Stop saying that word ‘Millennial’

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Barely a day goes by without a new report claiming to provide insights into the surprising habits of so-called ‘Millennials’.

Articles such as ‘How Millennials are changing the face of retail’, ‘Millennials and mobile: what marketers need to know’, and ‘Over 80% of millennial generation see mobile TV content as essential’ pepper the marketing press. A search of the Econsultancy website returns 13,900 results for ‘Millennial’, suggesting that there’s a lot to discover about this generation.

Get closer

Why the obsession with ‘Millennials’? Anyone who works in marketing needs to understand their target audience if they want to communicate effectively with them, and businesses see young people as both a huge opportunity and a tricky challenge. Understanding them, and appealing to them, is key.

However, the problem with obsessing about ‘Millennials’ is that it risks creating distance between businesses and their audiences, rather than a deeper understanding. Occasionally it is useful to talk about a generation as a whole (‘baby boomers’, ‘Gen X’, etc.), but the downside of doing so is that it involves describing huge swathes of the population and their habits with the broadest of brushstrokes. Herein lies the danger: ‘Millennials’ don’t actually exist, but people do.

3 reasons to stop saying ‘Millennial’

1. It creates distance, not empathy

‘Millennial’ conjures up a caricature of a person who spends all day on Snapchat sharing selfies whilst watching PewDiePie and Zoella on YouTube. Sure, these things are popular, but the cliché of the ‘Millennial’ seems to get more absurd with each article shared within the marketing industry, each adding another layer of veneer to the myth of the ‘Millennial’.

If we believe everything we read about this generation, they become so distant from the rest of the population that you might wonder if they are even human at all. To illustrate this, someone’s made an amusing Chrome Extension that replaces the word ‘Millennial’ with ‘Snake People’ in web pages, exposing the absurdity of journalism that describes a generation as being so different to the rest of us that they may as well be aliens.

2. Most people don’t even know what ‘Millennial’ means

Within the marketing community, ‘Millennial’ seems to have become a byword for people born around the year 2000; ‘digital natives’ who grew up with the web and smartphones; or, in the worst circumstances, simply ‘people younger than me’. However, according to Wikipedia, ‘Millennials’ or the ‘Millennial Generation’ actually refers to Generation Y, ‘the demographic cohort following Generation X’, with ‘birth years ranging from the early 1980s to the early 2000s’ – so a ‘Millennial’ could be 35 or they could equally be 15.

This lack of definition makes it a dangerous phrase as it could be interpreted in wildly different ways. Someone in their mid-thirties and someone in their teens are so likely to have such different behaviours and worldviews that it’s not particularly useful to talk about them in the same breath.
We need to be more specific about who we are describing if we want actionable insights.

3. Assumptions are dangerous

Judging by the amount of articles available, there is an insatiable appetite for information about ‘Millennials’. Skimming these stories you can build up a picture of the ‘Millennial’ generation, but this linkbait-fuelled myth is likely to be wrong. A while back I attended a great talk by Dan Healy, User Experience Consultant at Nationwide Building Society.

He recalled the tricky task of recruiting 11- to 17-year-olds to use Nationwide’s new FlexOne young person’s current account. His research with this audience debunked many of the clichés of what you might think ‘Millennials’ want and how you should communicate with them, and highlighted the dangers of making assumptions about their behaviours. For example, something as seemingly dated as signing a form with a pen to open a first bank account was seen by young people as a right of passage and a key moment in becoming an adult, not a symptom of a bank out of touch with young people or technology.

Because we’ve created the myth of the ‘Millennial’, a species oh-so-different to the rest of us, confirmation bias comes into play. We are willing to believe the crazy articles we read as it confirms our existing belief that ‘they’ are different from the rest of ‘us’. This helps explain the huge amount of demand for articles about the habits of ‘Millennials’ online, and the competition to make more and more outlandish claims about this generation. This Millennial Insight Generator mocks this, by generating randomised ‘insights’ about their habits, ranging from the banal to the outrageous.

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Don’t be that guy

My hunch is that there are a lot of (middle-aged) marketing professionals out there who are panicking, as they feel out of touch with younger audiences, and are willing to lap up the myth of the ‘Millennial’. The generation coming through are important to every business. They are the new workforce, the new consumers, the new parents. We must connect with them or risk failure. However lets do that by speaking to and understanding them, not by reading link-bait hyperbole online.

Being more specific about who we are talking about (e.g. ’17-21 year old British females in full time education looking buy their first car’) results in tangible insights that just aren’t possible when you use blanket terminology such as the ‘Millennial generation’. My advice is any victim of the ‘Millennial Bug’ is to get out of your office and open up your ears – hang out with people who aren’t like you (or your colleagues!). Commission proper, targeted research with your customers and understand them. User research doesn’t have to cost the earth, there really is an option for every budget; and you might just be surprised by what you learn.

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