Why Millennials Matter

[NOTE: This is a significantly revised draft of Chapter 2 in my new book-in-progress, Lethal Generosity: Contextual Technology & the Competitive Edge. Feedback is welcome at shelisrael1@gmail.com.]

Who are these Millennials and why are so many people, writing researching criticizing and praising them? Are they really that different from the way Boomers and other generations were when they were young? In a book called Lethal Generosity, why do they get special attention?

The answer to these very direct questions is like relationships used to be described on Facebook: they’re complicated.

Depending on which research firm you use for a resource, the year Millennials were born start in 1976 or 1982. They started being replaced by the younger Generation Z in either 1998 or 2004. In the United States there are either 75 million of them or 87 million of them.

The point is that there are a lot of them and most are either in college or they have already entered the work force if they can find the job. As nature requires, they are destined to replace 50 million Boomers who have begun to drop off in from the marketplace in significant numbers. The experts say we will not be much of a factor to retail business past the year 2020.

If you are older than a millennial and you are a business decision maker, than they are likely to be a dominant representation of your customers, employees and competitors for the next fifty years.

They are particularly important to this book, because evidence is strong that a majority of them will make decisions based not on brand trust messages, but in terms of the experiences they and other people have with a company.

Finally, and perhaps most important is that they have unusually close relationships with contextual technologies. They were literally born to thrive in the new Age of Context where lethal generosity will eclipse brand marketing.

All of this being said, please keep in mind that there are an awful lot of them in the US and in the world, and they do not all agree on any one subject, just like Boomers or any other generation. So for every trend I talk about, keep in mind there are millions of Millennials who also think and act differently.

As far as the experts and pundits go, it is difficult to pinpoint when the generation starts and ends, although consensus is centering on 1982 as the starting year for Millennial births and 2004 as the closer. There are many outliers. For example Robert Scoble was born way back in 1965, but he seems to me to be far more Millennial in behavior than the Generation X label that demographers would pin on him.

The big point is that there are a lot of them: perhaps 87 million just in the United States. Sometime in 2015, Pew estimated, they will replace Boomers like me who have dominated for the past 45 years or so.

No one seems to know where the jobs to support them will come from. My guess is that this is one of many problems that Millennials will have to solve for themselves — and they are inheriting a great many problems.

They have often been scorned or dismissed by research and media pundits. Nielsen, painted pictures of Millennials as a “selfish generation” sufficiently arrogant to expect everything they want to be available on demand. Time magazine ran a cover story on them called The Me, Me, Me Generation, where they outdid Pew, calling millennials “lazy, entitled narcissists who still live with their parents.”

Sailthru Trust Survey

I was particularly fortunate that Sailthru, a personalized marketing communications technology company — and one of this book’s sponsors conducted an extensive survey to determine how brands build trust.

It interviewed over 1000 people, including more than 400 millennials about what they trusted online and in stores.

I use Sailthru survey data throughout this book. I trust their results because they talked with so Millennials and then had data to compare and contrast them with respondents from earlier generations.

Unlike Nielsen and Time, Sailthru offered no conclusions, only data that brought me to a more positive conclusion about Millennials and the future of business that other resources may have guided me.

Hope & Paradox

Personally, I have a great deal of hope for the next fifty years than I did before researching Millennials for a year. A key to understanding them is that they collectively understand they are inheriting a world of messes created by earlier generations: it is being left to them to fix enough to ensure there will still be a world for future generations.

Still I see why a business observer, more intent on solving immediate business problems may deem Millennials as a paradoxical generation.

For example, as customers they have a transactional perspective on brand trust: they want brands to trust them before they will trust the brands. This may sound like a riddle, but it is not: This book will provide several examples of companies that preempt competitors by demonstrating they trust customers to say what they want, rather than try to tell them what they should buy, based on where they are standing in your store.

This transactional attitude was also reflected in the Sailthru Trust Survey, compiled by one of my book sponsor. It found Millennials more willing to provide merchants with personal data, provided those companies would use that data to improve their personal experiences.

Millennials as employees can also befuddle older employers. JS Gilbert, a consultant and a voiceover talent who I know through Facebook told me about a San Francisco digital agency that started hiring Millennials so that its creative work would have greater appeal to millennial audiences. He provided a superior benefits package along with free snacks, Foosball and other amusements for letting off steam.

The Millennials proved their talents, when creating personal work such as their own web sites and creating music, but the creative output for clients was rated tepid at best.

Disappointed, the CEO compared notes with friends in other agencies. The general consensus was that millennial employees were higher maintenance and more self-absorbed than older employees performing similar tasks.

Results by friending

Dave Donohue, another Facebook friend, is vice president of marketing and communications, at San Francisco-based Unified Social, an ad tech software firm, that also hired several millennials at about the same time: a few reported to him.

