An Urban's Rural View

Different Strokes for Different Folks in Food

Urban C Lehner
By  Urban C Lehner , Editor Emeritus
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In 1945 World War II ended and the baby boom began. The Greatest Generation gave birth to the Most Self-Obsessed Generation. Among the newborns were such notables as Donald Trump (1946), Hillary Clinton (1947) and me (also 1947 -- hey, it was a good year).

Over the decades, we baby boomers have commanded attention because we're so numerous. As we moved from childhood into adolescence, adulthood and now "late middle age" (this generation refuses to get "old") we were always the largest demographic cohort, the "pig in the python" in the population-distribution charts, the age group that marketers of goods and services most wanted to capture.

Alas, though we pretend not to age, we are in fact passing on in ever-larger numbers. That's one of the reasons why we've been overtaken by a new generation. Millennials -- people aged 19 to 35 -- outnumbered baby boomers 75.4 million to 74.9 million in the latest Census Bureau estimates (…).

Like most demographic trends, this generational transition has implications for folks in the food and agriculture businesses. These millennials -- the boomers' grandchildren or, for those of us who reproduced later in life, children -- eat differently. They shop differently. They worry about different things in food.

For the latest evidence of these generational differences, check out the 2016 Food and Health Survey of the International Food Information Council Foundation (…). See especially a separate IFIC Foundation report on how boomers answered the survey, which spotlights comparisons between them and other generations (…). Or read this summary of the comparisons by the IFIC's CEO (…).

From these accounts it's apparent boomers and millennials define "healthy food" differently. The survey shows boomers more likely than millennials by significant margins to see health benefits in vitamin C, whole grains, plant protein and omega-3 fatty acids. Millennials are more concerned with mental health, muscle health and immunity health benefits.

Boomers, the survey indicates, are more likely to be trying to avoid sugars in general. Millennials seem more concerned with what kind of sugar is in their food. Their seeming lack of concern about excess sugar as long as it's not high-fructose corn syrup or an artificial sweetener baffles food company executives like the CEO of PepsiCo. "Now they view real sugar as good," she moaned to investors last year. "They're willing to go to organics even if they have high sugar, high salt and high fat."

One survey finding of particular relevance to corn and soybean farmers involves attitudes toward animal protein. Only 36% of boomers rate it as healthy, but 45% of millennials do. Animal fats like lard and tallow are coming back into vogue, thanks in part to their increasing acceptance by millennials (…).

And if that isn't enough to perplex their elders, there's the millennial generation's preference for convenience even if it's costly, as captured by the Washington Post in a story headlined, "Millennials increasingly can't be bothered to go out to eat" (…). Playing on this preference, companies like Amazon, Google and Uber are delivering groceries and companies like Grubhub restaurant meals.

Because the generations approach food so differently, the industries that provide it have to find ways to satisfy both. The millennials' importance will increase with time; the boomers' numbers are destined for decline. But the boomers can't be ignored; they still spend big on food. Despite constituting less than a quarter of the U.S. population, they account for nearly half of the nation's outlays on packaged goods (…).

There are, to be sure, areas of overlap. More than a few boomers and millennials do not fit the survey's stereotypes of their generations. Keep in mind, too, that some people may respond to surveys with what they think is the "right" answer rather than the literal truth. The ultimate test isn't what people say on surveys. It's what sells.

Still, the results of this survey seem strong, and they support a key theme in the marketplace -- the trend away from mass-market goods aimed at every shopper toward niche products. If the survey is to be believed, this trend seems likely to accelerate. There will increasingly be, as a song from my generation's younger days put it, "Different strokes for different folks" in food.

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Urban Lehner
11/8/2016 | 10:54 AM CST
I agree, and it's not just millennials who sometimes express an opinion when they don't know much about the issue. Still, people make decisions at the supermarket every day based on little or no real information.
11/8/2016 | 10:30 AM CST
I take a lot of the "surveys" with millennia's with a grain of salt. I watched one survey at markets where they were asking a lot of questions on gluten and gluten free food. The respondents had a lot to say on why they wanted and need gluten free food but had a big problem with the last question. "What is gluten?"