Addressing Generational Differences in Your Flexible Packaging

June 5, 2018 | By Brian Butler

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We packagers, like others involved in marketing, are obligated (if we’re being strategic) to address the needs of the three distinct generations in the U.S. vying for our marketing dollars: Baby Boomers (the post-War group born between 1946 and 1964); Generation X (born in the early 1960s to the early 1980s and overlap with Boomers slightly); and Millennials (born between the early 1980s to early 2000s).

We must approach each of these three groups according to their distinctive characteristics, such as their buying habits, their perceptual quirks, and their physical abilities. Our first step is defining our three audiences in more detail.

In the United States, the Boomers number nearly 109 million people, and they represent $7.6 Boomers trillion in spending power. These consumers are particularly mindful of the length and quality of their lives, so they emphasize health and well-being somewhat more than the other groups. Even though Millennials outnumber them as the largest living generation in the U.S., Boomers still have the highest purchasing power of any generation. Retailers and manufacturers must ensure they are meeting the unique needs of this crucial group, and that should include product packaging aimed at their physical needs (e.g., easier opening and closure for increasingly arthritic hands, highly visible text for their declining eyesight).

Generation X, at ages 37 to 52, is like the proverbial middle child. Marketers often overlook this group, as they are caught between the hyped-up post-war Baby Boomers and the ascendant Millennials. But this oversight is perilous, as there are 60 million Gen X-ers who represent a quarter of all adults. They have $2.33 trillion in buying power — somewhat more than the Millennials. According to Food Engineering magazine, Gen X shoppers reported spending the most each month on groceries, $380 on average. Two-thirds of Gen X shoppers indicated they enjoy preparing new dishes. Sixty percent agreed they often check out new items in a grocery store, so they can be attracted by the vivid designs of flexible packaging, such as that available from Fres-co’s superior printing processes. Furthermore, many Gen X-ers comprise the current generation of parents, so they are looking for packaging that not only contain multiple servings of food but also provide resealable openings for their kids.

Millennials as a group include more than 79 million individuals, and they have $200 billion in buying power. According to, this generational group is on the move with their Millennials on the gofamilies in tow. They don’t eat the customary breakfast, lunch and dinner. Instead, Millennials will often choose snacks that are more convenient for their mobile lifestyle. As a result, they’re looking for single- as well as multi-serving packages that are easy to carry, store, open, reclose, eat from, and then dispose of. While packaging engineers have been working on each of these properties for decades, seldom have we had to combine every attribute into one package.

Future Considerations in Packaging

As the world moves toward reduced retail space, which is increasingly displaced by online/on-demand shopping, packaging needs to serve more purposes than ever across these three groups. The packaging world overall, and flexible packaging in particular, must keep up in a world that values push-button convenience over the shopping experience. Packages must be tough enough to withstand the journey not only to a store but to our doorsteps. These tough packages must also be smart enough to protect and extend the shelf life of our food, reclose and dispense. Modern flexible packages even “talk” to us both before and after the sale with RFID and NFC technology.

Delivery is just one of a growing list of future applications of flexible packaging. No small feat. Other demands that must be met include:

Mobility — The basic premise of food packaging is a means to store and transport a food product from production to consumption. Early forms of packaging included clay pots and jars; they evolved to glass bottles. As technology advanced, bottles were replaced by metal cans, cans changed from metal to plastic, and now flexible packaging is the prevalent form of transporting and preserving our foods. Our three demographic groups use flexible packaging differently:

  • Boomers prepare meals in the kitchen more than the other generations do. Flexible packaging is a more convenient way to get their foodstuffs home from the market to prepare in the kitchen, and it also closes more easily for storage.
  • Generation X discovered fast-food, and they learned to eat out of Styrofoam “clamshells” and microwave trays. Similarly, they are receptive to other “grab-and-go” packages.
  • Similarly, Millennials also demand a package that allows them to transport their foods not only to the home, but out with them the next day for snack or lunch from their backpacks. For this group, neither heavy, rigid cans nor flimsy clamshells will fit the bill.

