Key differentiators, similarities among the generations
Jaclyn Marks
October 17, 2018

Consumers are changing and engaging with food in new ways. The population demographics in the US are shifting dramatically from one generation to the next, and compounded by rapid developments in technology, the food experience is becoming more nuanced and individualized. Uncover some key differentiators and similarities among generations when it comes to food based on findings highlighted in Datassential’s four Generations of Change Keynote Reports.

For starters, though, let’s make sure we have our definitions clear.

Just who are the generations?

  • Some of Gen Z is still in school, while others are just entering the workforce, but all are digital natives. Overall, they’re an ethnically diverse and socially conscious group known to want more from the food they eat.
  • Millennials are the largest generation, representing 75 million consumers and 25% of the total US population. They’re currently going through different life stages (though all are adults and 48% have kids), making their wants no longer “one size fits all.”
  • Gen X has reached its peak income-earning years and spends the most on food of any generation. They tend to lean towards authentic yet comfortable foods.
  • Some boomers are now old enough to retire, but many are delaying retirement. They have the most spending power of any generation and generally desire a balance between tasty and healthful foods.

What are they mutually interested in?

While animal proteins aren’t going to be eradicated any time soon (comfort foods like burgers and meat-topped pizzas are still fan-favorites across generations), it’s important to recognize that plant-forward eating is a blossoming trend among all generations. Nearly one-third of Gen Z and over a quarter of millennials are limiting meat consumption, and millennials are twice as likely to be vegan compared to the general population. Although being vegan, vegetarian or pescatarian is rarer among Gen X, one in five considers themselves flexitarian and limits meat intake. Boomers are also more likely to consider themselves flexitarians than to follow a completely meat-free diet. However, since taste remains a top want across generations, it’s vital that when offering plant-forward dishes they still burst with flavor and are filling.

What are some key differences?

The desire for premium food and beverage options, whether at grocery stores or restaurants, varies among generations. In general, Gen Z consumers aren’t willing to pay more for premium attributes like all-natural or organic. They may simply not have the income to pay more, or they might have grown up with these attributes as a “given,” making them feel like they don’t merit a premium price. Unlike Gen Z, millennials and Gen X are willing to pay more for premium attributes, including organic and all-natural offerings. Boomers, on the other hand, are more likely than the overall population to buy items with premium attributes, but don’t want to pay more for them.

When it comes to technology-driven ordering systems (think self-service kiosks or tablets), some generations more readily embrace them than others. Though Gen Z favors personal service at restaurants, they are far more open than the general population to placing orders through a kiosk or tablet, which might signal a future shift towards increased use of technology as this generation ages and dines out more frequently. Millennials are also open to automation (one-third would prefer to place orders with a tablet/kiosk rather than a person), but are more likely to want servers at restaurants. Gen X, however, is much less open to tech-forward ways of ordering – 83% want human servers. That strong preference for human servers may be due to a desire for a more personal touch, perceived ease of placing personalized orders, or because they want to be able to ask questions. Boomers go a step further than Gen X when it comes to the various ordering technologies – they are almost completely averse to placing orders with a kiosk or tablet. They care more about service than the overall population, and likely haven’t had as many encounters with ordering technology since they eat at full-service restaurants more often. When it comes to understanding how kiosks and tablets operate and can improve the service experience by speeding up the process, increasing order accuracy, allowing for greater customization, and more, Boomers tend to need more guidance than other generations. Overall, ordering technologies like kiosks and tablets should be approached cautiously and with a deep understanding of the target market. Having flexibility when it comes to placing orders, such as keeping human servers on staff but also offering the option to use tablets or kiosks, could help operators appeal to a broader consumer base.

Jaclyn Marks is a publications specialist at Datassential, a supplier of trends, analysis and concept testing for the food industry. To purchase either just one or all four of the Generations of Change Keynote Reports, contact Datassential managing director Brian Darr at brian.darr@datassential.com.

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