According to Donohue, nothing particularly happened for a while, until one day a Millennial who reported to him asked to be his Facebook friend.

This had not previously happened at Unified. The office certainly had friendships that extended beyond the office, but they were not connected through Facebook, and certainly no junior employee had ever invited his boss to be a Facebook Friend.

Donohue, hesitated, then figured, ‘what the hell’ and accepted. Soon other millennials started inviting senior staff to be friends. They also started friending each other: Eventually someone started a Facebook Group, where the team could interact privately on Facebook.

This would change corporate culture. The lines between work and personal discussions blurred. Information was shared faster and across the organization.

Unified Social became more social. Junior employees offered unsolicited strategic ideas, some of which were put into action. The organization became flatter with good ideas and collaboration being initiated at all levels of the organization: It became more efficient with fewer meetings.

“We became a smarter organization,” Donohue said. It also started getting more business with customers who had Millennials making

In 2015, Unified was named to Ad Age’s list of the 40 best agencies to work for. In accepting the award, Unified’s top brass spotlighted the Facebook Group and the pro-active initiatives of millennial team members.

While Gilbert’s unnamed agency made best efforts, it failed in my view, because it made them in a traditional way, and Millennials are not part of that tradition.

On the other hand, a Unified manager showed he trusted someone who reported to him first, and Millennials responded in an exciting and positive way.

In fact, it shows that Millennials showed respect for the advanced years of their managers. The friend invite was made on Facebook, which is not the most popular social network for Millennials who are not fond of hanging out where their parents hang out.

Generalizing about millions of Millennials based on a mere two samplings is neither scientific nor is it conclusive. But I think they give some sense of massive changes that may change the workplace as much as technology is doing.

I have spoken with many other people who have studied or worked with millennials as well as talking with a large handful of Millennials directly.

I have the sense that they want jobs that will use the skills they have. Those that are underemployed because of a tight job market are clearly frustrated — yet remain highly optimistic about their personal futures.

Much of what they want is the same as other employees hope for: recognition, appreciation, and –- yes, a nice benefits package.

But they operate differently than earlier generations. Where older employees may enter the workplace feeling competitive and hoping to outperform co-workers, Millennials enter with a more collaborative attitude.

And more than any generation that preceded them, they are inextricable attached to technology.

Digital Natives

I was about 35 when I first used what would soon be called a personal computer. It was hard and foreign to me, yet I was an early adopter compared with most fellow Boomers.

Still, it took me many years to be fully comfortable with personal technology and sometimes communicating with and through it feels to me like communicating in a foreign language.

That is probably the most significant difference between Boomers like me and most Millennials.

Millennials are digital natives. Their learning process for talking with technology is a lot like learning a language as a child while my learning technology was like learning a language as an adult: there are significant differences.

Linguists talk about naturally acquiring versus consciously learning languages. Almost everybody starts acquiring at least one language shortly after birth. They usually have that one down pat by the time they enter grade school.

It turns out that most people who acquire one, two or more languages before they reach puberty speak them without accents and those who learn them after cannot shake the accents no matter how hard they try: For them, the cognitive process is more awkward and a lot slower.

Many Millennials learned to communicate with computers before reaching adolescence. For them, the process of telling a computer what they want — and understanding the machine’s response — is natural.

Their relationship with technology, particularly networks and mobile devices is a phenomenon that shapes their generation.

When it comes to mobile devices, Millennials are as close to them as Boomers were to their teddy bears. In fact, Pew reports that 83 percent of Millennials sleep with their smartphones, which is regrettable news for teddy bear manufacturers.

While children of earlier times learned the joys of the Dewey Decimal System and library index cards, while our fingers had to walk to find locate business services we needed, Millennials us smartphones.

So do the rest of us these days: but they never had to deal with systems that now seem cumbersome compared with how fast you can find things on Google. So if Millennials sometimes act like they expect immediate gratification, it is due in part to having grown up getting immediately gratified in finding answers to problems and questions. They seem to understand that the simplest of solutions is almost always the best, which is a lesson that took me years to learn.

For business strategists, the important point is that for Millennials, you should consider the mobile device as an essential, omnipresent part of Millennials as shoppers or employees. Take a smart phone away from an older individual and it will be inconvenient, but they will work around it: remove it from a millennial and she may become entirely lost.

For Millennials, the smartphone and all the mobile app treasures inside serve as personal genies, solving any problem that is possible to solve, filling almost any personal need at any time, in any place — and in fact those extraordinary expectations are very often met.

If you want to acquire and retain a relationship with them, it is important to understand both the role of the mobile device and the reason for expectations of immediate gratification.