Ease of Opening & Reclosability — Our three generations have different needs for the opening and closing of their packaging. On one hand, Boomers accept traditional rigid packaging, such as cans, because that is what they’re accustomed to. However, it’s also easy to surmise that they would be receptive lighter pouches that can be handled more easily and also require less core strength to open.

On the other hand, the Millennial generation finds cans hopelessly outdated. Some have never used or owned a can opener. Instead, they want packages that are simpler and safer to open. Tear notches and recloseable flaps or zippers are the norm. Pouches with spouts and caps are now used for infant feeding, making their progression to grown-up life a natural.

Prep Time/Convenience — Baby Boomers traditionally prepared and ate meals at home. A trip the grocery store was followed by preparing a meal at home, which was enjoyed by the family at a kitchen or dining room table. As the years went on, life seemed to speed up, and the traditional family began to fragment. Gen X began to eat out, or they ate on the fly. Fewer meals were consumed at home, and those that were didn’t include the entire family. Packaging needed to keep up with the faster lifestyle as frozen dinners and microwave entrees emerged as the norm for feeding the family.

The newest generations of consumers are committed to their jobs, their health and their families, so they want higher quality as well as convenience at meal time. On one hand, they are buying foods with little or no prep time, such as frozen entrees, pre-cut fruits and prepared vegetables. Conversely, they are not ignoring nutrition, avoiding such fare as fried foods or cheaper prepared meals that are also higher in fat. Their convenience foods must be of a higher quality (as indicated by the packages and labels), easy to clean up, and with minimal leftovers. This all points to flexible packaging with its ability to store and transport high quality food products in customized serving sizes while also preserving product integrity and shelf life.

Recyclability and Sustainability — Over the years, the focus of packaging has shifted from extremely durable, excessive and over-engineered packaging to lighter, thinner, and let’s face it, more cost-effective packaging. Baby Boomers simply threw their containers or packages in the trash and sent them to landfill. Gen X was the first generation of recyclers to deal with plastic bins sitting by the door for glass and paper products.
Millennials are demanding more from their packages. They must provide good barrier protection. They must be lighter, yet tougher. Most expected, they need to be recyclable. To cut costs, packagers have reduced the gauge of materials so low that they seem to be at the breaking point. Through it all, we packagers have still continued to protect and preserve the products. The end result has been waste reduction which is not only beneficial to the producers, but meets the needs of the environmentally conscious new generation of end users.

In light of all these considerations, packaging engineers in the early 21st century are facing several challenges:

  • We must meet the growing needs of the aging Baby Boomers who are looking for packages that are easier to open, use and read, while not being a huge departure from what they have been accustomed to for their entire lives.
  • Don’t forget about Gen-X; they welcome new, forward-looking designs that are easy to learn about and use.
  • We must give the most current consumers, the Millennials, the wide range of attributes they value in their packaging, including sustainability, design and style, and the ability to snack quickly as part of their on-the-go lifestyles.

The world of packaging is shifting away from rigid packaging and speeding toward flexible. What the next new need or innovation will be is anybody’s guess, but as packaging professionals, we will be on top of them, and we’ll be applying them to serve all generations of customers.

Brian L. Butler of Fres-co System USA, Inc. is a Business Development Manager in processed foods, with primary responsibilities in the retort and aseptic shelf stable markets. He holds a Master of Science degree in food science from Clemson University, as well as a Bachelor of Science from Michigan State University in packaging science. He also has several patents for a variety of storage media.

Brian is just one of Fres-co’s highly experienced packaging professionals who consult with our customers and helps provide “flexible thinking” to their unique packaging challenges. Contact us at or call at 215.721.4600 to learn more about Fres-co’s wide range of flexible packaging solutions for liquid food and beverages, as well as for coffee, agricultural and industrial products, and more.

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