Separating Myth from Fact in Generations

Over the past several years, clients, friends, and colleagues have repeatedly asked us to provide insights on millennials. This group, ranging from their early 20s to late 30s, has been researched and written about extensively, including by us. This is largely because millennials are now the largest generation—there are 80 million of them—so everyone wants a piece of that market. Retailers and consumer package goods companies want to sell to them. Companies want to recruit them. College and universities want them to apply. PR, advertising, and marketing agencies want to engage them. 

But does conventional wisdom on millennials match reality? Much of what is said about them is pejorative in nature and borders on hyperbole. (Remember the guy who said millennials weren’t buying homes because they were spending too much on avocado toast?) Millennials are often called lazy, presumptuous, narcissistic, and pampered. They’re said to be in constant need of approval and attention, and have a limited attention span.

If that’s not bad enough, there is a growing list of things that millennials are, absurdly, accused of “killing.” (Here are 70 things millennials have killed, Here Are All The Things Millennials Are Killing, According To Olds, 18 Things Millennials Are Responsible For Killing This Year, Here are all the things millennials have been accused of killing — from dinner dates to golf.)

Based on conventional wisdom, you’d be tempted to think people in their 20s and 30s never shop at a brick and mortar store, never watch a TV ad, never eat fast food except at Chipotle or Subway, and want everything “made-to-order,” the way Sheetz or Wawa does it. Because they are constantly texting and checking their email and liking photos on Instagram, we are told the best way to reach and influence them is to provide pretty pictures and visuals on social media platforms that allow them to join in conversation with their peers. It’s tempting to assume the imperative “go online and develop a digital strategy" is the only possible way to infiltrate their quirky universe.

At Campos, we have read about this generation at great length and have had the privilege of listening to them opine about their attitudes, beliefs, and aspirations as participants in focus groups, students in classrooms, and colleagues in the workplace. It’s clear that much of what has been characterized has been more myth than fact. We understand that this is a diverse group of people. While many of them do share certain traits and behaviors, there are just as many interesting differences. Rather than talking about a group of 80 million people as if they’re uniform, we have spent time digging into compelling subsegments of the millennial audience.

Now, we’re starting to see more and more people writing about and researching Gen Z. Pacific Standard recently launched a multi-part series on “Understanding Gen Z,” which begins to set a narrative on who these young people are and will be. The New York Times, for its part, has “collected the words and self-portraits of nearly 1,000  members of Generation Z living in the United States for a project created to reflect this historically diverse group.

These efforts at understanding this next generation are certainly worth following, but it’s equally important to understand that they don’t truly define them. Relying too much on what becomes conventional wisdom is a mistake that has been made with millennials, and it should be one that we all learn from. 

It’s critical that brands gather information, conduct specific research, and find the real insights on what matters to members of this next generation in a specific context, not just as a gross generalization.