The Streaming Generation Gap Is Smaller Than You Think


  • Streaming has attracted viewers across all generations, with the pandemic speeding up adoption among older Americans.
  • Viewers 50+ account for 39% of streaming watch time — outwatching the 35-49-year-old group for the first time.
  • 65% of those aged 50–69 and 63% of those aged 70+ prefer ad-supported services over the more expensive, ad-free alternatives.
  • Gen Z viewers spend nearly three times more time streaming than on cable, while millennials dedicate nearly twice as much time to streaming as cable.

When you picture the typical streaming viewer, who do you see? 

If you think it’s only younger consumers who are reachable through streaming ads, think again. eMarketer found that CTV viewership is fairly evenly spread among the different generations, with those aged 25–54 representing the largest groups, as seen in the chart below.

Sure, many millennials and Gen Zers grew up watching streaming TV, but older generations are playing a huge part in the continued growth of streaming as a channel. So as streaming becomes the most dominant method of watching TV, advertisers will need to have a solid understanding of how age can play into streaming behavior in order to actually reach their target audiences. This analysis breaks down the nuanced differences between the many generations of streamers, and sheds light on their preferences and impact on the streaming industry at large.

Don’t Discount Older Streamers

Last year, Nielsen found that Americans ages 50 and older are driving the recent growth of streaming video in the U.S. According to the SVP of product strategy and thought leadership at Nielsen, Brian Fuhrer, “Streaming has progressed beyond both early adopters and the second wave, into older audiences that have been the last holdouts.”

In fact, older Americans constitute the largest increase in time spent on platforms like Netflix, Hulu, and Youtube — making up 39% of the total streaming watch time, compared to last year’s 35%. With this growth, the 50–64 age group officially surpasses the 35–49 year-old set in share of the overall streaming pool. 

Part of the reason for that rise is — you guessed it — the pandemic. In 2020, quarantine measures prompted many households that had never used streaming before to subscribe to the newer (at the time) technology. That adoption was also accelerated by the easy access to streaming services through new smart TV models and standalone CTV devices. 

And good news for advertisers looking to reach older viewers through streaming ads: older generations of viewers have also exhibited a preference for ad-supported streaming services. One survey from DeepIntent and Roku found that over two-thirds of those aged 50–69 and 63% of those aged 70+ prefer cheaper, ad-supported services over more expensive ad-free alternatives. 

Linear Love Runs Deep For Boomers and Xers — But Not Forever

Let’s explore some of the specifics of the viewing behavior of both Baby Boomers and Generation X, starting with the older of the two. 

Baby Boomers’ lives have been deeply rooted in traditional linear TV. Currently, around 80 million U.S. households still subscribe to cable services, and Boomers represent the base of that group. 

However, despite their historic reliance on linear, older users are joining many of their younger counterparts in supplementing or replacing their linear programming with streaming. According to the Harvard Business Review, over half of all older consumers are subscribing to at least one streaming service, and a quarter of Americans over the age of 50 cut the cord on their linear subscriptions by the end of 2018. 

Also, most of Boomers’ linear viewing is dominated by live sports, one of the biggest holdouts, content-wise, in the migration to streaming. As more and more sports networks make deals with streaming services (or develop their own), however, we can expect that draw to cable to fade. 

Generation X, meanwhile, are a bit of both. Like their older counterparts, these viewers — ages 45–54 — have known linear for a long time, but are known for seamlessly integrating both it and streaming content into their watching habits. They’re comfortable with the vast array of content options available to them across different ad channels, and expect programming to be available wherever they are. However, they are also less likely than Boomers to have a preference re: production quality, enjoying scripted content produced by traditional media giants, original content from tech-based streaming services, and user-generated productions from YouTube and other content-hosting platforms.

Millennials and Gen Z: The Streaming Natives

Of course, we can’t forget about millennials and Gen Z. Harvard Business Review found that these age groups like to mix and match content from many sources, and aren’t especially concerned about whether their content is professionally made or user-generated. Younger generations also don’t differentiate between screen types — they’re more likely than their older counterparts to watch video on devices other than TV screens.

But you’re unlikely to find these younger viewers watching linear content — most in these age groups grew up in a time when their parents were canceling their own cable subscriptions, and are likely to be cord-nevers as a result. One survey from GWI found that Gen Z viewers spend an average of 1 hour and 51 minutes streaming daily, as opposed to just 38 minutes watching live television through linear. That’s almost three times more time spent streaming than on cable. Similarly, millennials dedicate nearly twice as much time to streaming as cable (1 hour and 58 minutes streaming vs 1 hour and 3 minutes for live TV daily).

But while younger audiences will likely always be the dominant force behind the popularity of streaming, they are also more price-sensitive. As a result, these generations are more likely to be impacted by the recent rise in costs for streaming services, and it’s possible they will begin adjusting their streaming behavior to downsize — or simply opt for ad-supported services instead. 

Age May Just Be a Number

…But it does have some impact on how you find your target audiences on streaming. So it won’t be enough to simply dump preconceived notions that only young viewers can be found on Connected TV — advertisers will need to understand the differences between each of these generations to ultimately drive them toward conversion.

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