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When Gen Y Speaks, Boomers Must Listen

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Generation Y, the 16- to 33-year-old set, has long been known as the "everybody gets a trophy" generation - no one wins, no one loses and no one gets picked last. As the first members of this generation enter their 30s, a lot of boomers wonder how their young colleagues will cope with losing a client, making a bad deal or even getting fired. Some older businesspeople seem to secretly relish the idea that the next generation is in for a rude awakening when they learn that in life there are winners and losers, and sometimes you do get picked last - or not at all.

I prefer to look at the positives that helicopter parenting and a focus on egalitarianism has given the millennials. They have a huge amount of self-confidence, a strong support structure and a belief in inclusion. All of these things will serve them well.

I choose to focus on these things not because I'm an optimist at heart, but because anyone who denigrates or ignores Generation Y does so at his own peril, as our country is on the verge of a generational tipping point that will change society unlike anything we've seen in 50 years.

Gen Y is the largest consumer group in U.S. history and will soon be as important - and eventually more important - than the Baby Boomers. It's larger in size and, by the end of this decade, will be fueling the economy. It will have more spending power than any other generation, giving its members the ability to make or break brands simply by paying attention to them.

Generally, marketers are taught to speak to audiences "in their own language." But Generation Y doesn't actually have its own language. Unlike other generations, Gen Y never really rebelled. Many of its members listen to their parents' music, love the movies their folks grew up on and use the same products.

Its members may communicate differently - through social media and texting instead of phone calls and email - but they want to be spoken to as adults not "young people." Old world values matter to them.

Traditional brands that try to focus on youthful pursuits are making a huge mistake. It turns out that what Generation Y is interested in is authenticity, longevity and a proven track record. I've been shocked to see young people get more absorbed in racing footage from the 1950s than they do with stunt driving from today. In the coming years, I think you'll see automakers focus less on things like torque, speed and horsepower and more on craftsmanship, heritage and real-world concerns like safety and environmental impact.

But regardless of the qualities you focus on, simply telling people the good things about your product is no longer enough. One major area in which Generation Y differs from its parents is its focus on experiences as opposed to material things. I recently went into several top business schools to ask for ideas about reaching millennials and what I kept hearing was "what unique experiences can you offer us?" They want to go behind the scenes. They want to have a voice and interact with decision makers.

This unique access gives them social capital - something they can Tweet about or post photos of on their Facebook profiles. Give them this and you'll win their support. Recently, we offered a few Millennials in our GenBenz online community a sneak preview test drive of our new GLK compact SUV. A week later, to our pleasant surprise, we found this on YouTube.

If having an expensive new car in the driveway was the status symbol of the '80s and '90s, having a say in the design or marketing of a new car is the status symbol of today. This generation truly believes it can change the world. Why wouldn't they think they can change our products?

There have been numerous books written about the needs of Generation Y, but the biggest mistake marketers can make is to focus on generational differences rather than similarities. While they may LOL and OMG on Facebook and hashtag on Twitter, they ultimately want the same thing humans have wanted from the beginning of time - to be asked questions, knowing we will listen to their answers.