Millennials: An Urban Legend?

Millennials: the omnipresent term alternately arouses doubt, irony, and weariness. Who are these remarkable Millennials to whom the media attribute, on a nearly daily basis, a variety of characteristics distinguishing them from previous generations? At times the target of communications and marketing campaigns, at times an object of epistemology, Millennials are above all a mystery, a “mix of contradictions” (Jeremy Rifkin), more an object of fantasy than scientific deduction.

Origins of the concept

To understand this evolution, let us go back to the archeology of the concept. The term “Millennial” first appeared in 1989 as the name given by American historians Neil Howe and William Strauss to a new generation whose oldest members were born in the early 1980s. Signaling a renewal in the sociology of generations, Howe and Strauss offered a theory of “cycles of generations” supposedly occurring in the same order since the 16th century. According to this theory, generations of war heroes are systematically followed by generations of non-conformist, undecided youths.

The work of Howe and Strauss was met with some skepticism: is the mere fact of being born during the same period sufficient for all members of a cohort to share the same specific traits? Do such specificities as the generation effect supplant other sociological determinants as powerful as social, family, or geographical belonging, or the age effect? Can it really be said that all individuals born between 1982 and 2003 are “possessed of rational minds, a positive attitude, and selfless team virtue” , as described by the two historians?

This tension between the general and the particular, between the age effect and the generational effect, is reflected in the vagueness that surrounds the notion of Millennials in the abundant literature devoted to the topic. For what is meant by Millennials? Even the terminology varies. Millennials, Generation Y, Generation Why, or digital natives: the profusion of labels only fuels the confusion, as does the imprecise definition of the term, which, from one study to the next, describes individuals “born between 1980 and 1995” or “between 1977 and 1995.” At most, this unclear delineation allows us to understand that “Millennials” is meant to designate not an age group, but a generation. Although it is difficult to place their exact number, this generation is thought to represent about 77 million individuals in the United States, 89 million in the European Union, and 14.2 million in France.

To crown the confusion, the Millennial label does not even garner the approval of those it is intended to describe: according to the Pew Research Center, only 40% of adults aged 18 to 34 define themselves as Millennials. Yet one of the underpinnings of a generation is precisely the feeling of belonging of its members.

A sociological concept turned marketing object

Despite the confusion, the concept of “Millennials” is a seductive one, perhaps because it seems effective in providing a key to reading new phenomena. While it was not commonly used in the 2000s, Google search statistics reveal a growing interest in the term “Millennial” starting in 2005, and a clear acceleration of its use starting in 2013, as the marketing world grabbed hold of it.

Popularity of the word Millennial, on a scale of 0–100, in Google search requests between 2004 and 2015 — source : Google Trends

What could be more convenient to define a new population that cannot be seduced by the same artifices as its parents? According to TheBostonConsultingGroup, Millennials are “changing the face of marketing forever” and “are distinguished from older generations by their spending habits, brand preferences, values, personalities and general outlook on life.” At the same time, a prevailing view permeating North American and European media depicts Millennials as a selfish generation, and presumes to decode their relationship to the world of work and to dispense advice on how to work with them.

The word “Millennial” therefore has a double meaning: on the one hand, it is a marketing term referring to a segment of consumers and a segment of active young people (the two not necessarily overlapping) deemed sufficiently homogenous to constitute a distinct target for marketing and managerial actions; on the other, it refers to young people between the ages of about 18 and 35, whose potential distinctive characteristics scientific studies are just beginning to analyze, given the lack of perspective in time.

While the first designation — marketing and managerial — may seem easily questionable, its impact should not be underestimated: to what degree might the marketing and managerial view of these Millennials influence young people’s perception of themselves through the power of suggestion, affecting their purchasing behaviors, and therefore their habits? The creation of the “Millennial” segment, aiming to sell specific products to young people, has the capacity to create distinct modes of consumption and thus to cause a generational effect, where behaviors and preferences might, initially, have only been the effect of age. Consequently, does it not contribute to turning the myth into reality — or at least, into a desirable ideal?

As part of its exploration of emerging urban trends, La Fabrique de la Cité proposes, in this first edition of its “Factcheck” series, to question certain representations associated with the Millennial figure, most typically depicted as follows: a young, ultra-connected college graduate who lives in the heart of a large city, once studied abroad, is resistant to the traditional hierarchized management of large companies, and has entrepreneurial aspirations. A vision perfectly summarized by the “4 i” formula (individualistic, interconnected, impatient, inventive) conveyed by French managerial literature.

Yet are these traits, which we of course presume enlarged to create a peak effect, really specific to a generation? Are they not rather specific to a subgroup of a generation, or to the youth of the chosen cohort (who will lose these traits as they grow older)? Are they not even characteristics that describe a whole swath of the population which distinguishes itself, not by belonging to a generation or by age, but by its ability to reflect the deep and sometimes paradoxical transformations of our globalized and connected societies? Rather than a stereotype, should we not view the Millennial figure as an archetype?

Through an analysis of seven popular beliefs on the urban habits of Millennials, this study, in the form of a Factcheck, aims to deconstruct the (at times abusive) use of this term and to understand, based on a more objective foundation, what the “Millennial” concept can bring to the analysis of the societal evolutions that are transforming our cities, from housing to mobility, from ecology to political engagement.

This article is part of our installment “Factcheck: Millennials, an Urban Legend?”, in which La Fabrique de la Cité deconstructs the Millennial stereotype and analyzes this generation’s rapport to the city. Read the integral version of this Factcheck on our website.