THE BLOG

In Search of Millennials

10/24/2013 04:51 pm ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

This post is another article about Millennials. Like Time Magazine's May feature, "The Me, Me, Me Generation" and countless other cover stories, it's full of assertions and a few accusations. Unlike Time however, my accusations are directed at us older folk. Simply put, we don't have a clue about the Millennial Generation and it's liable to cost us. In her book, Generation Me, Jean M. Twenge, PhD, quotes an advertising executive looking back at the way Gen Xers were regarded as bored cynics (immortalized by Ethan Hawke in Reality Bites), calling it the "most expensive marketing mistake in history". Overstatement but we get the point: Don't believe the pop psychology and the cover-story jeremiads about Millennials because the findings are all over the place. One will say Millennials travel more, spend more and complain more, while another will tell you they are browsers not spenders. Some of the books that purport to do a deeper dive on the subject than the magazines, are even more heavy handed and their titles give them away: The Dumbest Generation; Not Everyone Gets a Trophy; The Culture of Narcissism; and The Narcissism Epidemic. So, in looking at this generation of 80 million born between 1980 and 2002, where exactly do we go for insight?

A first stop might be marketing research. After all, Millennials are, according to Forbes, the largest generation with the greatest combined purchasing power in history ($2.45 trillion worldwide by 2015), and corporations plan their strategies and budgets around the vast data mining, algorithms and analyses that consulting firms employ in studying the younger generation. Surely, the numbers tell a more unvarnished story about Gen Y. Boston Consulting Group's (BCG) Center for Consumer and Customer Insight issued a report last year called The Millennial Consumer: Debunking Stereotypes which notes that "our research shows that many executives who make product and service decisions for their companies have negative or dismissive attitudes toward Millennials". To better understand this generation, BCG, along with Barkley and Service Management Group, surveyed 4,000 Millennials (ages 16 to 34) and 1,000 non-Millennials (ages 35 to 74) in the United States. Much of what they found wasn't surprising: Millennials are "digital natives," who use technology and social media to build their community; they put a premium on speed, ease, efficiency, and convenience in all their transactions; and they trust their peers more than institutions and corporations. But underneath that, BCG suggests, is what makes Millennials interesting, even moving: their hunger for connection and shared experience, their feelings of stewardship towards the planet and their belief in collective action. BCG then goes a step further, reducing them to six distinct segments: Hip-ennial, Millennial Mom, Anti-Millennial, Gadget Guru, Clean and Green Millennials, and Old-School Millennials. That's where they lost me but, as someone in the business, I understand the need for market segmentation despite all its gross simplifications. But the point that BCG is making is compelling. The Millennials just may be an improvement over the Xers or the Boomers in terms of civic engagement. One of the early entrants in Millennial book category, Millennials Rising by William Strauss and Neil Howe, made this same pronouncement all the way back in 2000: "They are beginning to manifest a wide array of positive social habits - team work, achievement, modesty and good conduct. Millennials usher in a return to duty, civic responsibility and teamwork. Over the next decade, the Millennial Generation will entirely recast the image of youth from downbeat and alienated to upbeat and engaged. Strauss and Howe's futurism promised us the most diverse generation (one in five has an immigrant parent) and the most global in their outlook.

The problem? You find exactly the opposite account when you turn to an equally redoubtable source - academia. In a story for the Atlantic Monthly, Jean Twenge used a vast data set of 1.2 million young people, some of it dating back to the 1920s to compare Millennials to their forbears. Twenge's conclusion? "Millennials were less likely than Boomers and even GenX'ers to say they thought about social problems and less likely to say they did things in their daily lives to conserve energy and help the environment. Three times as many Millennials as Boomers said they made no personal effort to help the environment. It was a far cry from Howe and Strauss' prediction of Millennials as "The Next Great Generation" in civic involvement. Christian Smith, the author of Lost in Transition, summed it up this way: "The idea that today's emerging adults are as a generation leading a new wave of renewed civic-mindedness and political involvement is sheer fiction," Smith wrote. "The fact that anyone ever believed that idea simply tells us how flimsy the empirical evidence that so many journalistic media stories are based upon is and how unaccountable to empirical reality high-profile journalism can be."

So, what's a Millennial watcher or a generational theorist to do? Don't look to the statistics, look to the artists. They are the voices of this generation. They tell a more nuanced, embodied account of what the Oh-Oh Generation is about, one that doesn't emerge from algorithms or assumptions. Books like Karen Russell's Swamplandia, Adelle Waldman's The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. or The Tiger's Wife by Tea Obreht give us a world that's all its own - one of indeterminate relationships, emotional fragility and an inexorable search for authentic experience. The Millennials have traded in the permissiveness of Boomers and the bravado of GenX'ers for something more ineffable and ambiguous. Twenge in her work found that "when you were born has more influence on your personality than the family who raised you...Our (the Millennials') childhoods of constant praise, self esteem, boasting and unrealistic expectations did not prepare us for an increasingly competitive workplace and the economic squeeze created by shy-high housing prices and rapidly accelerating healthcare costs." Part of me disagrees with this canard; what Twenge is describing could easily be just being in your twenties and facing adulthood for the first time. One millennial schooled me this way: "look at all of the Millenials who have created programs such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and more...we are the ones who have pushed the envelope because we know that we CAN if we want to." But I do think what Twenge touches on is significant; the severity of the financial crisis. That's materially different from the 1970s and 80s. And so what characterizes Millennials is a particular mix of disappointment and hope, ambition and anxiety, jadedness and innocence. The Millennial films, sometimes pejoratively called mumblecore, gesture at these dichotomies. Filmmakers like the DuPlass brothers, Joe Swanberg, Lynne Shelton and Lena Dunham often have mute, tentative or socially withdrawn characters who can't make sense of the world (the film, Jeff Who Lives at Home, for example is typical -- a 30-year old slacker emerges from his shell by saving someone's life). The affectlessness of these characters and their desultory lives is more illuminating than a lot of the social theorists and their formulations because we all know young people like this. According to a 2013 Pew report, just 63% of Millennials are employed and a third are living at home with parents. This situation is even more extreme overseas: in Japan, a generation of young people, referred to as the Hikikomori, have withdrawn to their rooms to live out their most vital years in isolation. These characters, both fictional and real, have staged their own form of peaceful noncooperation, a kind of Quit the World movement. It's heartbreaking to read and watch and it should give all of us from previous generations pause.

Who can blame young people from heading for cover when the adults in charge of our government and institutions insist on juvenile posturing, easy either/or formulations and intransigency? Maybe the lesson for us--the generation that brought you the government shutdown and the Cable TV rant--is not to be so quick to judge and to give this next generation the benefit of the doubt. Let's start by taking the sting and negative valence out of the word Millennials.