Photo credit: Cristina Pop

The Millennial myth

It seems that a day doesn’t pass without another article hitting the headlines exposing the shortcomings of the Millennial generation. Most of them are nonsense. Even the ones from reputable sources. For example, Time believes that Millennials can’t afford to buy houses because they spend too much money on avocados. And Business Insider blames Millennials for “killing the napkin industry”. In fact, at the time of writing, a Google search for ‘Millennials’ returns over 19,000,000 related articles. 71,000 of them have been published in the last week alone. No wonder The New York Times claimed that the word ‘Millennial’ is monopolising the cultural conversation.

But Millennials are not alone.

A quick analysis of search terms such as ‘Generation Z’, ‘Generation X’ and ‘Baby Boomers’ yields a similarly dizzying number of results. It seems we are obsessed with the concept of demographic cohorts. Or, to put it more specifically, we are obsessed with the idea that different generations have radically different beliefs and behaviours.

I believe this perspective is fundamentally flawed. This article makes the case against the use of demographic cohorts in marketing. It questions the value of insights gleaned from the field of demography. And it debunks many of the practice’s major premises.

Let’s start small.

We don’t know what to name the generations

Depending on which market research firm you go to, you’ll come across different names for the same generation. Nielsen will tell you that today’s youngest cohort is named Gen Z. Mintel calls this group the iGen. And Kantar Futures have named them the Centennials.

Three different authorities, three different names. But the inconsistencies don’t stop there.

We don’t know when their birth years were

As well as giving the generations different names, the research and consulting firms are also partial to picking different generational dates. Take Millennials. Pew Research Centre puts their year of birth between 1977 and 1992, whereas Euromonitor International charts them between 1980 and 1999. The same phenomenon can be found for Generation X. Millward Brown defines them as those born between 1965 and 1980 where as Pew Research Centre caps their upper limit as 1976.

I admit that these problems, individually, seem small. But they multiply together to create bigger, more systemic problems. If, for example, you were born in 1997, you could be classed as a Gen Z, an iGen, a Centennial, a Gen Y or a Millennial depending on which of the ‘experts’ you choose to subscribe to.

The same is true of those born in 1980. Depending on who you consult, they could be classed as a Gen Y, a Millennial, a Gen X or an Xennial (apologies if that last one made you puke a little).

Let me be clear, these are not simply some unique, flawed problem years. They are not errors in the margin. They are examples of the norm.

This is a problem. One market research firm would take the preferences of someone born in ’97 and weave them into an analysis of a given generation. Another would take those same preferences and consider them indicative of attitudes of a different generation.

How can we trust the analysis when the lines are so blurred? The short answer is we can’t. But that wouldn’t make much of a blog post would it? And this is only the beginning.

Two Millennial women with strikingly different lifestyles.

We don’t agree on how they behave

For the rest of the article, let’s assume a demographic utopia. A warm and fuzzy future where everyone agrees on the same cohort names and dates. Even then, there are still serious problems with the use of generational analysis. Let’s dig a little deeper.

When you segment an audience by age, you create huge, unwieldy populations. For example, there are around two billion Millennials around the globe. India alone has 385 million of them. And the US has 75 million.
 
Surely, nobody expects populations this large to share common beliefs and behaviours. These ‘segments’ are so vast that it is impossible to draw out any meaningful, overarching, truly representative insight into their character. Any revelation into their beliefs or behaviours must be taken with a pinch of salt. Or as Mark Ritson, Professor of Marketing at Melbourne Business School, put it in Marketing Week:

“Clearly Millennials as a generational cohort do exist — they are the two billion people on the planet born between 1981 and 2000. But the idea that this giant army all want similar stuff or think in similar ways is clearly horseshit.”

It seems obvious that any attempt to paint a picture of an entire generation will be composed of such broad strokes that it would produce a blurry, meaningless mess. Demographers are selling a Pollock as if it’s a portrait.

Many still try though.

Jean M. Twenge, professor of psychology at San Diego State University, is perhaps the most ardent advocate of generational change. She believes that young people today are more narcissistic and self-centred than those of previous generations.

Twenge’s premise is based on a longitudinal analysis of college students’ responses to the Narcissistic Personality Inventory. The NPI asks respondents to choose between 40 pairs of self-descriptive statements, one of which is narcissistic in tone and one of which is not. Twenge’s studies show that scores have risen among US college students over time.

