A Millennial Perspective: What Marketer’s Don’t Understand About My Generation

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There is no word that a Millennial is more tired of hearing than “Millennial.” A cursory Google search will bombard you with headlines that are as contradictory as they are condescending, making bold declarations about a large, complex group of people based off of a few scattered data points.

“Millennials want their cars,” the title declares, as if the fact that young people today wanted independence and mobility was somehow shocking. “Most millennials say they’d rather rent than buy a home — a decision that could cost them more than $700,000 over the course of their lives,” the headline states, as if Millennials made bad financial decisions for some inexplicable, quirky reason to do with mason jars rather than because they are subject to the same broader economic forces we all are.

As a 25 year old, craft brew sipping, Twitter obsessed, card carrying (but not cash, God forbid) Millennial, I am frustrated with shallow, lazy thought-pieces that pass for analysis of our generation. The media treats us as these weird, unique little creatures who inexplicably refuse to buy homes and are “skittish from the recession” (as if skittishness were an adolescent mood swing, rather than a natural reaction to the worst economic crisis of the current century). Long, agonizing think pieces are dedicated to figuring out why we are “The Cheapest Generation”, written by what I imagine must be a room of bearded, balding men in tiny glasses with thick frames pondering furiously why those darned kids these days were acting so strangely. What’s funny is that I find those who would condemn our generation for being less consumerist less infuriating than those who would praise it. Newsweek tells us that Millennials are “not that into things,” implying that our generation is somehow more moral and pure, as if the combination of circumstance and genetics has magically imbued us with a superior worldview.

(The best part of that article, by the way? The only data it cites on materialism is a study that points out that Millennials and their parents prioritize experiences over possessions at exactly the same rate.)

Look, Millennials, to paraphrase Chuck Palahniuk, we are not special. We’re not a beautiful and unique snowflake. We’re the same decaying organic matter as everything else.

We, like everyone else, are broke. The economic system Mom and Dad relied on fell apart somewhere along the way—the only difference is that they were lucky enough to have stashed something away before it all came crashing down. We live with our parents because we can’t get jobs, even with college degrees. We don’t buy homes because less than half of for sale homes are within the reach of median Millennials. We don’t buy cars because between rising housing costs and ballooning student loan debts, we don’t really have the economic strength to add auto loans onto our financial load.

We aren’t weird. We aren’t special. We aren’t lazy.

We’re just broke.

So let’s stop asking the boring questions and start asking interesting ones.

When the economy picks up, will Millennials begin to act like their parents, or are these economy induced changes permanent? We know the recession affected older Millennials—but what about the youngest, who are set to enter a much healthier job market?

If we’re not special snowflakes, what are we?

Photo credit: Peter Gerdes via photopin cc.

This post previously ran on Jan 27th, 2015 as “Millennial Truths: What Marketers Don’t Want You to Know

Armand Domalewski enjoys solving global poverty, ending homelessness, and long walks on the beach. He’s a national champion coaching public speaking instructor based in San Francisco and a graduate of Santa Clara University.

5 thoughts on “A Millennial Perspective: What Marketer’s Don’t Understand About My Generation

  1. A lot of what you folks cover here is something Malcom Gladwell just discussed in a talk. That some things are generational and some things age. When I was 18-25 (1985-1992) I preferred and expected to be renting. I now own a home. Though many people lost big bank during the collapse. So the 700k number is not firm and very hard to estimate. Some things are generational. Like your recent Boomer chat on employee loyalty. GenY never had a social compact with employment/benefits. Boomers did then had it destroyed. Gen X started with the compact but didn’t have it long enough to be attached to it. So reading of retirees having their lifelong earned pensions taken away didn’t feel the same because I knew I would never have one. But I did expect the social safety net which has now been dismantled by the GOP. GenY never had either and will be saddled with meg debt something I will probably die before the US has to go into true austerity to pay down.

    But my issue with your think tanks is many of the things you discuss are often logical and no need for research. Like the loyalty one.. The things laid out certainly are true for every generation. But big business looks now at stock price and since employees now know there is no loyalty from employers they have little themselves and this won’t change anytime soon.

    And almost all of this is economics which most marketers blow off because they hate being tied to the economy when doing thought leadership. But the reality is the economy is everything when it comes to these things. It trumps ageist and generational attributes. Maybe your think tanks should be oriented about the what ifs for the economy more than age/generation? Just my thoughts.

    • Hessie Jones says:

      Howie, thanks for your comments. The reason for our Think Tanks is to dive deeper into the subject matter and understand the motivation and values that are nuanced among generations. What you’ve said about loyalty is not necessarily the case. I know many people who work at both Facebook and Google, who would stay until those companies die. I’ve heard of perks like sabbaticals (to allow people significant time to pursue other interests). By the time they come back, they feel refreshed and motivated to contribute. Opportunities like hack days allow people to pursue innovations or personal interests that may end up contributing to new products or features. This is exception, NOT the rule. So do we need to research this? Absolutely! These anomalies need to be documented and we learn a lot, especially from Millennials, about their outlook on job opportunities and their ideal careers.

