Top Of Mind

Defining The Millennial Generation

September 2013
Millennials Top of Mind

Pop quiz, with apologies to  younger readers. Please choose from the following options.

Millennials are:

A) The most entitled generation this side of the Crusades! They’re spoiled rotten by easy access to everything via the Internet and incapable of integrating themselves into a working world where an ability to crochet is no guarantee of a steady income.

B) A marketer’s worst nightmare! Rejecting the just-tell-us-what-to-buy herd mentality of the iPod Gen Ys, millennials show a healthy cynicism and a demand for the most elusive of brand qualities, authenticity, whatever that means—but  they believe they’ll know it when they see it.

C) A creatively driven, confident bunch! They’re defined primarily by their ability to flex in the face of uncertain financial climates and geopolitical unease in the developed world—and wildly varying job prospects in the developing world.

The correct answer, by the way, depends on who you are and what you’re trying to achieve. Millennials can be tricky to pin down. Defined in real time, they’re both optimistic and cynical, and are defined primarily by an ability to adapt in the face of changing circumstances.

A Prison of Our Own Making

In 1975, Michel Foucault, one of the leading intellectuals of the 20th century, likened The Panopticon, a turn-of-the-century prison design in which cells were arranged in a circle around a central tower, to modern hierarchical societies. The idea behind the design of the Panopticon was that a single guard could monitor thousands of prisoners by standing in that central tower.  The theory went that by periodically reminding specific prisoners they were being watched, all prisoners would eventually behave impeccably. Because the prisoners were unable to tell when they were under observation, they would act as if they were being watched all the time.

Social media is the millennial generation’s Panopticon.

This is a generation coming of age in the most self-reflexive time we’ve ever known, a technological environment that creates a constant feedback loop between the stuff that’s put out and the stuff that comes back. Think about when you were in high school. How often did you really find out what people thought of you? And how would it have affected you if that frequency had been upped to several times daily?

In a recent interview with the Huffington Post, 14-year-old Casey described her social networking habits in the same terms one might use to evoke a sickness or parasite.

“I’ll wake up in the morning and go on Facebook just … because,” Casey says. “It’s not like I want to or I don’t. I just go on it. I’m, like, forced to. I don’t know why. I need to. Facebook takes up my whole life.”

It stands to reason that if Facebook is your noticeboard, Twitter your coffee bar, Tumblr your playground, and Instagram your diary, real-world experiences—and having something to say every day—become less of an enjoyable experience and more of a competitive sport. Casey goes on: “If you don’t get 100 ‘likes,’ you make other people share it so you get 100,” she explains. “Or else you just get upset. Everyone wants to get the most ‘likes.’ It’s like a popularity contest.”

An interesting side effect of this popularity contest is the rejection of fashion brands with clearly identifiable logos in favor of a more utilitarian aesthetic. Witness the triumph of UNIQLO in recent years: T-shirts unbranded but available in multiple colors, promising just enough self-expression to stand out but not so much that one risks being defined according to a visible set of values.

In 2012, rapper Drake alluded to the role of platforms like Tumblr in defining millennial identity. His concerns pertained to what he observed as a cut-and-paste mentality by which younger users craft their personalities in real time, online, through the interactive mirror of social media. “I’m scared of Tumblr,” he mused. “I’m scared of what Tumblr has become. Instead of kids going out and making their own moments, they’re just taking these images and living vicariously through other people’s moments. They don’t actually embody any of those things. They just emulate. It’s scary man, this simulation life that we’re living. It scares me.”

Identity Shift and the Rise of Katniss Everdeen

Intriguingly, this most mercurial of generations is evolving again. A recent MTV study entitled “Young Millennials Will Keep Calm and Carry On” defined two distinct types of millennial. First, the older, 20-something Harry Potters, raised by parents and touchy-feely 21st-century politics to believe in their own special ability to change the world with a wave of a magic wand. And, second, the Katniss Everdeens (see The Hunger Games), the more pragmatic 14- to 17-year-olds, convinced that the world is not their oyster but that they will have to create their own oyster. This generation is fuelled by practical solutions in the face of mounting anxiety, with over three-quarters of 14- to 17-year-olds agreeing with the statement, “I worry about the negative impact that today’s economy will have on me or my future.”

This is the first time that millennials across the globe are united in outlook. Previously, millennials in the developed and developing world varied extensively in their opinions about the prospects of the economy in which they grew up. Now, increasing global levels of uncertainty and anxiety are leading to a hardened pragmatism. For example, in 2010, 71 percent of millennials ages 1417 agreed with the statement “If I want to do something, no one is going to stop me” versus only 51 percent in 2013. After the gung-ho entrepreneurialism  embraced by the older members of the cohort, this change represents a precipitous and disheartening drop in self-confidence.

However, this new sense of savvy is also leading to a more measured view of how younger millennials  are engaging with technology. They’re not only monotasking—actually switching off when they have something to focus on—but also specializing, i.e., creating niches for themselves as the social media experts in, say, ’60s fashion or vintage Cadillacs. The pull of nostalgia seems exceptionally strong, with the MTV study finding 54 percent of 14- to17-year-old girls say baking makes them feel less anxious.

One wonders if the same study also addressed  boys on that subject.

Marketing to Millennials: Back to the Drawing Board

From a brand perspective, these trends suggest that the carefree, colorful, catch-all tropes that define current marketing to millennials—usually off-the-cuff urban socializing, possibly while surrounded by friends all holding the same cellphone—will soon be replaced by a more serious tonality. However, the cohort  remains united in a love of unique and thrilling experiences, with 81 percent saying it values experiences over material items, and 47 percent wanting brands to provide inspiration for things to make, do, or buy. This instinct for authenticity and dislike of the phony has led to a branded economy defined by UTILITY, RELEVANCE, and ENTERTAINMENT.  Why sit through a hollow marketing message when you can enjoy an enticing real-world experience, with the attendant emotional pull?

Author: Jessica Greenwood, Planning Director, Insights & Planning, New York