They’re the butt of jokes and the source of frustration for many of my peers. The media often portrays them as happily living off their parents, confused about the workings of the world and why they’re not being recognized for their awesomeness. But if you believe that without digging a little deeper to understand the psychographic profile that is emerging, you’ll miss the biggest opportunity brands have today to connect with this growing economic powerhouse.
At 80 million strong, Millennials are about 25% of the total U.S. population, outsizing Gen X as well as Baby Boomers. Their voting power and political independence have both parties scrambling to adjust long-planned campaign strategies, and with about 21% of consumer discretionary purchases under their control, marketers are understandably eager to get a better grasp on what makes Generation Y tick.
While most of us recognize the potential of Millennials, mixed messages (and a lot of bad jokes) have created a great deal of misunderstanding. Years of negative media attention, including several pieces in the New York Times, have lambasted them as a materialistic, entitled, and disengaged “Me Me Me Generation,” resulting in a pretty bad reputation. Much of that was fueled by Jean Twenge’s 2007 research which analyzed databases of 9 million high school seniors or entering college students. But Twenge’s research also noted several conflicting points, suggesting a great deal more complexity than has been reported.
Today, many Millennials are experiencing the first major milestones of adulthood. According to GFK, 83% of the babies born this year will be to Gen Y or Z parents, and the median age of the first time home buyer is now 31 years old. Thankfully, our understanding of this generation has been maturing as well. While Twenge’s research is still a solid foundation, more recent studies by the likes of GFK, Achieve, YPulse,Brookings Institute, and Pew Research Center have provided greater context and insight. To give you a better picture of Millennials today, let’s take a closer look at the four most persistent stereotypes in media today.
MILLENNIALS OVERSHARE AND ARE EASILY INFLUENCED
A common complaint by those who came of age before social media is that Millennials are addicted to their devices, broadcasting their feelings and opinions to the world, and expecting constant feedback. It’s true that these digital natives spend more time connected, and have a larger group of friends to connect with. But that seems only natural when compared to the preceding generations who were not weaned on Facebook. It’s also true that a large percentage admit to seeking positive affirmation and being influenced by their peers to a higher degree than other generations.
However, this doesn’t mean we should view these young cohorts as one big interconnected and homogeneous culture. It’s a fact that Millennials represent the most diverse generation in our history. They recognize their individuality and actively cultivate their identities—combining their racial or cultural backgrounds with what they create for themselves through the brands, activities, causes, and associations they engage with. And they don’t see this engagement, and sharing their experiences, ideas, and opinions with others, as a contradiction to individuality. This respect for individual differences may also contribute to what GFK recognizes as a greater prioritization on equality as well as the growing acceptance for mixed and same-sex couples and families. That’s something that I don’t think could ever be over shared.
MILLENNIALS ARE MATERIALISTIC AND SELF-CENTERED
If you were to believe headlines the past few years, you would think that this is one incredibly delusional generation. And while it’s true that Millennials have practically turned selfies into an Olympic sport, research shows that they’re no more irrational and selfish than any other generation.
In fact, on the philanthropic side, young adults are outpacing their predecessors in many ways. According to the 2013 Millennial Impact Report, 1 in 4 gives to international charities and 83% of Millennials made a donation to an organization in 2012, while 20% regularly donate to charity. Even those from low-income households dig deep, with 17% donating regularly and 39% occasionally. An impressive 63% of Americans ages 20 to 35 volunteered for a nonprofit, and 70% said they helped raise funds on the behalf of a nonprofit. A 2013 World Vision survey also revealed that 56% of males ages 18-34 had given a charitable gift, compared to only 36% of older men.
Considering that this generation is facing a greater financial burden than any other in recent history, such altruism is all the more impressive and admirable. As for the notion that they donate or volunteer just for the Facebook bragging rights, only 3% of Millennials are looking to share the experience on social media. Let’s be sure not to confuse a demand to see the impact of one’s contribution with the expectation to be publicly applauded for it.
MILLENNIALS ARE IMPULSIVE AND ENTITLED
As many analysts have noted, Millennials are under great financial pressure and are having to make hard decisions about their futures. That includes the much-maligned choice that some have made to keep living in their parent’s homes. But is this the decision of a petulant child who refuses to leave his parent’s comfort or is it simply good math?
Time reported on a 2012 study by NPD Group that more than 20% of Americans ages 25 to 34 are saving on rent or mortgage payments by living in multigenerational homes. Frugal behavior continues across other expenditures too; Millennials are also eating out less often and are more comfortable saving money by sharing resources and renting services rather than owning. This doesn’t mean they don’t share the American dream of home ownership. To the contrary, it seems the delay to real estate is a very practical and responsible decision. According to the NPD study, “69% (of Millennials) believe someone is ready when they can afford to buy while also maintaining their lifestyle. For 61% of respondents, the “readiness indicator” is when they’ve landed a secure job. 71% surveyed believe that home ownership should be earned, not something they are automatically entitled to.”
MILLENNIALS ARE LAZY AND DISENGAGED
This last stereotype is the most egregious of them all. Not because the notion that Millennials are disaffected is untrue, but because we seem to have put all the blame squarely on their shoulders. Let’s not forget that this is the generation that grew up having a front row seat to our nation’s Great Recession, the televised meltdown of our banks, increasing wealth gaps, and the failures or stagnation of many of our other trusted institutions. If institutions are out of sync with the values of your generation, or worse, when they fail you, why would you continue to trust and support them?
Pew’s March 2014 report Millennials in Adulthood included several telling statistics that portray a generation “unmoored from institutions” at dramatically increasing rates; 50% consider themselves political independents, an increase from 40% in 2007, while 29% of Millennials are religiously unaffiliated compared to Boomers at 16%. Financial institutions are also grappling with their mistrust. Young adults are holding on to cash reserves rather than opening accounts or investing, and according to a recent study by Scratch, 33% believe they won’t need a bank at all.
If there is a sense of detachment in these young cohorts, it’s manifesting in ways that will have a significant impact on the social structures many of us take for granted. And that may not be a bad thing. According to UN’s report on volunteerism, “Millennials are increasingly acting as the agents of change in society, calling for institutions that are more responsive not only to their needs, but to national or global concerns, and providing the energy, creative ideas and determination to drive reform.”
Demanding reforms and supporting disruptive business models may make the establishment (read: older generations) nervous, but that should be expected as they lead us into uncharted territory. Do they have a map? Have they considered the implications of such revolt? Perhaps not. But they’re inheriting an inequitable system, one that is being exposed as more so every day, and most of them are going to get the short end of the stick.
Even with no organized effort or agenda, their purchasing decisions, cultural contributions, and opinions will inevitably shape our society, for better and for worse. I believe that for Millennials, the point of differentiation—and greatest impact—is that they believe there are other possibilities and they’re willing to explore them. The established rules and institutions my peers and parents accepted as de facto for a civil society are up for debate and reinvention. The world shouldn’t wonder about whether Millennials will ever engage, but rather anticipate how and where they’ll choose to do so.