Back in 2002, two political writers, John Judis and Ruy Teixeira, wrote a book called The Emerging Democratic Majority. In it, they traced the demographic changes in the U.S. and pointed to the potential for a growing and persistent electoral advantage for Democrats. It’s a prediction that looks reasonably good at the moment, but at the time it was a risky proposal, and Judis and Teixeira were mocked for their “early call” of these demographic changes.
Well, I’m making an early call of the Emerging Organic Majority. My evidence? For one, the fact that cranky, aging baby boomers are taking to the New York Times op-ed page, as columnist Roger Cohen did recently, with semi-coherent rants against organic food. I’d say that represents a pretty good “contrary indicator” for the organic industry (though you should really read Grist Food Editor Twilight Greenaway for a full and devastating takedown of Cohen. And check out this excellent NYT Room for Debate on the same subject while you’re at it).
But the bulk of the evidence for my provocative and controversial theory comes from a marketing report on, as Beth Hoffman at Forbes put it, “How ‘Millennials’ Are Changing Food as We Know It.” The author of the report, marketing firm Jefferies AlixPartners, concluded that the millennial generation’s approach to food is different enough from that of the boomer generation (born 1946-1964) to warrant titling its findings “Trouble in Aisle 5” [PDF].
Using its own survey data, the group found that millennials like supermarkets, processed foods, and brands less than boomers, and specialty stores and fresh food more. The report also concludes that “natural and organic products look to be quite important to the Millennials.”
Fifty-eight percent rate organic produce as either somewhat or very important to them, while 48 percent say the same about organic meat and seafood (leaving aside the fact that there’s no USDA Organic certification for seafood). Boomers rate both categories as significantly less important to them. To their credit, however, boomers are more interested in local food than millennials are.
But what’s notable, and what represents the real shift here, is that millennials are also very willing to pay a premium for organics — and more so than their parents. In fact, one in 10 millennials responded that they’d pay over 20 percent more for organic — and their willingness applied to GMO-free products as well. In other words, millennials are putting their money where their mouths are.
It’s easy to dismiss these kinds of generational identity studies — especially if you are, as I am, a member of Generation X, which was a small demographic to begin with and always seems to exist in the “shadow” of the boomers. But the millennials, as children of the demographically massive baby boomers, are themselves a big group with significant spending power. As the report observes, in about eight years, they will surpass the boomers as a percentage of the adult population, at which point the 64 million adult millennials will become the prime target of marketers. And that’s why these kinds of reports are interesting. Companies pay close attention to what these marketing studies tell them — in fact, they often orient their businesses around them — and this one is predicting big changes in food spending patterns.
It’s also worth recognizing that boomers embraced the food system changes that occurred as they moved from adulthood into retirement. They liked the supersized supermarkets and their one-stop shopping. They were loyal to brands and entranced by the explosion and profusion of processed foods. Perhaps Gen X-ers weren’t much different — but then, being demographically small, we always mattered less to marketers. Yet marketers seem to be finding that millennials are thinking different.
And in the end, however potent a grumpy guy’s op-ed in The New York Times may be, it’s no match for the buying power of millions of people. That, not superficial science or fulminating columnists, is what it will take to push firmly into the mainstream the food system changes that have been taking place on the margins.
Doubt the Emerging Organic Majority if you dare. But if this one report is any indication, marketers are starting to tell food companies to do so at their own financial risk.