Marketplace Commentary on Gen Y

Yesterday my commentary for NPR’s “Marketplace” aired. It’s called You can’t generalize about Gen Y. You can listen it to here (click the Listen link), or the text of my piece is below. It’s an expansion of a blog post I did a couple months ago. (By the way, I’m in Quito, Ecuador now. Beautiful. Headed into the Amazon jungle soon – should be intense.)

If you listen to the hyperventilation of marketers, you’ll hear a lot about how elusive young’uns born between 1985 and 1995 are, and how this generation — “Gen Y” — will require marketers to rethink their entire playbook.

The consultancy Talent Smoothie, for example, promises unique Gen Y research and insight on their website. By asserting how different we “millenials” are, they tell marketers that understanding us is an undertaking which — guess what! — demands their consulting services.

Yes, Gen Y is different. We grew up online. We won’t get drafted for a war. But our most profound characteristic might be our weak collective consciousness. Our individual identity is stronger and more authentic than our social one.

From the Depression through Vietnam, people the same age grew up around shared experiences. And from these common experiences definable generations were born. People consumed the culture and products directed at their age group. Their social network consisted of whoever lived on their cul-de-sac. And if they needed world news, Walter Cronkite told them.

Thanks to the Internet and globalization, we uber-connected hipsters aren’t constrained by incidental factors the way our parents were. Sure, we might share a faint generational dialect with people our own age. But we’re finding that a common obsession is a better predictor for a meaningful bond between two people. A lot better than the year our parents happened to have unprotected sex.

You can develop obscure passions by joining virtual, ageless communities around your interests. Love Scottish lighthouses? I guarantee that there’s a community for you. Want to start a business selling indie music on MySpace? Nothing’s stopping you.

All this means that it’s harder than ever to generalize about generational behavior. There is no magic “millennial” dust (Facebook! Blogs! Emo!) that you can sprinkle on your marketing to make it appeal to today’s youth. If you want to sell us something, you’re going to have to find us. And then not treat us like aliens who parachuted to earth from the Planet Krypton.

8 Responses to Marketplace Commentary on Gen Y

  1. I wish they would treat us like we were from Krypton sometimes.

    They tend to treat us like we’re children instead of conscious consumers, who drive, pay taxes, and vote just like everybody else.

  2. Every generation hates generalizations about itself. That doesn’t mean the generalizations are not true. It means generalizations about a group are obscuring to individuals, so individuals gripe about their uniqueness being obscured.

    One day I will combine all my comments on your various posts about how generation talk is stupid, and I will have a great little post of my own on why generation talk is not stupid :)

    Penelope

  3. Vince Williams says:

    Wait a minute.

    I thought you all came from pods which grew from seeds drifting through space.

    Well said.

    I would say that we shouldn’t generalize about the generation that fought and protested the Vietnam War, either.

    I lived through it, and it seems to me that the majority of the people who were part of the “love generation” that embraced the hippie ethos had no lasting commitment to it.

    Judging by the number of them who discarded it and now have BMW’s in their driveways and vote Republican, I’d say that those values tend to be transitory, at least in this land of plenty.

    It was mostly college students who advocated the back to the land movement of the communes (I lived in one for years), and agitated for social change, anyway.

    And it was the intellectuals at the universities who talked about abstractions such as “collective consciousness”.

    In my fairly broad experience of the time in this country, most of the drug-taking, rock concert-attending, free love-indulging hippies didn’t really give a damn about politics and had only the shallowest ideological conceptions.

    Ironically, it was opposition to the Vietnam War that brought the disparate groups together, and when it ended in 1975, the ‘movement’ as we called it, died, and the disco era began.

    I think the most lasting legacy of the ’60s (which was really 1965-1975) was the sexual revolution.

    Even young religious conservatives, including otherwise staunch Catholics, happily embraced the new freedom made possible by the Pill.

  4. Krishna says:

    This gets interesting.

    I’ve also noticed that the folks that are too fussy about the uniqueness of generations (and why they are oh so special and different) are so only while they are in their mid-teens or while at college. That’s when most of them have the luxury of spending more time before the mirror. It’s when they get out in the real dog-eat-dog world, fighting for every morsel of food as well as market share, all of those illusions dissolve, all become one and begin to look just the same.

    So bask while it lasts. Till the gen Z or whatever comes next when it will be your turn to out-delude them.

    Meanwhile, just keep gazing at the BS meter that’s fast turning red :)

  5. J.R. says:

    Generalizing might be fine if there was any data to back it up. Jean Twenge tried to do analysis of machiavellianism in Generation Y, but the Youth Facts web site did a good rebuttal:
    http://www.youthfacts.org/twenge.html

    Does anybody know if personality differences as measured by the “big five” personality traits are different between generations?
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Big_Five_personality_traits

  6. Krishna, you assume that people do more soul searching when they are young. not necessarily. I could argue pre-“real world” is when they actually have more time to stare in the mirror. With age, people could seek more explanations of why they ended up where.

  7. oops, meant “less time” in above

  8. Anonymous says:

    Relax. You have to take generational generalizations for what they are. It’s more a way to explain motivations rather than actual decisions. What processes do the people of our generation use, what kinds of factors are the most influential on our decisions?

    Especially with the divergences in ‘popular’ culture, as you have mentioned, we must hold in mind that generalizations are to be… general.
    Not tailored to each individual. Not limited to a couple hundred of specific brand names.
    Not reduced to a single fashion style.
    Use it as a tool for understanding a part of someone, rather than as an excuse for an argument, and you will see that there are some common events that shape EVERYONE. Widen your scope a little.

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