Having interviewed more than 50 millennials in great depth, I've consistently been struck by two things. One, they are a generation united by acceptance of cultural diversity, a critical view of American policies, social liberalism, a healthy dose of skepticism about their own generation, and the painfully obvious common factor: technology. The other thing I've been struck by is the staggering differences between a 21-year-old and a 26-year-old. I wonder, do we need scholarly research to explain this difference? Well, perhaps if it leads to better marketing.
A recent study released in the Journal of Consumer Behaviour suggests that the Great Recession of 2008 could be a defining moment that separates "Older millennials" from "Younger millennials." The significant "take-away" from their study:
"The values most strongly differentiating the younger and older millennials were 'piety' and 'thrift.' Younger millennials in the U.S. are less thrifty and more secular and sexually permissive than older millennials. They are also less patriotic and less concerned about politics, sustainability, saving, and making mistakes in life. This suggests a splintering of the millennials cohort as a result of the Great Recession and the potential emergence of a younger 'entitlement' cohort."
If this finding proves substantive over time, it's not only bad news for those of us trumpeting the potential of this young generation to right our ship in America, it's just plain old bad news for everybody. Who among us, regardless of political alliances, could possibly consider an "entitlement cohort" a good thing? No American who believes in working for a living wants to see his or her children evolve into a generation expecting something for nothing, left to face a bleak reality that, frankly, we caused.
Critics of millennials like Fox's Steven Crowder, himself a millennial, charge Generation Y as already being adrift on a cultural landslide of ignorance, apathy, and selfishness. My own research may not align, but I do think it will have a greater impact when criticisms are levied from within the ranks of Gen Y themselves. In contrast to Crowder, other millennials make an effort to not only be productive but to shine a light on the best of their generation. Glass half empty or glass half full? History will decide, but an analysis of generational theory will tell us that America is in crisis, and it's going to take the next 20 years to correct — that's roughly the time required to get millennials from young adulthood to middle age. With 80 million of them, it's fair to expect that by their 40s, they'll have the wheel in America whether they feel entitled or not.
The study published by the Journal of Consumer Behaviour offers survey results comparing younger and older millennials. The results are clearly splitting hairs with only tiny percentages separating attitudes among younger and older millennials on questions pertaining to their confidence, going "green," and views on opportunity and hope. In spite of the earlier assertion that young millennials are "less patriotic," the two groups were matched evenly believing they have a sense of patriotism, but the younger set indicated they were slightly less "proud of my country."
Where the divide becomes more apparent is with older millennials indicating greater belief that virginity is "a value in society today." Younger millennials indicate less willingness to "wait until marriage to have sex." The younger group is also less inclined to "pray to a higher being."
Regardless of what older generations believe to be the significance of such findings — declining values or a departure from dogma — we can likely expect marketers to tap into these sentiments within the younger millennials. One strong clue might be the fact that the study emerged from the Isenberg School of Management and the Moore College of Business, published in a scholarly journal of consumer research.
Can any good come of it? It could depend on which side of a transaction you're on as a young Millennial hands over cash. Younger millennials believe that they practice saving money more so than older millennials believe of themselves. But the older group believes they prefer to save instead of spend, and are more apt to believe that they do not live extravagantly. Meanwhile, both groups evenly believe that they "live simply."
I meanwhile believe that we're back to splitting hairs, and that it's pointless to begin establishing a new cohort within the millennial generation. As mentioned, I've observed a common divide between younger and older millennials, and it has a great deal to do with maturity, level of independence, and experience in what we older types tend to call "the real world." Interviewing older millennials, many of them pointed out how different they are in their mid-20s, compared to their first 1-3 years as a legal adult. Thinking about the findings of this latest study, I'm apt to consider the term "mental masturbation," as even the study's title is remarkably ambiguous:
"Are today’s millennials splintering into a new generational cohort? Maybe!"
Economy blog Quartz concluded their report on the study by saying, "If the results are accurate, though, perhaps companies thinking about their marketing should take note. If young millennials indeed feel themselves more entitled, says [researcher and study author] Schewe, 'using taglines like you deserve it should resonate.'"
So those of us with something to sell should be telling this young market to buy it, because you deserve it. Edward Bernays would be proud.
I'm a long-time businessman myself, but I propose we think of the millennial generation less as a market and more as a vital pool of talent to be mentored, from both the left and the right, toward a common goal of a brighter future which isn't just theirs, but ours as well for those of us fortunate enough to live another 20-40 years. I offer that whatever we may believe to be lacking in the character of young millennials, real or not, it is our own doing. We've taken the years of their youth to imbue them with certain characteristics, and there is little time left to make sure we've gotten our message right.
With improved, efficient social and political policies, I expect the markets to take care of themselves. In the meantime, if your 18-year-old daughter wants an iPhone 5 instead of her iPhone 4, just lean on that old standby. "Get a job." It might seem harsh in this economic reality, but tell that to survivors of the Great Depression and enjoy their knowing smile.