Last week the US-based Pew Research Centre published some research noting that the majority of Millennials - people aged between 18-34 years - didn’t associate themselves with the generational label ‘Millennial’ at all.
Further, they considered themselves as more self-absorbed than any other living generation, and nearly half considered themselves wasteful and greedy.
Clearly, and by their own estimation, Millennials have a bit of an image problem.
At the risk of incurring the wrath of those who abhor commentary about Milliennials from people who aren’t of the generation, I’m going to explore why the label ‘Millennials’ probably no longer matters, and why as marketers we need to be sensitive to their labelling resistance.
Firstly, let’s think about the term ‘Millennials’. In justice, it ought to refer to people born on or around the turn of the century, but in fact it applies to people born from 1981. Some became adults before the turn of the century, and even the youngest probably remember the celebrations. The millennium came after them, and was not a marker of a change in their prospects. If anything, the rise of the consumer internet, from six years before the millennium, was a much more significant marker in their personal journeys.
And the millennium itself was for most of this generation, largely insignificant. They inherited none of the aspirations held about the millennium by previous generations, shaped and reinforced as they were, by decades of science fiction. Instead, this generation beheld the new century with a strong sense of its limitations and flaws. From climate change to terrorism, economic instability and allegations of government spying on personal communications, this generation were not exposed to the space-race fuelled hope of the Boomer generation, nor even the Wall Street opportunities and excesses of Generation X.
Is it any wonder that they regard the millennium as essentially broken?
Then there’s the marketing practice which has dogged Millennials since they were early consumers. Marketers always pandered to this generation, and while actively critiquing their culture of self-absorption, they also sought to exploit it, launching campaigns that allowed Millennials to share more and more about their tastes and personal lives. They were acutely aware of the control that Millennials had over brand experience, so by enabling the sharing of personal stories, marketers were able to maintain some control over brand messaging. And this cult of the personal culminated in the (in)famous Time Magazine Person of the Year cover of 2006: You.
So to a very strong extent, marketers have been responsible for the current perception held by Millennials about themselves. But the accuracy of this perception is inconsistent with actual behaviours of Millennials.
According to research conducted by Goldman Sachs and Deloitte, Millennials are actually much less acquisitive, much less interested in flamboyant exhibition of their personal success and wealth, and they are much more likely to be diligent workers in their careers. While they do move from job to job more frequently than previous generations, they tend to have a more sophisticated awareness of the value of their contribution to a career, and they will exit a role when that contribution begins to decline.
Millennials are cost-sensitive, health-aware, and they prefer the recommendations of friends and family in purchase selections. They aspire to leadership, but they are concerned about the disconnect between company agendas in large corporations, and the need to improve society.
In other words, Millennials are actually less self-absorbed and more realistic than previous generations. And as they rise to executive positions within the workforce, this divergence between perceived selfishness and actual behaviours is widening.
As marketers we should be acknowledging that our old perception of Millennials is widely off the mark. And we should be aware that labelling of any kind is probably unhelpful when trying to sell to this age group. As this group ages, and their priorities consolidate, it is important to acknowledge that their resistance to labelling is, at least in part, because their practice doesn’t match their profile.
It might be easy to call them ‘Millennials’. But we should be calling them ‘today's new leaders’.
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