My greatest desire as a toddler was to own a play kitchen, complete with miniature appliances, utensils, and plastic food. All my neighborhood playmates had one. The kitchens were everywhere, according to my mother: displayed in toy catalogs and television commercials, in day care centers, and in the homes of family friends.
It was, in hindsight, one of my very first consumerist desires, a toy that sought to instill ideals of domesticity in young girls. That didn’t matter to my parents, or to 3-year-old me. I was learning to want things: snacks, games, and gadgets that were strategically dangled in front of my barely formed child brain, even if my parents held all the buying power. This parent-child dynamic — in which the child ceaselessly annoys their caretaker to receive a desired object — likely won’t ever change.
Americans’ consumption patterns have changed, though, especially over the past decade. The next generation of consumers, dubbed Generation Alpha by demographers, is being born at the height of American excess. They will grow up in a world oversaturated with direct-to-consumer brands attempting to “disrupt” every sector imaginable, one where social media is shoppable and Amazon is ubiquitous. Today’s parents are less likely to scour the aisles of their local Target or Toys “R” Us when the internet’s boundless array of online products can be delivered to their doors with just a few clicks.
The unique consumer identity of the toddlers and babies of Generation Alpha — a term used to describe those born between 2010 and 2025 — is currently being developed for them. It will be shaped through the toys, baby food, clothes, and toddler gadgets purchased by their parents and relatives. A real-time example of this phenomenon is Ryan Kaji, the 9-year-old star of Ryan’s World, one of the most lucrative YouTube channels on the platform. For now, though, most kids are too young and offline to be drawn into social media’s marketing schema. Brands, instead, are turning to parents to wean the next generation of consumers.
“There’s a subset of young, millennial moms who are invested in buying the best products they can afford for their kids,” said Heather Dretsch, an assistant professor of marketing at North Carolina State University. “As a result, the next generation of kids are going to have very similar tastes to that of their millennial parents when it comes to brands, unlike Gen Z.”
Gen alpha are being raised as mini millennials — these pastels pic.twitter.com/Y8ORDdTXA0— Andrea Hernández ️⃤ (@iiiitsandrea) May 24, 2021
Both new and traditional kid-focused brands have, for the most part, abandoned the kitschy, rainbow-colored packaging used in the ’90s and early aughts. Think of the commercials for Fruit Gushers candy and Kid Cuisine microwavable meals. Instead, they’ve defaulted to the minimalist aesthetic familiar to any millennial-aged shopper, with serif fonts and cohesive pastel color schemes that subtly inform the consumer that this brand is ethical, economical, and safe for their child. “You can tell Gen Alpha are kids of millennials because their snacks are filled with these labels,” tweeted Andrea Hernández, a food and beverage trend analyst. “Paleo, keto, probiotic, low carb, low sugar, plant based.”
For parents, the bevy of available brands can be overwhelming. “There’s a lot of pressure not knowing what your kid needs now and what they need next,” said Julie Rogers, the co-founder of the kids shoe brand and e-commerce platform Ten Little. “Parents are always wondering how they can buy things kids can grow into instead of something that lasts only a few minutes.”
Parenthood, then, is as much a state of being as a shoppable identity. Now that baby- and child-related products are less ugly and utilitarian, it’s easier than ever for parents to express their individual style and, by extension, cultivate their child’s taste. It’s similar to the marketing notion of a “trickle-down effect,” which refers to how upper-class fashion trends influence working-class styles. This is only the first chapter of Gen Alpha’s consumerist future. They certainly aren’t the first cohort of kids to be targeted by mass media (marketing deregulation in the 1980s led to an onslaught of loosely disguised children’s advertisements). They will be, however, the first to inhabit a world of bountiful digital-first brands, brands that have had eyes on them at an extremely young age.
Sara Petersen has noticed a dramatic shift in her buying impulses between her first child, who was born in 2012, and her youngest in 2019. “It felt like everyone was buying the same stuff back in 2012, the same playmats and plastic highchairs that were ugly, chunky, and only sold in primary colors,” said Petersen, who is working on a book about digital culture and motherhood. “Now, in part thanks to Instagram, there’s an aesthetic shift toward natural wood tones, creams, and neutral pastel shades.”
Mothers have always been a key marketing demographic, she added. But in the past, it was a category that felt “identity-killing.” Even progressive, working women felt they had to conform toward a general mold of motherhood. “Everyone bought the same ugly shit, and in some ways, you felt better and worse about it,” Petersen said. “Our consumer identity was flattened into one broad, unexciting group, and there were few brands that prioritized your individual needs, that specifically catered to you.”