Twenge summarises her position in The Evidence for Generation Me and Against Generation We.

“According to the empirical evidence, today’s emerging adults (Millennials/GenY, born after 1980) are more Generation Me than Generation We when compared to previous generations. Five data sets show a generational increase in narcissism, including one that demonstrates significant increases when a confound is controlled.”

Notice that even the academics can’t decide what names to use.

And Twenge isn’t alone in her beliefs. In a cover story for Time magazine, Joel Stein claimed that “the incidence of narcissistic personality disorder is nearly three times as high for people in their 20s as for the generation that’s now 65 or older” and that “58% more college students scored higher on a narcissism scale in 2009 than in 1982”.

But not everybody agrees.

Jeffrey Arnett, Research Professor in the Department of Psychology at Clark University, builds a three-fold case:

“There is no persuasive evidence that scores on the Narcissistic Personality Inventory (NPI) have risen among college students in recent decades. In any case, the NPI is a dubious measure of narcissism, and college students are a dubious sample of emerging adults.”

A similar pushback can be seen in a Los Angeles Times op-Ed. As evidence against Twenge’s sky-is-falling ‘narcissism epidemic’ narrative, Neil Howe and William Strauss cite falling rates of crime, teen pregnancy, abortion, premarital sex, reckless driving and drug use as well as rising rates of volunteerism.

Portrait of Millennial male with short hair, stubble and glasses.

Clearly the truth about Millennials’ personality traits is much more nuanced than Jean Twenge would like us to believe.

Of course, this hasn’t stopped her. Recently she has moved on to tarring the names of Millennials’ generational successors, the Gen Zs. Her September 2017 cover story for The Atlantic claimed that smartphones have “destroyed a generation” and that constant connectivity is pushing the fated generation to the “brink of a mental health crisis”. What follows is a cavalcade of anecdotes and statistics. According to Twenge, today’s youths have increased rates of depression, higher levels of suicide, they are less likely to leave the house without their parents, less likely to see their friend in person, less likely to date and less likely to engage in sexual activity.

Unsurprisingly, this piece also has its adversaries.

Psychology Today’s Sarah Rose Cavanagh offers another three-part critique and Elizabeth Nolan Brown delivers an impassioned retort. But perhaps the most compelling counterpoint to Twenge’s narcissism narrative is the argument that self-centrism is a sign of youth, rather than a sign of today’s youth. Elspeth Reeves makes this point clear in an article for The Atlantic:

“It’s not that people born after 1980 are narcissists, it’s that young people are narcissists, and they get over themselves as they get older.”

As supporting evidence, Reeve highlights ten front-page articles published between 1907 and 2007. Over the course of 100 years, articles from publications including Time, Newsweek and The New York Times have consistently claimed the youth of the day is self-obsessed, narcissist and nihilistic. In other words, every generation has been the ‘Me Generation’. Clearly the authors never learn from the flawed thinking of their predecessors.

Unfortunately, the disagreements don’t stop with the narcissism debate. There are many other traits often attributed to Millennials that do not stand up to scrutiny.

Take, for example, the now infamous Simon Sinek interview for Inside Quest. During Sinek’s monologue, the author and marketing consultant mocks Millennials for, among other things, their desire to make an impact in the workplace and their short tenures in professional roles.

There’s a few lines half way through where Sinek ties this all up neatly:

“And so Millennials are wonderful, idealistic, hardworking smart kids who’ve just graduated school and are in their entry-level jobs and when asked “how’s it going?” they say ‘I think I’m going to quit.’ And we’re like ‘why?’ and they say ‘I’m not making an impact.’ To which we say, ‘you’ve only been there eight months…’”

Sinek avoids even the most basic logical rigour. For example, the oldest Millennials are now turning 40 and thus the vast majority of the generation are unlikely to have “just graduated school” or be working “in their entry-level jobs”.

This shallow thinking, masquerading as deep insight, is littered throughout Sinek’s rant.

Despite this, there have been many attempts to apply some statistical weight to his vague, hand-wavy arguments.

Let’s look at Sinek’s claim of Millennial’s truncated professional tenures. Fast Company claims that median employee tenure for Millennial workers is just 3.2 years, compared to 4.6 years for employees in general.

Initially, this feels like a powerful datapoint. But think about it for even a few seconds and you’ll realise it compares the wrong metrics. Ben Casselman hammers this home in an article for FiveThirtyEight:

“Comparing today’s 20-somethings to today’s 30- and 40-somethings misses the point. Younger workers do tend to change jobs more often than older workers, but that’s always been true.”

