When it comes to over-hyped marketing and workplace topics, the millennials win hands down. As the father of three millennials and employer of several more, I find myself unable to resist this topic.
But instead of rehashing the oft-repeated warnings about millennials (they’re selfish, entitled, apathetic) and listing all the ways to “deal” with them, I’m going to share my own experiences with them as a hybrid boomer/gen Xer, as a parent, a marketer and an employer.
I’ll give you the punchline first: Millennials are going to change everything, probably for the better, and the rest of us should stop fighting it and get on board.
Who are millennials?
Born between the early 1980s and the early 2000s, millennials are the largest generation, with a population of around 76.6 million, and are the most diverse generation in American history.
Millennials currently comprise about 36 percent of the global workforce, and by 2025 will account for a full 75 percent. They’re also the most highly educated generation in U.S. history. As of 2013, 34 percent of 25- to 32-year-olds held at least a bachelor’s degree (versus 25 percent of gen Xers and 24 percent of boomers when they were the same age), according to the Pew Research Center. And their pocketbooks are growing too. They have an estimated $1.68 trillion in purchasing power now and will later be inheriting about $41 trillion in wealth transfer, so its worth getting on their good side.
And that’s not even the interesting part.
Millennials are a cohort raised with permanent crisis and fluctuation as the norm. In their most formative years, they faced the fallout of 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, two wars on terror, an alarming number of school shootings and fiscal devastation from the latest recession. During the market crash, they saw parents struggle through pay cuts, job losses and other economic disruptions. Then they graduated from college with $1 trillion in student debt for degrees that no longer guarantee stable employment.
As a result, millennials are a generation defined by their coping skills and a subsequent refusal to be defeated by obstacles. They are inventing new and better ways to conduct business while cultivating a make-the-best-of-it attitude and questioning everything the rest of us view as fact.
Simply put, they are changing everything.
Millennials are approaching adulthood differently than previous generations. They’re postponing marriage and families, record numbers of them have no religious affiliation, and they’re far more tolerant than previous generations. Polls show they are less prone to casting negative moral judgments on LGBT issues, interracial marriages, single mothers, working mothers and unwed couples living together.
Chastened by the tough economy, this tendency for tolerance has driven millennials to seek happiness and value over material gains. Lacking access to traditional career paths available to previous generations, they’re constructing their own definitions of work, choosing to pursue personally fulfilling strategies over the long-game ladder climb. And it’s not that they expect it to be easy or to be handed to them. I’ve watched my own sons work their way through college, start their own businesses when no jobs could be found, take on multiple internships and volunteer positions, and move back in and then back out of home as needed. Millennials are willing to sacrifice, take risks and work together to reach their goals.
They challenge the norms. In the millennial world, nothing is sacred. The old ways hold little value. Their parents’ constant supervision and over-scheduling have produced a generation of young adults with no patience for inefficiency, stodgy institutions or the status quo.
Companies who understand millennials’ changing lifestyles and desire for unique, shareable experiences will capture their attention and spending. The same can be said for businesses that create efficient solutions to solve millennials’ problems.
In the marketplace, millennials are graduating from college with unprecedented levels of debt and degrees that barely open doors. The result? They care more about achievements than degrees. As they begin taking on leadership positions, we’ll see recruitment look away from educational backgrounds and focus instead on achieved results. Hierarchies and ladder-climbing mean less to millennials than working on interesting projects and having their voices heard.
They force transparency. Transparency is one of the central qualities millennials look for in the places they work and shop. Throughout their lifetimes, the news has been unrelenting with reports of scandals in business and government, so millennials value honest, open cultures. With social media ingrained in their lives, constant sharing is expected.
Millennials know how to find any information they want thanks to their overwhelming access to technology. They are the most informed consumer generation yet. Millennials notice companies that communicate honestly. They reward brands that provide customer-friendly services and quality products. Furthermore, they recommend and review them through word-of-mouth marketing, exponentially enhanced by their social media networks.
They expect generosity and community support. Millennials are often called selfish, but how can a generation trained from birth to do community service (it will look great on a college application, after all) not grow up to view philanthropy as the norm? Millennials are incredibly giving, just not in the ways previous generations have been. They want to see philanthropy in the products they buy and places they go. Millennials believe that a company should be measured not only by financial success but by their employees, products and social contributions as well.
This expectation carries into the nonprofit world. Millennials will not blindly give to an organization or even donate to a long-term solution without seeing short-term gains and proof that their money and time is making an impact. When inspired, millennials will act impulsively in a number of ways, from small donations to short volunteer stints, provided there are opportunities readily available and the barriers to entry are low.
They demand collaboration. While their parents and grandparents preferred working alone, millennials were raised on group projects and team sports, so they’re group-oriented. In their professional lives, it’s less about the company they work for and more about whom they get to work with and the types of projects they work on. Corporate hierarchies make little sense to them, and they flourish where collaboration is mainstream.
As consumers, millennials don’t want to be talked at, they want to converse. Broad marketing and traditional media just won’t work. Distinct and relevant content, solutions and products are more likely to capture their attention. This 2-way dialogue allows millennials to share ideas and concerns, effectively co-creating the products and services they purchase.
Bottom line: Millennials are important to your brand.
Millennials are a big enough generation to force the rest of us to cater to their preferences. Consider life in the millennial image: Personal lives devoted to pursuing your own definition of happiness, careers focused on flexibility and meaning, and day-to-day routines defined by efficiency, convenience, honesty and affordability.
Doesn’t sound too bad to me. And, with the millennials’ relentless spirit and sheer numbers, I’m not betting against them.
I recently asked a gen-X friend of mine to give me her take on generational communications in the U.S. today. Her response was perfect: “In the words of MTV’s cultural phenomenon The Real World, it’s ‘The true story of seven strangers, picked to live in a house, work together and have their lives taped, to find out what happens when people stop being polite — and start getting real.’”
Let’s be honest, few generations were more aptly named than the baby boomers. While the moniker may have risen from a historically specific fertility trend, in many ways it has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. As writer P.J. O’Rourke once described it: “We’re stuck with being forever described as exploding infants.”
If I wanted my 20-year-old son to join me for a late meal, I’d text him: “Buffet on me.” But I would never ever text my 86-year-old mother with a dinner invitation. For her, there would be a phone call with plenty of formalities and forewarning, a promise of a nice, sit-down establishment and a start time of 4:00 p.m. to take advantage of early bird specials. Why? Because each generation communicates differently.
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