THE BLOG
12/08/2013 02:50 pm ET Updated Feb 07, 2014

The Millennial Misconception

For the past three to five years, the subject of Millennials seems to have captivated the marketing world, regardless of whether or not journalists have dug deeply enough into their spending power or investigated the true picture of what is truly a dynamic group of individuals. Much is, in fact, still disputed about the Millennial, beginning with the age range this group is meant to define.

According to Pew Research the Millennial age group can either span those born after 1980 or those born between 1977-1992. Whereas Pew may also define them as confident, connected, and open to change, the Baltimore Sun may refer to the Millennial need for instant gratification, while possessing multiple personalities online, a short attention span, and the belief that they will one day have their 15 minutes -- or seconds -- of fame.

But there's something dramatically off between the image of the incredibly open-minded Millennial who is at the forefront of so much social and technological innovation today and the image of the Millennial in the workplace who has a hard time handling constructive criticism and appears to think they're smarter or more competent than they may actually be.

In essence, this generation is being slapped with a label that turns a heterogeneous group of people from different socio-economic backgrounds and races into one big group of 20 Somethings pre-occupied with taking selfies.

The reality is that this generation has been dealt the most difficult labor market since the Depression and, as Sydette Harry writes in her eye-opening Op/Ed for Salon.com, Not all Millennials are White and Privileged:

Current millennials in Chicago, Detroit and Philadelphia are having sit-ins and organizing unions, as their schools are closed with class sizes of 29 called too small... The real story of millennials should be an examination of the startling inequalities both between and within generations. The millennial model doesn't even fit white able-bodied people, who are working and struggling to make less than ever before. It instead becomes a brilliant example of a collective neglect of the chasm of race and class. A diverse generation, with multiple influences and experiences, is coping with a government that would shut down rather than give us the healthcare options it passed into law, and a job market where opportunities are auctioned off to the highest bidder.

Given the disparate representations of such a multifaceted group, many who are saddled with debt (around $1 trillion) navigating a struggling job market (with approximately 16.3 percent unemployed) and rearing their own families, the age-old marketing adage of going to your audience and speaking to them in their language is not only of paramount importance, but it's also a larger challenge. Marketers must look at them not as one large group, but as a mix of many sub-groups. We know that they're not reading newspapers, but do we also know that the Millennial sweet spot is not necessarily playing around on SnapChat?

Millennials are not as young as you may think and they're not as self-centered as you've been told. Yes, they're accustomed to working on several devices at once, and yes, they're critical of advertising, billboards, commercials, and clichéd gender stereotypes. Over 80 percent live by word-of-mouth recommendations from friends and family, often looking to their social networks (Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Tumblr, Blogs) and they often respond best to humor, cultural critiques, and creativity.

Additionally, according to a new research study by Berglass + Associates and Women's Wear Daily, the Millennial focus for a marketer and a brand is now becoming more important than ever before as this group is expected to outspend the Baby Boomer generation by 2017 to become the largest generation with the greatest combined purchasing power ($2.45 trillion worldwide by 2015).

So, before marketers assume a Millennial is a spoiled college kid snapping selfies, they may want to look again. That Millennial just might be you, with a growing family who is navigating new health plan options (and wondering why your 401K is taking a bit too long to grow more zeros).