Different generations have different relationships with food and cooking. Recent studies show that baby boomers (born between 1946 and 1964) have time to cook and most do. Millennials (born between 1977 and 1995) not only want to, but can and do cook – although they also go out to eat a lot. Members of generation Z (born after 1995) believe they don’t have enough time to cook.
Social factors affect how each generation perceives food and food systems.
Boomers were generally exposed to some food education, with women playing a larger role. Recipes were passed onto the next generation with pride. Life was often about connecting through food.
Millennials connected through social media. But since food has been such a focus since the late 1990s (including in social media), it’s impossible to find a millennial without an opinion on some food issue. Sustainability, animal welfare, fair trade, organics – millennials have added layers of altruism to food that have compelled the industry to think differently about the marketplace. After all, millennials now outnumber boomers, according to Statistics Canada.
Generation Z is benefiting from the foodie phenomenon, the hype around cooking and the celebration of culinary heritages. So they’re eating out more often than any other generation.
These attitudinal differences influence the tug-of-war between the food service and food retail sectors. The line is definitely becoming blurred between these two dimensions of the food system. As more restaurants offer meal kits and online delivery service, grocery stores offer more ready-to-go meals. By 2035, Canadians could spend more on food from the food service industry than from grocery stores, largely thanks to millennials and generation Zers.
Generation Xers haven’t really been exposed to the same experiences, so their influence on the food industry has been limited. They mostly experienced a couple of decades of nothingness, food-wise. In the 1980s and ’90s, most household were economizing. And food stores, except some in Quebec and British Columbia, offered uninteresting, limited selection. There were few cooking shows on TV. School home economics courses were stripped from most curriculum. Kids memorized the food guide without any real meaning behind it, while contentedly drinking their subsidized milk.
Food was anything but an experience – it was just a learning outcome, like mathematics, English or physics.
Things have completely changed. There are more cooking shows than ever. Stores are labyrinths of stimulating flavours, vibrant colours and aromas, hooking you to foods you want to eat on the spot. And if cooking isn’t part of school activities, many community groups desperately try to build awareness around good eating.
Essentially, during the 1980s and much of the ’90s, food was merely a function of people’s lives. Multiculturalism was already a reality but it never really affected dinner tables until Canadians started to travel – and travelling became more affordable at the end of the 1990s. But by then, gen Xers were already set in their ways.
The Internet wasn’t around when gen Xers were growing up to give them a forum to advocate for and influence food systems.
Gen Xers are essentially the lost food generation. While most generations were shaping their food destiny, this group just took what was available without discriminating.
There’s hope, though. Some data shows that gen Xers are becoming weekend cooks. Almost 55 per cent of them cook on weekends, more than any other generation. As a result of professional and personal pressures, they’re turning to cooking for peace, tranquility and enjoyment.
Still, Gen Xers are doing all right. Music from the 1980s and ’90s remains popular. Perhaps a music culture helps compensate for those lost decades of food culture.
Sylvain Charlebois is dean of the Faculty of Management and a professor in the Faculty of Agriculture at Dalhousie University, and author of Food Safety, Risk Intelligence and Benchmarking, published by Wiley-Blackwell (2017).
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