Instead of comparing Millennials to today’s older generations, we should be comparing them to yesterday’s youth generations. Only this will tell us whether anything has actually changed. And when we dig into the data a different story appears.

We can’t distinguish their behaviour from that of other generations

The data consistently shows that today’s 22-29 year olds are actually less professionally itinerant than previous generations. To be more specific, every month about 3% of young workers change jobs. In the mid-1990s that figure was 4%.

So Millennials are actually staying in their jobs for longer. But what about their desire to make an impact?

A multigenerational, multinational study from IBM found that Millennials, Gen X and Baby Boomers shared remarkably similar perspectives on their workplaces and careers. Whilst a quarter of Millennials said it was their long term goal to “make a positive impact on their organisation”, so too did 21% of Generation X and 23% of Baby Boomer respondents. What’s more, the IBM study found the same intergenerational similarities in attitudes across all 10 of the measures they studied.

There’s two things to note here. Firstly, three-quarters of Millennials did not align to the trait that was attributed to them. Or to put it another way, most Millennials do not act like Millennials. Three quarters did not want to make a positive impact at all. Secondly, the amount of those that did was not dramatically different from the amount who shared this desire in other generations.

Two Millennial women with strikingly different lifestyles.

This second point is a profound one. If attitudes do not vary significantly between generations, then why segment by generation at all. Again, I refer you to Mark Ritson:

“Time after time researchers have set out to show the differences between Millennials and other consumers. And in every instance those researchers return with data that says that, aside from the general effects of being younger, hornier and poorer than the old fuckers ahead of them on the demographic motorway of life, they are actually remarkably similar to everyone else.”

You can see the same result from research that studies attitudes outside the workplace. The Dutch researcher Martin Schiere conducted a quantitative study of 15,000 people. Based on the responses he organised each participant into one of five attitudinal groups: challengers, conservatives, socialisers, creatives and achievers. If each generation held radically different beliefs, you’d expect to find them clustered together in a segment. However, you guessed it, they are each all fairly evenly distributed across the five groups. Let me put this bluntly, there is as much diversity within an age group as there is across them.

My point here, believe it or not, is not to stoke the debate between two sides. It’s not to argue for or against Twenge, Arnett, Howe, Strauss, Sinek or Schiere. It’s not to back one study over another. Nor is it to persuade you to take one side over another. My point is simply to demonstrate how murky this whole area is.

It’s this murkiness that results in a never-ending stream of broad, contradictory generalisations. For example, apparently Millennials are simultaneously the most self-centred generation and the most civic-minded generation. They’re frivolous spenders and deal-seekers. They were victims of bad parenting and yet they are closer to their parents than any other generation.

The list goes on.

Despite the work of professional academics, long-term studies and large data sets, one consistent, cohesive view of each generation’s beliefs and behaviours simply does not exist. Everywhere you look, the experts disagree.

Portrait of a black Millennial woman with afro hair, wrapped up warm.

Conclusion

So there we have it: we don’t know what to name the generations, we don’t know when their birth years were, we don’t agree on how they behave and we can’t distinguish their behaviour from that of other generations.

Nothing in this field is clear. But that, in turn, makes everything clear.

We must stop using demographic cohorts as lazy proxies for target markets. They feel legitimate because they are easy to define and easy to quantify. But easy isn’t always best. And, in this case, it falls down at every hurdle. It simply doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.

Using demographic cohorts results in a shallow understanding of those who buy the products we market. And it results in the same shallow understanding that your competition is also using. It views an audience from 40,000 feet. It works with averages. It creates work that means something to everybody, but everything to nobody. It produces generic audiences, generic insights and generic work.

There is a better way.

We must start by segmenting by attitude and not by age. We must accept that there is as much diversity within generations as there is across them. We must do the hard work and not stop at the shortcut. We must dig deeper and look harder. We must get out and talk to real people. We must understand what they think of our brands and the categories in which they compete. We must get under the skin of our consumers and inspire creative work that does the same.

The key to changing behaviour is to understand it. And only when we change our behaviour will we stand a chance at changing the behaviour of our buyers.

This is a call to arms. And if you’re a proponent of demographic cohorts it might surprise you. Because this consumer-first, hard-work orientated approach comes from one of those narcissistic, non-committal Millennials. Or should I say Gen Y? You know what, who cares.