      I’ve spoken to a few companies in Toronto that are going through massive restructuring because they’ve seen falling revenues in the decade. One has been in business for over 40 years. What this company has realized was that the ways of doing things are not in step with the market. Nothing that they’ve relied on in the past is working. Marketing, sales processes and how they position themselves. Employees are disengaged and those tenured at senior levels don’t want to change things. They brought in a consulting company to help them understand the market realities and also evolve the organization to be in step with the market demand. They know there is complacency and people want to leave so, better late than never, they want to change things.

      Yes the economy is changing things. Leadership especially. Employees have grown cynical but it’s all the more important to understand how people feel in this changing landscape. Both you and I know friends (both entrepreneurs and those within social media and agency businesses) who have left, been fired, been downsized and have chosen to pursue freelance or even questionable opportunities despite the market volatility. YES it trumps ageist and generational attributes. We are all in this together. BUT remember, everyone’s perspective may prove that there are more common beliefs and values among generations than real differences. This is what the Think Tanks seek to find. What I’m seeing continues to surprise me every time. This supposed gap that everyone speaks about may not necessarily be there.

  2. I agree with Howie. I am a Generation Xer who never enjoyed the security of my professional predecessors. In fact, the most repeated phrase in my professional career has been, “Of course, we didn’t have to do these things when we were in your situation…” That phrase was generally related to a fiscal slight or a new obstacle before I could advance professionally. I agree that many of the current issues of home ownership, new car ownership, and other considerations are tied to the economy rather than a generational attitudinal shift.

    I find Gen X and Gen Y are more closely related than the media would have us believe with regard to economic woes.

  3. Steve Dodd says:

    Finally!!! Howie and Christina, you’ve nailed it. What I believe Armand is saying (and many, many others) is that we’re all people first and (because it’s easier) naturally respond to our circumstances. These circumstances (economic or otherwise) dictate what we (all of us) do every day. Over the years, we’ve created an economy based on human “wants” not necessarily human “needs”. These “wants” have created increasing demands and fueled our economy based on artificial expectations. As a “boomer” and having enjoyed the experience of a “lifetime” I’ve learned one key point (that many, many people believe) which is the root of nearly everything we are struggling with today. Lack of patience and general greed screws up everything over time.

    We as a society have created a set of false expectations to further the consumption that drives our “false” economy. Unfortunately, this has evolved over time and created the circumstances our emerging consumer generation is now experiencing. So, do we “fix” the circumstances or help deal with them in a manner that has a long term, sustainable impact? I personally vote for “help deal with them” as “fixing” will only deliver short term relief, continue to escalate the problem and just pass it (in an even bigger way) to the next emerging consumer generation.

    Everyone is focused on the “Student Loan” issue as a primary reason this emerging consumer generation is struggling. OK, I can understand that. I’m not going to be so stupid as to give you an “I remember when” speech. But, I am going to ask why do they have student loans? IMHO it’s because we (my generation and BTW the generations before me) thought that (the “fix”) in order for subsequent generations (our children) to be successful and not struggle as “we” did (defined as having all they want), they needed a superior education. Supposedly, this would automatically give them a better start financially with higher paying jobs and other self serving ideals. In reality, IMHO, all this education really provides is teaching the discipline to learn and the further you go, the proof of your ability to learn. What we “teach” is usually outdated before the course is even built and therefore has little practical value on the other end (hence no immediate high paying employment). Therefore, even with all of this “higher education and excessive debt” everyone is still going to start at the bottom and continue to learn how to evolve a life over time (patience). Hopefully, the “education” will help you learn the reality of life and further your careers (access to wants) to higher levels, faster. Most (in fact arguably all) of our “great” leaders started at the bottom, no matter where they came from.

    And please, don’t get me started on job “security”. It has never existed. It’s only been a “spin” to keep the masses in line and allow those who knew it was a false expectation to capitalize on a sheep mentality. All that is happening is that the greed of those who capitalized on this “spin” have lost sight of it’s purpose and lost control of the rapid evolution of change they leveraged to drive that greed.

    Reality sucks! (or does it?)

  4. Jayme says:

    OK, since you hate that moniker (every generation gets labeled) and ‘you’re broke,’ then WHY do the millennials, young people with skills I need continue to slap me in the face and not want my business? Why is communication relegated to the convenience of the contractor and not out of courtesy? Why would it take 31 days to respond to an email offering work for cash? Why isn’t there a phone call in reply to my last-ditch effort to communicate and ask for help? Why would you get so pissed off at me that you put a virus in the website you built for me?

    Yes, these are the biggest affronts to my professionalism, and there are more. No, I can’t generalize a generation; however, when I’m hiring from all over the country (honestly, every corner) and this is what I get…I’m absolutely astonishingly dismayed. Send me someone I can grow my team with; send me someone who wants to work on developing a brand and learning from a master; send me someone interested in helping me solve a conundrum; tell me who wants to be scrappy and earn it. I will be forever grateful.

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