The era of mommy blogs in the 2000s precipitated the mom-as-influencer industrial complex, but it was predicated around a similar idea: that one’s domestic struggles can be solved and made better by an endless array of products. The prevailing stereotype of the millennial parent is of a health-conscious caretaker, wary of processed foods, and the potential of unnatural chemicals and toxins present in their child’s food or toys. They want the best of everything for their kids. It’s an idea rooted in a materialist and classist assumptions of what “good” parenting looks like.
“Parenting as an industry, if you can even call it that, is very old and hasn’t changed in nearly a century,” said Lisa Barnett, co-founder of Little Spoon, a direct-to-consumer baby and children’s meal brand. “Every service, every product hasn’t really changed. We recognize that there’s a new generation entering the life stage of being a parent.”
It made little sense, then, that baby food brands and kiddie snacks were designed with the child in mind, rather than the parent. “It’s ironic because, at least for us, the baby doesn’t internalize what the packaging looks like,” Barnett added. “We’re trying to attract the parents, thinking about what they want to look for.”
Legacy food brands like Gerber and Beech-Nut are playing catch-up to new, online-only companies like Little Spoon. They’ve altered their packaging and offered organic options, but that won’t be enough to stem the expansion of DTC, kid-focused companies. The parenting industry — or the “mom economy” — has moved largely online during the pandemic. Consumers are not only accustomed to buying clothes, household items, and toys online; parents are seeking out technology and products that are convenient and transparent.
“So much of the power of shopping from mommy Instagram lies in the really impossible state of motherhood in the US, especially during the pandemic,” Petersen added. “It makes you feel better about the state of everything, even while American society has failed to provide policies that could make mothers’ lives better, like free preschool or universal paid leave.”
Granted, most brands aren’t trying to pose as a solution or a substitution for America’s inadequate child care policies. Their aim is to support a modern vision of parenthood, one where both parents are likely working and juggling child care tasks. It just so happens that, in this pursuit, brands and parents are subtly shaping the tastes and imagined lifestyles of their little ones. The long-term effects of coming of age in a terrazzo-filled home with wooden toys, of course, remain to be seen.
So, why are advertisers so keen on millennial parents and their Gen Alpha toddlers in the first place? “Starting from the turn of the century, we began to realize that millennials would wield the greatest consumer power in the world, compared to all other age groups,” said Dretsch. While market research further broke down the millennial demographic into subcategories, the broad delineation stuck and became widely used.
Generational labels became a vague nod to a type of lifestyle or ideology held by a group of similarly aged people, often as expressed on social media. During the advent of the BuzzFeed internet in the 2010s, millennial-dom morphed into an online identity. Eventually, it all compounded into a sort of generational lore that was privy to stereotypes: Baby boomers are wealthy and unempathetic toward the financial plight of young people; Gen Z is obsessed with broadcasting their “main character” lives on TikTok; millennials were associated with, among many signifiers, avocado toast, student loans, Harry Potter, liberalism, and jaded youthfulness.
Thus, age became an inexact metric for commonality while glossing over nuances of race, class, geography, and religion that also define an individual’s tastes. Regardless, the raging generational wars are a fruitful development for advertisers, who championed demographic labels in an effort to appeal to specific swaths of consumers. The ability to concretely define, and thereby appeal to, a certain group is coveted knowledge, at least in the marketing world.
In an interview with Mark McCrindle, the Australian consultant who’s credited with the term “Generation Alpha,” the New York Times described generations as “less of a collection of individuals than a commodity: to be processed into a manufactured unit, marketed and sold to clients.” Defining the next generation (which includes the unborn) in the era of not-so-subtle targeted ads, in which age range is a key factor, is “like staking claim in a gold rush.”
Yet the characteristics of Gen Alpha remain largely unknown. They are too young and their pre-adolescent life too varied to conduct concrete research. McCrindle argued that data on Gen Alpha’s parents, the millennials, can forecast how these children will be raised. That premise, however, was challenged in a 2017 paper “Generation Alpha: Marketing or Science” by two Hungarian researchers, who concluded that there was not yet any evidence of a post-Gen Z group.
“By definition, an age group will become a generation if they have common experiences, concepts, and language or vocabulary that differs from the previous generations,” one researcher told Wired. “We still have no representative data on the characteristics of ‘alphas,’ only speculations about what their common, cohesive force might be.”
Even so, population researchers have admitted that age delineations are somewhat arbitrary; they prefer to group people into cohorts rather than fixed generations, based on major life events like marriage and family formation. While none of us can accurately predict the defining characteristics of Gen Alpha, marketers and brands are embarking on a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts.
According to Dretsch, the marketing professor, children are capable of developing brand associations as young as 3 years old. “Whatever the parents expose the child to, the more often they will come to identify with that brand even from a very young age,” she told me. “Those connections happen very naturally and almost non-consciously.”