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.

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