The demographic time bomb no one is talking about

Mediacom's Kieran Miles sounds the alarm about the fact that, if you sell to young adults, business is about to get rough.
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By Kieran Miles

Millennials. Sigh. Over it.

Yes, after a decade of obsession, our marketer’s eye, ever on the look out for the new, has wandered. Millennials are growing up and our attention has been caught by something new and exciting: Gen Z.

The big clue to this change? It’s impossible to move for marketing blogs detailing this shift in generations. All of our LinkedIn feeds are stuffed with social posts and cute infographics setting Millennials (those born between 1981 and 1996) and Gen Z (1997 to 2012) against each other. Each one is filled with its own searing insight telling us this generation is more progressive, that it prizes authenticity, this generation are dog people, whatever.

Much of it, as deep down we all know, is garbage. There are few truths and insights to be had by drawing broad attitudinal conclusions from the random clustering of people by birth year. Certainly there are no more truths to be had than clustering people by income, education or even a shared passion for ironing.

It’s particularly pointless when, from what I’ve seen, the single biggest, business-affecting, generational difference isn’t being talked about – at least, not with the open-mouthed, “ohmygodthatcan’tbereal” tones that I think we should be using.

It’s this: if you’re in the business of young adults, your audience in Canada over the next 10 to 15 years is going to shrink by 20%.

I’ll type that again to let it sink in: 20%.

Today in Canada, there are 1.5 million more people between the ages of 20 and 34 than there are between 5 and 19.

It’s not a gap that has anything to do with Gen Z or Millennials. The sharpest of you will have noticed those ages are nothing to do with “official” boundaries for the two generations. No, I cherry-picked the data to highlight by the simplest comparison, the starkest gap, the widest chasm, the biggest, scariest, business-destroying, impending generational shift.

This is a genuine demographic time-bomb, and it is not a gap that’s closing. After all, there are no more 10 year olds being born today.

Now, immigration could hopefully close some of that gap. But it’s far from a given. And with an average immigration age of around 28, it’ll only go some way towards addressing this particular situation.

Some of you may be thinking, “the next 15 years, I can wait.” But this is something that can’t be ignored. Every five-year period, for the next 15 years, the Canadian population of young adults will shrink by around half a million people – a 6% decline in population. Every. Five. Years. This change will be felt in the career lifetimes of all of us.

If your business is focused on servicing the needs and wants of Canada’s young adults, now is the time to start serious planning for your business’ future growth.

Imagine your business with 20% fewer potential customers: 20% fewer buyers for your condos, 20% fewer buyers for your takeout, 20% fewer buyers for your clothes, 20% fewer buyers for your drinks.

Where will your business find growth? Maybe you’ll need to pivot, give up the focus on young adults to instead chase that big, older generation. They’ve already started to move to the burbs as they get older and have kids, and that’ll mean rethinking sales distribution and media strategies.

How will you beat competitors to this shrinking pool? You might start with your brand. Ask yourself, how strong is it really? Is it truly distinctive and recognizable, compared to your competitors? This will be a long-term view. How will you stand out? What changes, what steps will you need to take?

Will you need a new product strategy? This isn’t a generation that’ll have to take what they can get. They’ll have the pick of everything – there just won’t be the competition for the condo, the great table in the restaurant.

So how does what you’re selling really stack up? Whatever the answer, it’ll be unique for your business, your products, your brands. But the important thing to recognize is not to wait. To start now and get ahead of the problem.

It’s there, it’s in full view, there’s no point pretending it’s not going to happen. It will hit. The days of feast are over. When it comes to young adults, it’s famine for the next 15 years, at least. This will affect your business, it will affect your consumers, it will affect your career.

The only question remaining is whether the answer is positive or not.

Kieran Miles is SVP, strategy at Mediacom Canada.