On Knowing Millennials and Other Young Things

As you’ve no doubt seen, there’s a lot of guff written about millennials and the younger generations these days. Most published writers and social anthropologists have long since left those youthful, care-free days behind. Which means, just as our grandparents struggled to understand us, it’s sometimes difficult making sense of the ways that younger people now live their lives.

Not a Millennial BadgeAnd I’m no different. Understanding how the next wave of increasingly affluent, middle-aged consumers lives its life in its 20s and 30s today presents a major challenge when you’ve been there, got the t-shirt, and long since thrown the t-shirt away in favour of something that looks better with corduroy.

The only fair and true way to develop a deep, factual understanding of age-defined groups like millennials—typically people who reached adulthood around the turn of the 21st century—is to employ talented, independent researchers to collect meaningful insights direct from the source.

Yet many people who are old enough to know better seem quite happy using generic observations and hearsay to define these younger groups in their minds. To be clear: your daughter or niece is not a millennial. Your neighbour’s son is not a millennial. Even if you were born between 1977 and 1995, your experiences are unlikely to be fair representations of how all other millennials think and live their lives.

Just for the record, here’s a generally accepted set of age brackets for the most widely cited generational groupings:

  • Gen Z – born 1996 to present (current age: 0-21yrs)
  • Millennials – born 1977 to 1995 (current age: 22-40yrs)
  • Gen X – born 1965 to 1976 (current age: 41-52yrs)
  • Baby Boomers – born 1946 to 1964 (current age: 53-71yrs)
  • Traditionalists – born 1945 and earlier (current age: 72yrs+)

[Note: arguments continue to rage about the precise age brackets. For instance, some date the birth of the earliest millennials to 1976, while others claim it’s 1978, and some insist it’s 1980!]

So, how do you go about understanding how these different age groups live their lives so you can encourage them to buy more of your products and services?

In short, you don’t. Just because a 21 year old sits in the Gen Z grouping, it doesn’t automatically follow that they’re profoundly different to a younger millennial (who may be as little as one day older!) There’s no magic switch or transformation that happens between people born in 1995 and 1996. So my first, and most essential, piece of advice would be to take these age groupings with an unhealthy pinch of salt.

Secondly, however, there are plenty of useful things you can do to deepen your appreciation of some of the broad differences between these groupings. There are hundreds of secondary (i.e. existing) research reports that you can mine to start building a picture. For example, if you’re in the travel industry, Adobe recently published some excellent articles (here and here) derived from its 2017 Adobe Digital Index U.S. Working Millennials Survey. The data used were collected in the USA but the findings provide some helpful insights to travel companies looking to tap into the younger dollar. Adobe’s report shows that for 70% of working millennials buying ‘experiences’, especially travel-related, holds a higher priority than buying ‘things’. We learn that their technology dependency—not just use—means that have exceptionally high expectations of travel companies and they demand highly personalised and tailored experiences when planning to spend their rising disposable income. We also understand the staggering importance of social content  with 84 percent of millennials now planning trips with the help of photos shared online by other people like them. Some online reports are a goldmine of information. Use them wisely to build out a rough picture of your younger potential audiences.

But desk research and published reports will only take you so far. Every company, yours included, has a distinctive brand and audience. Your millennial prospects may be dramatically different from those a competitor can realistically win. This is why you must also invest in your own research, with your own business and goals in mind. A skilful researcher—and I’m not one, so don’t ask me for help here!—can help you identify very specific opportunities to improve your service offering and communications approach to increase your appeal to younger generations. Quite often it’s the little changes you make that may have the biggest impact. Shifting your brand and message to appeal more to tomorrow’s most affluent consumers needn’t call for wholesale reinvention. So compile your own research, with help from independent thinkers, and start unlocking the ideas that can help your company thrive into the future.

And please don’t add to the minefield of misleading online guff about younger people until you truly know what you’re talking about!


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