Jan 31 Generation (C)X

Like many, the turn of the calendar is a reflective time for me. The past year has provided much to ponder in our world. This year, some of my reflection has been related to generational differences which in itself is neither new nor noteworthy.

I’m not really sure why this has been on my mind. Perhaps it is related to the fact that as a “Gen-Xer”, I am sandwiched between the “Boomers” (77 million) and “Millennials” (83 million), two generations that receive considerable attention given their market size. The relatively small size (65 million) of my generation results in a mild case of an inferiority complex.

Pew and others have done considerable research on generational differences and while it is quite fascinating and important to understand, it is not the focus of this blog post.

My mild case of generational inferiority is however the inspiration. I wondered how this translates to my generation’s identity in business and more specifically if there were any areas where we could and should excel compared to our highly marketable generational neighbors. I turned to where we all turn in today’s world, technology. More specifically, how the generation in which you are born naturally impacts your (dis) comfort with technology and how it applies to the way we approach market opportunities, and more specifically, how we leverage the technology to create experiences for customers.

Boomers grew up in a time where the country was being built up after WWII and that meant physical spaces, infrastructure, places to visit and experiencing a product and/or service. Boomers are part of arguably the most influential year (1962) in the history of retail when Walmart, Target, Kmart, Kohls, Crate&Barrell and over 20 other brands were started. They saw those brands open thousands of stores over the next half century. This era revolutionized retail: the variety of products, the level of convenience, the fierceness of competition and the way in which people shopped … until e-Commerce.

It is widely believed that the first secure retail transaction over the Web was either by NetMarket or Internet Shopping Network in 1994. Immediately after, Amazon.com launched its online shopping site in 1995. eBay was also introduced in 1995. While the millennial generation has some variation on the range, the advent of e-Commerce falls in their generation. These digital natives do not understand commerce pre-“e”. Heck, most of them don’t realize that there was a time you were not able to buy anything you wanted from the palm of your hand. They are hard-wired to expect immediacy and convenience, fueled by unprecedented technical innovation.

My reflection on this reality was not helping assuage my inferiority complex. Not only did my generation lack attractive size, we were caught between these two transformational periods of commerce. Sure, “we” (Gen-X’ers) were prominent in the creation of online commerce, but many of us were slow to adopt it … applying our signature angst-fueled dose of skepticism to its potential.

What, then, is our identity? What, in the name of John Hughes, is our purpose? What can we Gen-X’ers claim as a unique and meaningful point of differentiation when it comes to our impact in the world of commerce?

Allow me to suggest that we have the ability to be the CX* generation. A generation that understands the value of physical spaces, of human-to-human experiences, of being able to see/smell/hear/taste/feel products. We appreciate the empathetic ear of an associate, the thoughtful suggestion of solutions, the rush of impulsively throwing something in our cart. We also realize that sometimes, while at your kid’s soccer match, you remember that you need some paper towels and can order it within one minute and have it delivered within one days … for free. We marvel at the breadth of products online, respect the recommendations of complete strangers and sometimes even appreciate the fact that we don’t need (or want to) interact with other human beings.

Unlike our generational neighbors, we have grown up with an understanding and appreciation of both forms of commerce. Both types of experiences. The physical and the digital. We are also familiar with the complexities of both.

We respect the labor and precision of well-stocked shelves. What it takes to make it happen, the effort to keep them looking good, the psychology of a properly placed promotion or well curated endcap. We marvel at the painstaking effort to train a workforce for consistent operations.

We are not intimidated by the technology behind the digital age. The sophistication of search, the analysis and (sometimes artificial) intelligence of algorithms that serve up recommendations and determine how to fulfill an order in 48 hours from a person ordering a product in Alaska, from a website based in San Francisco, on a server hosted in New Jersey, shipped from a fulfillment center in Tennessee. We (generally) understand why the new generation of employees expect unique perks (beer on tap, anyone?) and can even make a business case for something called a sleep pod.

We, as a generation, have the opportunity to be the connective tissue between the experiences. To take the best of both and knit it together on behalf of the customer. To build experiences to meet her when and where she wants and deliver him seamless services in whatever channel he wants. We can appreciate and honor how each has been revolutionary.

We, as a generation, can understand the value of each and meld them together to ensure the future brings the best of both together.

We, as a generation, can be the (C)X generation.

*CX (customer experience, which I am using to universally cover the multitude of terms including consumer experience, multi-channel, omni-channel, user experience, etc.)