‘Millennials’ is a useless term

by Jed

Like most of my posts, this is a hypothesis for something I’ve been thinking about for ages. By publishing it, I hope people will challenge or back up the hypothesis, and I can get smarter. I also covered some of this in a previous post, but wanted to expand on it a little more. 

A few years ago I was fortunate enough to go to our EMEA leadership conference in Berlin. There were a host of amazing speakers, and they were covering some astonishing ground. Everything from AI, through to the global news agenda, and ‘Millennials’. One afternoon I saw two talks that will stick with me forever. One inspiring, and one that missed the mark so spectacularly I left genuinely slack-jawed.

The conference

So, right after lunch we’re sat waiting for a spokesperson from Vice Media to take the stage. Eddy Moretti, chief creative officer at Vice, took to the stage. He spent 45 minutes talking about how todays youth (AKA ‘millennials’) have been misunderstood as being a self-centred, lazy, and uncreative generation. As the company he works for is built upon understanding this generation at an intimate level, it was an awesome talk. It was the first time I’d ever heard anyone talk at length about how fragmented and misunderstood this generation was. He got a standing ovation (and there were probably only about 20 ‘millennials’ in an audience of 150).

Next up, a senior figure at a large broadcaster rushed in, having just raced across town from the airport. After a few minutes of composing himself, he began to give a different talk from what was listed in the agenda. Instead talked about the ‘millennial’ generation. It was a shame he wasn’t their for the previous talk. I think he’d have maybe thought twice before he leapt into a 60 minute take down of ‘millennials’. He said we (and it is we, I’m officially a ‘millennial’) were lazy. Work-shy. We have an enlarged sense of entitlement. We have a total lack of care for ‘The Company’. He called us a lost generation that needed spoon-feeding by ‘generation x’ and ‘boomers’.

I had never seen such a perfect demonstration of why the term ‘millennials’ was so useless. Never had it felt so obvious that my generation was almost completely misunderstood.

How had this happened?

Millennials is a confusing term because it tries to apply a socio-demographic definition to a culturally complex generation.

Before I get in too deep, my use of the word ‘culture’ is in reference to the culture that people most associate with. Pre-1960s this would’ve likely been national, religious, or racial. Post-1960s, I believe that people more strongly associated with different types of culture. Punk, Cosplay, Casual. This is a way of defining people that I believe is a more useful definition of who people are, their beliefs, and how people behave. Culture is by and large what helps people to feel like they belong. It shapes their attitudes, and it shapes their behaviours.

What has made things complicated is the internet. Now cultures fire, develop, and transform like synapses in the brain. Every connection leads to new ideas and new understanding. Every new idea contributes to the culture that person belongs to.

The reason the ‘millennial’ generation is so misunderstood is because it is culturally complex. That’s not to say that previous generations weren’t complex, or that they didn’t have cultures. But this generation see more cultures. More cultural symbols. More people. More new ideas. Those all contribute to different attitudes. This is what makes this generation the most culturally complex and difficult to understand. Cultural membership and attitudes are now far greater ways to define how to communicate with someone than their age or salary.

The post-war culture boom

It’s safe to say that those born in the post-war years built the foundations of many of the major businesses and cultural phenomena we know now. Apple, Starbucks, Nike. Rock and roll, video games, drugs. Those foundations effectively birthed popular culture. Before the 1950s culture was mainly used as a term to refer to high or low culture. High culture was high brow. It was classical art, music, theatre, philosophy, and literature. Low culture referred to popular culture; radio, TV, newspapers and magazines, pulp fiction. So everything before the 1960s was an amorphous mess of mainstream, monoculture.

Pre-1950 the global population focused on winning wars, escaping poverty, and preventing financial disasters. The generation of people born in the 1940-50s had what their parents didn’t – opportunity. Opportunity to create things; businesses, or culture. Culture now had more people to drive it, and to create sub-divisions. ‘Boomers’ set our cultural foundations.

Then in the late 1970s, 80s, and the 90s, ‘generation x’ took culture to the next level. Sub-cultures began to develop on the foundations of the ‘parent’ culture. Kraftwerk gave birth to techno. Techno gave birth to acid house. Acid house gave birth to Jungle. Jungle to Drum and Bass. This is just one strand of the cultural impact that one band had. The same happened in film. Literature. Theatre. Art. Everyone is standing on the shoulders of giants, but each step up creates new directions. Each direction create new sub-cultures. Before you know it a thousand sub-cultures have been born.

It’s a cultural family tree. This is how punk (a primarily socialist, anti-facist, anti-racist culture) managed to morph into Oi! the soundtrack to the National Front. Different cultures become appropriated, re-appropriated, and developed (or in some cases devolved). This makes understanding ‘generation x’ quite complicated.

Then came the internet.

For many people born after 1980, they won’t remember life without the internet. Even if that oldest memory is of an awful dissonant dial tone. The internet is rocket fuel for culture. Every possible interest group had a forum. Every new trend had a blog dedicated to it. Every new culture had a network. This is where culture becomes accelerated and messy. It enabled people who associated to a particular culture to develop things together, regardless of their socio-demographic. When this happens, culture splinters and births more cultures.

Culture (and the cultural network someone exists within) becomes a part of self-expression. That self-expression shapes attitudes. Attitudes shape behaviour. Behaviour then shapes how people decided what they buy and the brands that they associate with. There’s a reason Vans is a the skateboard kids shoe of choice. Why Lemmy drank Jack Daniels. Why technology entrepreneurs drive Tesla’s. It’s easy to see, but difficult to understand.

“How do we connect better with Millennials?” 

If you were born in 1980, you are now 36 years old. ‘Millennials’ are becoming the primary audience for many organisations, and that will only continue. This presents a challenge if you’re a CMO who’s used socio-demographic audience data for their entire career. It’s human nature to respond to the unknown in one of two ways; learn about it, label it as ‘other’ and disassociate with it. ‘Millennials’ is, for the large part, a dissociative label.

The few organisations that have tried to get a handle on ‘millennials’ have done well. Nike, Apple, American Express. Massive brands, with huge target audiences. Where they’ve found competitive advantage is in understanding people at a cultural level. They have put culture, attitude, and behaviour before age.

So, let’s stop using ‘Millennials’ to describe people who were a certain age. Instead let’s focus on understanding the network of cultures that drive them forwards. If we’re ever going to mean something to people, we have to know more about them than their birthday and salary.

As Craig Stead, a colleague of mine, recently said, “given the data we have access to, it’s better to flip the way we build audiences. We should start from interest data, and then layer on socio-demographic and behavioural data”. Everything is there, right in front of us, we just need to flip how we think about things.

We have more cultural data than we’ve ever had before. The pictures I post. The forums I contribute to. The messages that I tweet. The films that I rate. The friends that I have. Everything that we do online is an sign of the culture that we are part of.

If we can look beyond socio-demographics, we can begin to understand culture. If we can understand it, we can contribute to it and become part of it. That’s how you build a brand.

This post originally appeared on AgencyVoices on LinkedIn.