Digital devices play an equally significant role in how Millennials socialize. While they do have real friends whom they spend time with, they also learned at an early age to build trusted friendships with far-off people via children’s social networks such as Club Penguin, iTwixie and Kuddle.

This capabilities of this same device lessened geography as a barrier to friendships. Millennials became accustomed at an early age to building trusted relationships with absolute strangers whom they might never have encountered in the tangible world.

Of course, the rest of us now do that as well, but for us it is an acquired behavior, just like learning a new language as a grownup.

While all these aspects of digital nativity are relevant to explaining Millennials in the workplace, this last observation — the tendency to welcome the advice and friendship of people encountered online — is perhaps the most important.

In us we trust

Who or what do Millennials trust most? They trust each other.

From multiple sources, particularly Sailthru, I learned that Millennials trust each other for information that influences what they buy, visit, watch or listen to.

Peer recommendations are overwhelmingly more credible to them than marketing claims Sailthru reported. Very often they connect with these friends, customers and other people through their social graphs — that network of people they interact with online. Additionally, they follow customer reviews on software platforms and reviews sites.

The Sailthru result surprised in one aspect: Millennials can and do respond under certain conditions to advertising and marketing messages. Perhaps it is because they came of age feeling financially strapped, but they are interested in special offers for discounts and rewards — if the offer is relevant to who they are, where they are and what their intentions are in the context of the moment.

So do the rest of us. But Millennials differ from many others by treating ads merely as an opening act: They rarely click to buy. Instead the ad opens the door to a potential purchase by a tiny crack.

This process is one of the reasons I see the balance of power shifting from sellers to buyers. The only ads likely to work are the ones that use contextual technology to understand what a customer wants.

Out of context ads won’t open doors. Even if a door is open younger customers will remain unlikely to respond until their friends say that they found a brand or an offer to be what it seems to be — which often not the case.

Such intrusions have been unpopular with earlier generations. But as social communications increase, companies that take such tacks may find a backfire factor where prospects talk about them as unhappy customers and prospects warn others away.

A better tactic at a lower cost, is for merchants to retain millennials to hangout online listening to what potential customers have to say about what they want or need, then join the conversation at an appropriate moment. It is far smarter than coming in talking and pushing an agenda.

This may sound like an old tactic called one-to-one marketing, a process that is often dismissed by major brands for being unscalable in a mass market.

But in these socially networked times one-to-one instantly becomes one-to-many and instead of marketing it becomes highly scalable conversations. Online conversations sometimes reach millions of people in a short period of time through the dynamics of the social graph.

This is another example of something that has become true for all people, but is truer for the emergent generation.

Let’s look at why talking to one really means interacting with many, in conversations where the marketer doesn’t ever seek to “control” the targeted audience.

It happens the other way around.

Open Source Generation

The open source movement allows software developers to freely use, modify and share software with anyone they choose. If any movement exemplifies the power of Lethal Generosity in action, it’s this.

Open source is the reason why the software industry has rapidly migrated from a few large and powerful companies selling proprietary and expensive software to many smaller operations and independent whose software is inexpensive or free.

This movement has dramatically changed the technology industry. Fifteen years ago Microsoft was regarded as having a stranglehold on the entire industry: now it is just another player struggling against others to protect and expand its market share.

The industry itself, no longer a specialized silo on its own, is a core aspect of the productivity, capability and character of all other industries it touches.

Open source has played a driving role in this transformation. It decentralized and democratized the industry causing one of the great power shifts of recent times.

Every time someone downloads free software open source is a factor. While a free app appears to be an act of generosity, those who develop and publish that software almost always hope to profit from that free stuff in the form of data that will be useful to marketing and applicable to user experiences as shoppers, sports fans, travellers or concert goers.

Also important to note is that Millennials came of age after open source became prevalent. For them free or inexpensive is expected. Some may call this an arrogant attitude, but the truth is it is part of the environment in which they grew up.

It helped me to understand that as digital natives, Millennials are the first open-source generation: They freely share what they know — often in the form of online recommendations.

Short-cut software

A great many Millennials are also prolific software developers, sometimes just to hack, but often they produce product to share or for monetary gain: overwhelmingly these are build on open source code where they use strings of programming code developed by an earlier coder.

This makes sense. As Sailthru observed, Millennials love short cuts and not having to reinvent developmental wheels save a great deal of time and expense. It also explains why most mobile apps share very similar look and feel: making it easy for end users to understand how to use new programs on first try.

Open source programming languages may not be a universal language of all digital natives, but it certainly transcends most spoken languages. It is used in the same way all over the world, by hackers in Russian coffee houses and the Millennial team that built such globally important software platforms as Facebook, which is open to other software being linked up to it which has happened tens of thousands of times, if not more.

