The business press can’t stop talking about Millennials. Each week, articles roll off the digital presses, advising brand managers, marketers, and others about the need to understand the unique qualities and challenges that Millennials present.
As more and more of those articles appear—and more authors and speakers attempt to brand themselves as “Millennial whisperers”—a few tropes about Millennials recur again and again.
My advice as a researcher (and a practicing Millennial) is to mostly ignore the advice of those generational gurus. And, in that spirit, with this article I’m going to dispel three of the most commonly repeated myths about Millennials.
Myth No. 1: Millennials are the Zodiac Killer
You’ve seen the headlines: According to Business Insider, “‘Psychologically Scarred’ Millennials Are Killing Dozens of Industries.” Perhaps no Millennial news trope is more common than the Millennial serial killer: The unique habits and lifestyle choices of the Millennial generation are ostensibly killing countless industries, among them napkins, chain restaurants, non-craft beer, real estate, golf, motorcycles, and diamonds.
Truth: Technology is driving changes that are affecting all of us
When you read a headline describing something Millennials have killed, stop to consider whether there are other forces driving the change.
A shift from sit-down chain restaurants to DoorDash-like delivery options is perhaps driven less by generational habits or thought and more by the technological and logistical advances of an innovative, well-financed group of new restaurant delivery services.
Sure, it could be that Millennials simply hate the idea of going to a movie theater, but perhaps it’s also worth considering that Millennials (and their parents) now have access to a virtually limitless supply of entertainment piped into their big-screen, high-definition televisions (or laptops, for that matter).
Rather than looking for a generational explanation, in many cases broader societal shifts in technology and society provide the answer.
(Also, Sen. Ted Cruz seems like a more likely suspect in the Zodiac murders.)
Myth No. 2: All Millennials go to Burning Man
In the minds of some Millennial whisperers, today’s young adults are a generation of music festival cyber-nomads, chasing experiences rather than tangible goods and refusing to settle down into more traditional patterns of living, working, and building families.
Truth: Millennials are struggling financially, but they share the goals of previous generations
There is truth to some claims about Millennials: They’re less likely to buy homes than their parents’ generation (so far), and they’re delaying marriage and childbirth. But, again, we oversimplify if we read these trends as a generational pattern and not a response to broader forces that affect us all.
Remember, Millennials are a generation that grew into adulthood at the height of the largest economic crisis since the Great Depression. Moreover, Millennials are attending college at higher rates than previous generations in an era of inflated tuition and a reliance on loans, which means that even Millennials in traditionally lucrative careers are starting their adult lives with the equivalent of a mortgage payment—but no house.
At the same time, when we compare generations in our brand and market data, we find that Millennials share mostly the same aspirations as prior generations’.
In other words, it’s not that Millennials reject the idea of buying a house and settling down, it’s that they’re having trouble affording it.
Myth No. 3: Millennials want all brands to be TOMS Shoes
If you’ve read an article about how brands should pursue Millennials, you’re probably familiar with TOMS, a shoe brand known for its slogan “With every product you purchase, TOMS will help a person in need.”
The Millennial whisperers have taken notice, pointing out that TOMS is popular with Millennials because of its do-gooder approach to doing business. And that, the gurus say, is the key to connecting your brand with Millennial consumers: Young people want brands that give back.
Truth: Millennials want brands to be honest
Today’s young adults grew up in an environment where advertising was literally ubiquitous: on billboards, in stores, on TVs, online, and occasionally even in textbooks. The Millennial generation is accustomed to ever-present advertising. So we’re cynical. Moreover, technology has given us new sources of information about brands and products; even for non-Millennials, the experience of browsing reviews on Yelp or Amazon is a familiar one.
Rather than wanting you to make your brand something it isn’t by hitching your wagon to a related (or unrelated) charitable cause, Millennials want marketers to communicate with them honestly.
It’s not about being a do-gooder; it’s about understanding your product, your brand, and your customer, and showing savvy digital natives that you know what they know, that you have accurately assessed public perception, and that your messaging reflects their and your reality.
What have we learned?
The common idea that Millennials represent a fundamental break from preceding generations and require a radical rethinking of business practices is mostly a myth.
Millennials do show some differences from other generations, but those are most likely not part of some essential generational quality but a response to the external forces (especially technology and the economy) that shape Millennials’ (and others’) lives as workers and consumers.
The most important thing you can do for your “Millennial strategy” is to put away one-size-fits-all generalizations about a huge and diverse population and instead understand the Millennials in your own industry.
Their behavior may well be more like their parents’ and other generations’ than you expect.