Does it Make Sense to Talk About “Baby Boomers” in China?

As I mentioned in a previous post, I am working with some US colleagues on a proposal for a panel session on Boomers, for the October 2009 BlogWorld & New Media Expo.

I’m also working with colleagues in China on projects to do with marketing to people there. I’m conscious all the time of the need to consider the cultural and historical contexts of research findings and strategic advice.

The use of the term “Baby Boomers” or “Boomers” for short, is an example.

In a presentation a couple of days ago, via Skype video, as part of one day seminar in Guangzhou, China, I spent some of the time on a subject for which (as with many issues, especially about social media in China) I have more questions than answers. The point I was making, as illustrated in the slide presentation, was that anyone reading research reports from USA/the West needs to be aware of certain demographic and cultural assumptions that might not map easily or at all to the China context.

I gave the example of the Baby Boomer classification and how the life experience and market activity of US Boomers as a group were quite different from those of their age equivalents in China.

Ford Mustang 2965I am not a sociologist, or a demographer or a sinologist, although I do have some academic qualifications in history: from all I have read and observed over the years about the Baby Boomer generation (or generations, as in Older Boomers and Younger Boomers) in the West, and from what I know of China’s history and the harsh lives many of that age generation have had in China, I am of the view that the term is quite misleading as a guide, for example, to any company wanting to market to that age group in China.

And having looked at this issue for a few weeks now, off and on, and presented my comments the other day to a group which included some very knowledgeable people in China, none of whom challenged what I was saying in that part of the presentation, I was pleased to discover today an indication that others may have similar or related thoughts to mine. That indication came in the form of a link to a January report by Forrester Research.

Forrester Report on Social Media in China

When Forrester Senior Analyst Steven Noble mentioned in a video interview I did with him in February that “40% of online adults in metropolitan China are content creators, publishing regularly” I thought that was a rather impressive statistic. I thought it was even more impressive when I checked later and found that Forrester’s figure in 2008 for that “creator” category, based at least largely on US statistics, was only 18%.

I hadn’t realized at the time that late in January Forrester had released the report by Steven, with colleagues, Chinese Social Technographics® Revealed: Forty Percent Of Online Adults In Metro China Are Content Creators.

On the Forrester site there is just a one paragraph “Executive Summary” teaser (the full report is available for US$749), but Adam Schokora has a helpful blog post about the report (hat tip to Sam Flemming of CiC for the link).  Adam summarizes the report’s findings, in a not-news-for-China-Internet-watchers note, as follows:

1) social media in China is mainstream,

2) content creation among Chinese netizens is more common than in the West,

3) BBS discussion forums trump social networks in China, and

4) Chinese social media users have higher incomes, education, and consumption levels, compared to non-users

By the way, Adam Schokora helpfully lists the cities covered, for the purposes of the Forrester report, by the term “metropolitan” China as: Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Chengdu, Wuhan, and Xian. So we are talking metropolitan mainland China, it seems.

Adam also helpfully provides some of the statistics from the report, using Forrester’s graphs including the Social Technographic “ladder”.

I noticed instantly that the graphical displays used the terms “Older Boomers” and “Younger Boomers”, as well as the terms Gen Y, Gen X and Seniors.


Then, while checking back to the Forrester site, I noticed a link to a note of a March update to the report. The update reads:

In this analysis we inadvertently published inadequate, Western demographic definitions, such as Gen X, which have no sociological relevance in China. To avoid confusion and cultural-specificity, we think there is merit in dropping labels like Generation Y from any Asia-focused reports and using 18- to 28-year-olds instead.

Doesn’t say anything about whether Forrester has also considered dropping the “Boomer” categories for China reports. Or is there a valid argument for using that terminology in the China context? “Boomers with Chinese characteristics”, anyone?

Hopefully someone can shed some more light on this.

Credits: Picture of American “Boomer” car – Ford Mustang 1965 by digicla – Creative Commons license

Des Walsh

Business coach and digital entrepreneur. With coach training from Coachville.com and its Graduate School of Coaching, and a founding member of the International Association of Coaching, Des has been coaching business owners and entrepreneurs for the past 20 years. Over the same period he has also been actively engaged in promoting the business opportunities of the digital economy. He is a certified Neurolinguistic Programming (NLP) coach, and a certified specialist in social media strategy and affiliate marketing.

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  1. Hi Des, we removed all western generation names, including “baby boomers”. The analysis and conclusions are unchanged, but we’ve removed the western generation names from each age bracket.

  2. Excellent reminder that it is not wise to impose our value judgements on another culture.

    This is a reminder too, that I need to learn how the Chinese market to themselves. How do they identify and target market segments?

  3. Carlos
    I’ve been having a conversation offline about these questions and expect to have a very interesting and informative session on the topic, soon on China Conversation, the program I co-host on BlogTalk Radio – Mondays 5.30pm California time.

  4. The content generated in China is overwhelmingly by younger people and most of it is related to games/socialising. I echo the sentiments that applying Western demographic definitions is dangerous and unproductive. There way to reach online audience in China goes through local marketing agencies that know their way around the BBS, Chat rooms, Chinese search engines and portals as well as the new breed of video sharing and social networking sites. Saying that, most monetizing right now is virtual money.

    1. Thanks Roy
      One of the questions I find tantalizing in this whole discussion is this: given the points you make about young people and local knowledge etc, what if a company, within China or from elsewhere, wants to engage with the people who are the age equivalents of the Baby Boomers, say in terms of marketing travel, how do they figure out how to connect? By my reckoning, which of course may be out, I get a figure of some 33.9 million in that group, surely not insignificant even though much lower than the numbers of youth online.

  5. Pingback: Jeff McNeill - Consultant and Educator » Blog Archive » links for 2009-04-15
  6. The internet in China is dominated by the government and younger generations. And it is restricted to major cities where they have the capabilities for having the internet. I would say you need to find what the elders value and give it a modern spin. Just a thought. regards!

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