All of this is vital for businesses to understand if they wish to successfully interact with Millennials. It has much to do with how many of them solve problems.

Consider how the social graph might be useful in a millennial approach to problem solving,

Solvable Problems

I have cited a coupe of sources where Millennials are discounted as self-absorbed and/or apathetic — two so-called conventional truths that I consider to be false.

From what I read and whom I talked with I found them to be a pragmatic and serious-minded generation. A couple told me that one way they felt Boomers went wrong was that their aspirations were too lofty and their expectations of conventional leaders were too idealistic.

Millennials regard business, religious and particularly political leaders to be so entrenched in their own agendas that they simply cannot be trusted to actually address the problems to which they give frequent public lip service.

When they see an overwhelming issue, such climate change, or ending poverty, they prefer to break it down into manageable chunks that are solvable — and then they choose a chunk where they feel passion and they attack it with zeal.

Instead of addressing hunger and poverty, one millennial may choose to address clean drinking water or shoes for impoverished children, or food for poor kids in school, or salvaging plastic from the ocean and turning it into fashion items.

From there, some start businesses with that social cause being central to the corporate cultures they build. Then they network with other millennials to share experience and information in open source fashion.

If they are to solve the problems that threaten the planet, they will do it one chunk at a time, in smaller, organizationally flatter groups and they will share what they do and learn with others through networks in open source fashion.

Control Obsession

Anne-Marie Fowler is an independent researcher and writer particularly in the areas of finance and public policy.

She has been researching millennials for five years, serving as a career mentor for a small handful of them. She has been among the people who have most helped me to understand the riddle I saw when I began looking at millennial cultures.

Fowler talked with me about the young adults she was mentoring: One aspires to manage the world; a second believes she can save it, while the third, expects to entertain dreams of teaching and entertaining it. Each has already begun trying to make their plans a reality.

This at first impressed me as unrealistic, particularly for a generation characterized as being fond of easy solutions. Fowler explained that their aspirations were not based on unrealistic hopes but on realistic fears.

“They feel they need to work with each other to fix problems because they have no other choice,” she said. “They have a planning obsession because they are reluctant to accept what might happen without planning.”

While the aspirations of her three mentees may sound narcissistic to some, their approaches show both sharing and responsibility elements required in open sourcing. As Fowler sees it, Millennials see themselves as nodes on a connected network. It is the network and not the individual that can fix what’s broken. The people she mentors just want to be sure they will not be nodes that fail [HM6] others on that network.

In this sense, she says, they are taking responsibility. Sharing is a method by which to do that, she says. “It’s a very different way to look at control.”

The most successful Boomer’s took a very different course to achieve their goals. The generation. Leaders with lofty aspirations took control. Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and Larry Ellison[HM7] changed the world by commanding, pushing and achieving enormous financial gains for themselves and investors. They were captains of powerful merchant ships.

Many, such as Gates, would become philanthropists, but even then, many tended to keep command and control of how they thought their money would do the most good.

I do not fault that approach. I simply point to it to explain one asset of how Millennials think and act differently. They believe that with the best collaborative operations, many hands can take a ship further in less time with less interference.

The concept only makes sense if you understand how networks work.

Human Nodes

Dr. Robert Metcalfe, inventor of Ethernet, introduced a white paper in 1980 that demonstrated how the power of the network increases exponentially every time a node is added. Essentially, this means that the whole of a network is significantly more powerful than the sum of the nodes it contains.

When Metcalfe put this forward in 1980, the nodes he had in mind were workplace computers and PBX telephones. When I interviewed him in 2003, he admitted he never envisioned people as part of the network, nor, I would assume, was he thinking about such modern technologies as Wifi, Bluetooth, GPS, cloud storage and even mobile devices, which at the time were mostly clumsy, dumb devices.

Today, more than a third of the world’s population are network nodes. The network is not only comprised of computers and humans but also many millions of inanimate objects connecting via IoT. You can attach a sticker to your shoe and it will be able to connect via low-energy Bluetooth to a global network.

All this connection, however, caused a little separation as well, or so it seems to me.

By the time millennials entered adolescence that network was starting to expand at exponential speed and in galactic proportions. It must have been a heady and empowering feeling to employ a device that fit comfortably in their hands and to connect with people, places and things. For them such connection was natural: for many older people, there was something downright freaky about it.

When Boomers were teens, there was much talk about a generation gap: with Millennials it was a digital gap. While elder generations continued to deplete resources, fight brutal wars and find increasing ways to polarize cultures in terms of wealth, belief and politics, the digital generation turned passions toward the network connections and cold shoulders to the messes they did not create but must clean up if the life of the planet is to be prolonged.

If I were a Millennial I would look to my elders and say, “Thank you very much. We’ll take it from here and see what we can do.”


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