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Millennials as Smart, Highly-Adaptive "Reptiles"

05/29/2014 10:34 am ET | Updated Jul 23, 2014

Recently I've been hearing a lot of interest from fashion brands, such as Macy's, and fast-food chains, such as Wendy's, concerning the state of mind of the millennial generation. And, of course, a lot has been written about this demographic. As a cognitive anthropologist working in marketing I spend a good deal of time trying to understand various publics. Interpreting what I hear from speaking to people in their late twenties to early thirties suggests to me a subtle, but profound difference from what is typically described as the mental set of this age group.

Defense -- A Smart and Adaptive Strategy

People in the latter half of the millennial generation are playing defense. They are not playing offense. And that makes all the difference. Marketers take heed.

A tacit expectation of loss lurks behind older millennial's go-get-'em facade. In this case, a get-ahead attitude represents not the often-reported entrepreneurial spirit, but a defensive attitude towards the world: I'm going to grab and take all I can get because no one is going to give me anything. A primitive assumption obtains: You're my enemy until proven otherwise. Go to the nearest zoo and watch a Komodo Dragon. The mark and patrol of territory, the threatening, then the pounce, with no questions asked, not even later. That's the world of reptiles. That's older millennials. And, in the post-modern world they habitat, this is a smart and adaptive strategy!

America is Between Mythologies

The globalization of the world economy has shattered the historical linkage between domestic prosperity and political stability. Job security is a vanishing expectation and political control of the economy is a quaint illusion. As work weeks lengthen, benefits shrink, temporary work multiplies, and companies materialize and dematerialize on a seemingly random basis, nobody, from the Seven-Eleven clerk to the chairman of the Federal Reserve, can claim control over his fate.

Moreover, economic insecurity is accelerating the breakdown of American cultural coherence. For more than four decades, the fragile bonds of American society were held together by the overarching mythology of the Cold War and the global contest with Communism. Though challenged by the civil rights revolution of the 1960s and frayed by the Vietnam War and Watergate, the social fabric of the United States was girded by external threat and domestic prosperity. With the disappearance of America's Mr. Hyde, the rise of terrorism, and the apparent triumph of a globalized market democracy, the mythological underpinnings of American society have eroded. America is neither better nor different, only perhaps a little more "diverse" than any place else. The exceptionalism that motivated the Founding Fathers, Manifest Destiny and the Cold War can no longer be sustained when Mickey Mouse conquers Japan, Chinese students build a Statue of Liberty in Tiananmen Square, and Russians (despite the incursions of Mr. Putin) wear Calvin Kleins made in Thailand.

The collapse of America's mythology has led to a shattering of the American Dream of happiness and transparency. Heroes and villains alike have lost stature, motivation and staying power. They reflect a society beset by random and inexplicable success, normalcy, failure and violence. They thrive in a world where speed is of the essence and where large events play out on small smartphone and tablet screens, and small events loom large. That's the world of the older millennial.

Living in a World of Short Time-Horizons

Pugnacious and power-seeking, the older millennial fluctuates between wanting to dominate and wanting to demure. This age group has been called "lazy" or "confused" by some while being labeled "ambitious" or "independent" by others. These descriptions are not contradictory. They are characterizations that express the fits and the fizzles that are adaptive in a chaotic world peopled with only short-term motives.

Milan Kundera, in his novel Immortality, alerts us to a world in which it is impossible to make distinctions regarding what is important and what is not. In that context, he says, we have but one choice: to make the world the object of our game; to turn it into a toy. To late millennials, life is a plaything. What else could it be?

America needs a new mythology. For that, it must go beyond the stereotype and cliché of slogan-talk and the propagandizing of attributes. Reptiles might be good for selling Budweiser and car insurance, but these age-old creatures live in a steamy, timeless and unchanging world that they are built into via instinct. Alas, then, they are not a good model for the older millennial to emulate, even unknowingly.

Just Do It...For Yourself, There Is No Other Way

This age group represents the first American generation that cannot rely on the societal culture to gird its making of meaning. They must do it for themselves.

The social context that the late millennial occupies is one in which culture as interpretative matrix -- a consensual web of motives and meanings that helps members of that culture situate themselves -- has been blown to smithereens. Now this group must make defense into a positive, expansive strategy. Any person, idea, or brand that helps in this regard will be rewarded -- not by the slithering tongue of a Komodo, but by the warm embrace of those who want a little help doing things for themselves.