adults as “Generation Z.” This is a misnomer that does not take into consideration the generational research and work of demographers in weighing the factors that go into generational boundaries and definitions.

Before “Generation X” became a description of the smaller generation following Baby Boomers, demographers referred to them as the “Baby Bust” generation, using the same metrics of rising and falling U.S. birth rates that defined Baby Boomers. The publication of Canadian novelist Doug Coupland’s 1991 best seller, Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture changed that. His enduring portrait of disaffected “20-something” Southern Californians and the name he gave to those who held a disdain for the culture of the generation preceding them quickly took hold.

To Coupland, the “X” in “Generation X” had nothing to do with alphabetical order but referred to an “unknown,” as in mathematics. The term stuck because it perfectly described the demographic cohort and has been accepted by marketers and academics alike.

As Generation X came of age, and a new generation of significantly greater size became a subject of interest to marketers, “Generation Y” was often used to describe them. But this was merely a short-lived “placeholder” that gave way to a truly defining term – Millennial – which aptly describes the first wave of Americans to enter adulthood in the new millennium.

There are no governing bodies or universally accepted methods for defining and naming the generations. But there are two authoritative groups with a long history of tracking and reporting on the subject: the publishers of the American Generations series of reports, and the Pew Research Center.

They are fairly close in their definitions, as can be seen in the chart below. At Wine Opinions, we use the definitions set by the 8th Edition of American Generations to analyze survey data by generation.

While generational comparisons and analysis are useful in consumer research, these broad age segments are not always drivers of behavior. We often analyze behavior and attitudes by gender, “age bands” (20s, 30s, 40s, etc.), region, media usage, and other such demographic or behavioral groupings.

About the generation following Millennials, Pew Research said last March they had set their cutoff birth year for Millennials as 1996. Anyone born from 1997 through 2012, in the view of Pew Research, belongs to a generation they refer to as “Post-Millennials.” Pew believes it is too early to name this youngest generation, and they caution that their Post-Millennial ending birth year is still subject to revision. In American Generations, though, those definitions have been set. Noting that the birth rate in the U.S. stabilized in the mid-1990s, and fell once more in the onset of the Great Recession, the group they call the “iGeneration” is defined by the birth years 1995 through 2009.

San Diego State University Professor Jean M. Twenge, in her book “iGen,” notes that today’s teenagers are the first generation to have spent their entire adolescence in the age of the smartphone and that social media and texting have replaced other activities for them.

At Wine Opinions, we are now getting consumer survey responses from the first wave of iGeneration young adults (ages 21 - 24) and are finding that when they are compared to the very youngest Millennials (25 - 29), there are a few encouraging signs.

For example, we found that wine consumption frequency of the two groups was only slightly higher for Millennials. It appears the iGeneration group is somewhat more reliant than the Millennial group on wine advice from friends or family members, and they also gave a bit more weight to the value of wine scores or ratings when choosing a new wine, compared to Millennials.

In the coming year, we will learn more about the leading-edge iGeneration members as they enter the world of wine. We are now recruiting this age 21 – 24 cohort to our national Wine Opinions consumer panel and look forward to providing insights on their wine preferences, attitudes, behaviors, brand familiarity, media consumption, and other factors of interest to wine marketers through 2019 and beyond. Meanwhile, please call them the “iGeneration,” or “Post-Millennials.” Or wait for the Pew Research Center to offer its alternative.

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