Generational differences that shape the demand for food


The marketing process of any product starts with the suppliers of the raw materials the product is made of and ends with the consumer. Although this entire process with all of all its links is certainly important, the crucial part is meeting the consumer’s needs. No matter what you produce, if your target consumer group is not interested, there won’t be a demand for your product.

The agricultural sector is involved mainly in the production of food and fibre. When one considers the food market, and more specifically the demand for food, it is easy to realise that there are different types of consumers demanding different types of products.

The largest variation between consumer segments is certainly the wealth of the consumer. Those from the lower living standard measurement (LSM) groups do not purchase the same type of food as consumers from the higher LSM groups.

Transition in demand

The transition in demand between these two segments is very clear. The consumer from the lower LSM group has a high demand for different starches and cheaper protein sources, while the high-end consumer demands expensive protein sources, less starch, and more fruit and vegetables.

Apart from the LSM of the different consumers there are also other factors that shape the demand for food. For instance, consumers from rural areas and those from urban areas may have different demands, even though they are from the same LSM group. Another factor that plays a role is age, as the diet of older and younger people are often not the same.

One dimension of the consumer segments that is, however, often overlooked is the differences between different generations, where, for the purpose of this article, generations refer to groups such as the Baby Boomers, Generation X and the Millennials.

The different generations

We all know about the existence of generations such as the Baby Boomers and Millennials, and we may have even referred to them in the past, but do we really know what the differences between the generations are? The interesting fact is that the Baby Boomers was the last officially defined generational grouping, while those that followed were defined by the media of the day.

The fact is, however, that the media and general population still refer to certain generational groupings, thus confirming their existence. Since there is no official generational grouping, it seems as if there are, in some instances, also different names for the same generation (Table 1).

Table 1: Birth dates of different generations according to researchers in Canada and Britain.
Generations according to Canada (2011) Generations according to Britain (2017)
Date of birth Generation Date of birth Generation
1946 – 1965 Baby Boomers 1957 – 1967 Generation Jones
1966 – 1971 Generation X 1965 – 1984 Generation X
1972 – 1992 Millennials 1982 – 2004 Millennials
1993 – Date Generation Z 1990 – 2000 Generation D
    2001 – 2011 Generation I

Although there might be slight differences in the names and birth dates assigned to different generations depending on the country of research, their grouping is more or less the same. Generations are not grouped by their age or common life stages (student, family, etc.), but how the particular social, economic, political and technological environment of their youth have shaped the framework of their actions.

Differences in food demand

To set out the main food demand differences between the generations, we must take a look at each one separately. According to research done by Alberta Agriculture and Forestry (2011), the factors influencing the food choices of the different generations (in middle to high income groups) are:

Baby Boomers are preoccupied with disease prevention and overall wellness and they embrace healthier lifestyles. Their food choices are based on healthier options (low sugar, trans fat free, high fibre, etc.), and with their higher purchasing power they are less price sensitive.

Generation X’s food choices are blissful, but they want convenient food with less preparation time. With higher education levels, they look for labels and nutritional information and embrace international foods. As they were brought up in difficult economic times, they seem very conscious of value for money.

Millennials, as the children of Baby Boomers, are a food-loving generation that embrace the eating-in, dining-out and take-out food trends. They have a ‘less meals and more snacks’ approach to eating and want a diverse range of flavours from various ethnic and cultural backgrounds. They are the first generation wanting to know more about how food is grown and prefer their food to be sustainably farmed produce.

Generation Z is the healthiest generation of all and gravitate towards natural ingredients, more fruit and vegetables, and home prepared meals. This technology savvy, socially engaged generation actively seeks food knowledge to understand where their food comes from and what processes it underwent to get to their tables.

It is clear that the different generations do not only prefer different types of food from different origins, but their attitude towards the price of food, nutritional information and the way in which it should be prepared also differ. Another factor that is of utmost importance when one looks at the demand for food of different generations is where and how these consumers want to purchase their food.

Generational shopping habits

Retailers should consider the preferences, needs and common ground of the different generations in order to be future ready. The Future Laboratory (2017) did research on what the different generations want from shopping.

It was found that Generation D prefers a single space (online and physical) to do all their shopping. Social media is very important to them and they would prefer to buy directly from Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat.

Millennials are more into ‘style of life’ than ‘stuff of life’ and opt out of the consumer approach. With their genuine ethical stance on ‘being good’, they prefer locally produced products from independent marketers. Although they are not against large retailers, they want them to be transparent about their products.

Generation X is all about convenient and fast shopping. They want a streamlined shopping experience where goods are arranged in an orderly fashion so that they can get in and out fast. They want excellent, no fuss service.

Food for thought

The differences between generations are definitely not the first thing that comes to mind when you consider the marketing approach of food products for different consumer segments. The fact of the matter is, however, that research has shown notable differences in the wants and needs of different generations when it comes to different products, as well as their shopping experience.

Nevertheless, the problem is that food must be marketed to and produced for everyone, and it will be a balancing trick to cater to the needs of all the current living generations. We often think that marketing efforts should be directed towards the younger generations, as they will be the consumers of the future.

This may be true, but it must also be remembered that most of the purchasing power in the current economy comes from the older generations and they should, therefore, not be scared away.

The next time producers, processors or retailers revamp their marketing plan, they should consider the needs and wants of the different generations along with the other factors that are already included in this plan. – Frikkie Maré, Farmbiz