Moviemakers once portrayed Generation X, born between the mid-1960s and 1980, as angst-ridden adolescents in films like “The Breakfast Club.” Today, Generation Xers have teenagers of their own — as well as aging parents to look after. Caught up in careers, teetering on the cusps of menopause and mid-life crises, these former slackers now make millions of high-impact health decisions every day.
It’s an interesting generation for many reasons. Gen Xers were the first to grow up in an era of internet-available health information. They also grew up with direct-to-consumer advertising for prescription drugs and consumer activism in health care. They witnessed firsthand the AIDS crisis and the dawn of health advocacy. As a result, they bring a less passive and more discerning attitude towards health than the generations that preceded them.
Despite their central and growing role in the health care dynamic, most of the professionals and institutions devoted to serving them misfire in their efforts to reach Gen Xers. To better understand Gen Xers’ roles in health care decision-making and how to better connect with this audience, my company, greyhealth group, recently teamed with Kantar Health to analyze data from Kantar’s National Health and Wellness Survey.
Generation X and health
We discovered a generation of adults who are hungry for information, skeptical of experts, but loyal to a plan of action once they make a decision. Here’s a summary of some of the most notable findings from the survey.
Caught in the middle. Gen Xers often find themselves taking care of their young children and their aging parents. They are more likely than baby boomers or millennials to say they are making health care decisions for their young children, their adult children, and/or their parents. Nearly half of Gen Xers expect to be supporting their parents’ health and finances in coming years. Nearly three-quarters of Gen Xers identify themselves as the chief health decision makers in their families.
Thirst for knowledge. More than baby boomers and millennials, Gen Xers look to a variety of sources for information, including family members, coworkers, their doctors, pharmaceutical company websites, medical journals, television programs, news websites, and books. They must be actively using all these sources, because half of Gen Xers say they are extremely or very knowledgeable at keeping themselves and their loved ones healthy, more than any other generation.
Appearance matters. While they rate their own health status as good to excellent, Gen Xers are starting to see the effects of aging on their bodies and among their peers — and they don’t like it. Forty percent of Gen Xers agree that “as I age I am more concerned about my appearance,” and 24 percent say they would go so far as to consider medical intervention to improve how they look.
Cynical but loyal. While Gen Xers are more likely to trust their physicians than millennials, they have an overall distrust of authority. That extends to big pharmaceutical companies as well as large hospital chains and health systems. They feel that insurance companies are indifferent to their desire for healthy living, wellness, and alternative medical services. Surprisingly, however, they’re also more brand loyal (70 percent) than any other generation.
Open communication. What Gen X wants from health care is better communication that is more transparent, more immediate, and more actionable. They want evidence, not blandishments. And although they use the internet to gather health information, members of Generation X still believe that physicians are the best source of information about keeping themselves and their loved ones healthy.
Gen X is the future of health care
The Census Bureau projects that the Gen X population will peak next year at 65.8 million. As parents and as adult children of aging parents, their influence on health care will only increase. The changes they are driving include:
Multiplatform care. Gen Xers appreciate hands-on medicine and will always want the option of face-to-face contact. However they are also hyper-connected via technology and will expect caregivers to use all kinds of technology and social media to prove information, answer questions, and even tweak treatments in light of test results.
Evidence-based advice. As the first generation to live entirely in the age of information, Gen Xers are more inclined to conduct their own research to verify or disprove the facts offered to them by experts. They want to have advice packaged with links to data and suggestions for diving as deeply as they wish into the science behind the medicine.
Relationships matter. Although they are impressed by data, Gen Xers expect it to be offered by someone with a friendly face and a warm demeanor. This is true not just for medical practitioners but for institutions like hospitals and even health care brands. Gen Xers will stick with their doctor and with their favorite over-the-counter remedies for as long as they find them trustworthy.
Family first. Increasingly caught in the middle of the family dynamic, where they make choices for their elders as well as their children, Gen Xers will want to get care from people and institutions who recognize that these extended relationships matter to them. They expect to be considered in the context of family life, and they expect that their family’s well-being will be part of the health care conversation.
Reliable communication. In many aspects of life, from employment to education to culture, Gen Xers have been required to deal with constant change. Thus they crave consistency and security through communication with health care providers. The future of health care, as determined by Gen X, will require caregivers to be accessible, respectful, and consistently available communicators.
A health care system that adequately responds to Generation X decision-makers will require greater engagement with technology, especially when it comes to communication, and an ability to deliver sophisticated medical information in terms a layperson can grasp, all of which must be accomplished without losing the human touch. It’s a tall order, but those who deliver it will find that Gen Xers can be true and loyal partners in care.
Lynn O’Connor Vos is CEO of greyhealth group, a global health care communications company.