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Research got it: The 20-year generational wave that led to marriage equality

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Sometimes it can seem like we have to work to prove the research we do is relevant. But it is. Data point to the changes unfolding every moment, every day in the world around us. The US Supreme Court landmark decision on marriage equality is just the latest case in point.

In a 1996 analysis for our newsletter The Public Pulse, I predicted that time would bring “more people into power sympathetic to equal rights for gays and lesbians.” This was based on Roper Reports research showing, among other things, that 6 in 10 Americans 18 to 29 years old, that is, “Gen X,” supported equal rights for gays and lesbians (20 points higher than people 60 and older), and that upwards of 4 in 10 young Americans viewed gay and lesbian relationships as “family” (1.5 times the response of Boomers and more than four times that of those 60 and older).

Gen Xers, “the product of an era of experimentation and change,” I wrote, were poised “to broaden the discussion” and “lead a reconsideration of what, beyond love, is needed to make a family.”

“The signs,” I wrote, were that “the trend toward tolerance will continue.”

This was, in some ways, a counter-intuitive conclusion. As the newsletter was coming out, Congress was rushing to pass the Defense of Marriage act and states were passing laws to derail same-sex marriage (the laws now overturned). But years of study have taught us to trust the data.

They proved right. Over the course of time, support of equality of gays and lesbians edged upward until it finally became a majority view. Since 2011, our data have shown that married gay and lesbian couples are seen as “family” by most Americans, rising to 2 in 3 for gay couples raising children. There’s still a sharp generational skew, with people 60 and older lagging the majority. But older Americans, too, have moved upward – perhaps because they began to listen to their children and grandchildren.

History sometimes seems to be a series of big, unforeseeable events. But, in fact, it unfolds over time. Often, in this country, change is generational. Sometimes, you can see it coming, “like watching a swell miles out at sea and recognizing that it will eventually become a wave on a beach,” as a friend put it last week.

The business relevance: If you pay attention to the leading indicators among your consumers – which may be the younger generations, or Influentials, or early adopters – you can get a bead on where your market is going.

Doing so can open up new opportunities. It was hard not to notice the rainbow-colored flags on corporate offices in NY for Gay Pride week – which, serendipitously, the Supreme Court’s decision arrived in the midst of. The LGBT market has become significant for marketers from travel, to finance, to the home, and beyond.

It’s unusual to see the kind of large, consistent generational break that I saw two decades ago in gay rights with Gen X. But it happens. We see it time and again in technology. We’ve been seeing it in wearable technologies like fitness bands. We’re beginning to see it in self-driving cars. We see it in economic cycles. For more than a year, the Millennials – the heart of the family- and household-formation market – have been pointing the way in the economic recovery. First, growing numbers were expecting to increase their spending in various areas like home and travel. Now we’re seeing it spread to other areas of their life, from entertaining, to leisure shopping, to going to the movies.

And, this week, it is front-page news.

Jon Berry is Vice President at GfK, he can be contacted at jon.berry@gfk.com.

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