Let’s stop talking about the Millennial Generation and start talking about the new, global psyche

by Philippe von Borries, Co-founder & Co-CEO, Refinery29

Over the past four years we’ve been bombarded with Millennial talk.

Chances are that your inbox, like mine, has been inundated with analyses, events, and seminars attempting to dissect the complexities of this much-discussed generation. But, truth be told, I suggest we stop using the term Millennial altogether.

The label has been jumbled beyond recognition (we’ve heard that Millennials are entitled, distracted, narcissistic) and we are all missing the point: As the co-founder and co-CEO of a company that speaks to millions of Millennials every day, here’s what I do know: Millennial culture speaks to a way of thinking, not an age group that spans twenty widely disparate years.

It’s about a broad, progressive, new global mindset, informed by generations past and influencing future generations in powerful and positive ways.

It’s time to change the conversation from “them” to “us!”

But before we can do that, we have to get the facts straight. Allegedly, we Millennials are lazy and resist fitting in; we’re distracted by technology and consumed with a plethora of social media accounts. But, the reality is far from these misconceptions. In fact, what we’ve discovered in our work with Millennials at Refinery29, is that we’re a career-focused generation with unprecedented access to information. We’re connected to the world but see ourselves as individuals; we’re eager to spark change across the spectrum of politics, environment, nutrition, technology, and more. We have indescribable confidence, an innate sense of power and self-belief that you often cannot put your finger on. You could misconstrue that as entitlement, but you shouldn’t.

The nerve center of this generation is the intersection of identity and self-expression

At Refinery29, we are clear that the nerve center of this generation is the intersection of identity and self-expression — and that’s why we Millennials refuse to be contained to traditional definitions.

It’s important to remember, though, that this enterprising, individualistic, and change-driven mindset didn’t emerge from a vacuum. There’s fluidity from generation to generation that has informed and evolved this new global psyche. We are the strongest generation because of the activism and non-conformity that Generation X fought for, standing on the shoulders of the Baby Boomers before them, and so on.

Think about the grunge movement in Seattle; Bill Clinton’s outspoken remarks on drugs, gun control, and health care; or even the advent of reality TV, which turned ordinary people into celebrities, circumventing traditional approaches to fame altogether. These distinctly ‘90s cultural touchstones all show traces of the spirit of the Millennial; of having command over your own destiny. From there, this latest generation of change agents has amplified the message even further through the megaphone of social media.

The world is taking note — and changing accordingly

WPP Stream Cannes 2015

I am confident we are now at a tipping point, where we are moving from hyperbole to action. The WPP-hosted event Stream is a windsock of change that speaks to this very idea. The recent gathering in Cannes saw the likes of VICE, The New York Times and The Guardian in frank discussions about how the old guard is racing to keep up with the rise of VICE, Buzzfeed and Refinery29 among others. Later in the day, Airbnb and Marriott shared a stage to debate the future of hospitality in a world where they now share the same market valuation despite very different company histories.

The same thing is happening on the political front, too, in the lead-up to the 2016 election. Half of this generation of U.S. voters identifies as independent, rather than along party lines. U.S. Candidates and elected officials alike are redefining their messages — and changing the platforms through which they are sharing them — as a result. President Obama encouraged users to ask him anything in his Reddit AMA, Hillary Clinton announced her candidacy in a YouTube video shared across social media and Periscoped the lead-up to her official campaign launch.

And, on the entertainment front, people are refusing to be pigeonholed as simply entertainers and are using their platforms to drive action around issues that mean the most to them. Lena Dunham, entertainment force and activist, stands strongly behind issues such as LGBT and women’s reproductive rights. Taylor Swift, with a single Tumblr post, effectively changed the way that Apple, arguably the most influential technology company in the world, makes money and interacts with artists.

As a generation, we consume media in settings that reflect these changes: social feeds that display pictures of family next to shopping recommendations, news on the latest global crisis, and cat videos. We’re not offended by this kind of mashup — in fact, we expect it. Sites like Tumblr are not just rabbit holes of entertainment and self-expression, but also places where we shop, learn new things, get inspired, and connect with others.

Our entire culture is evolving to reflect the Millennial psyche

We need to recognize, and celebrate, the fact that our entire culture is evolving to reflect this Millennial psyche — something that will have a ripple effect for years to come. This way of thinking extends beyond the fact that this generation is value-driven rather than label-driven, or the fact that this is the most diverse, progressive generation yet. It bleeds into style, creativity, and a way of living. This cultural shift is about living a curated life where each decision you make, from the type of coffee you drink to the shoes you wear, reflects your individuality and identity — and often, your belief system.

All of this means that we need to stop talking about Millennials and start talking about people.

Fashion, politics, religion, technology…these aren’t mutually exclusive. All of this means that we need to stop talking about Millennials and start talking about people. And, the way people consume is no longer confined to a box. At Refinery29, we meet the same challenge by speaking to our audience across the entire spectrum of things that matter to them, through a filter of inspiration, entertainment, and empowerment that makes even the toughest topic feel accessible.

A few years ago, we made the decision to invest heavily in expanding beyond our roots in fashion and style and to step up and speak to this woman more fully about wide range of ideas that matter to her — including news, culture, travel, and politics. Like Millennials, we can swing high and dip low, without being defined by either end of the spectrum. We can seamlessly toggle between the Kardashians and Michelle Obama because the way we think about identity has evolved into something more nuanced and less linear.

As leaders in media, technology, creativity and global brands, if we change our mindset to reflect the multitude of issues our peer group cares about — from activism and entrepreneurship to pop culture and puppies — the future of business will look much different than it does today.

We all share the responsibility to step up and align with the things that really mean something to this consumer, abandoning the looming question of, “is this safe for my brand?” We need to acknowledge the authenticity and duality that are innate to all of us, in order to innovate the ways in which we communicate universally. The global Millennial psyche is asking us to step up our game, to stop conforming to the boxes we are accustomed to using and begin the next iteration of culture and globalization in a way that is entirely unique to us.


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