Millennials enjoy a somewhat schizophrenic relationship with the press. They've been called everything from the most community-minded to the most narcissistic generation; the most entrepreneurial to the least financially-literate. Name your bipolarity and there are plenty of research papers happy to park Millennials at either end.
What is clear, though, is that the largest generation since the Baby Boomers is a force that's going to define our economy for many decades to come -- which is why so many are desperate to truly understand and connect with them.
A little context certainly helps. Any major industry, from housing to banking to automotive, needs to come to grips with the ways in which the Millennial setting, or the socio-economic realities into which they came of age, has necessarily shaped the Millennial mindset.
I've been fortunate to speak to and be inspired by hundreds of Millennials in the past year with my company, Doorsteps. But what's most striking is how so much of what we're learning applies far beyond our own industry. So here are three big ideas we've recently embraced that were inspired by the generation that defies easy definition.
1. Design Is the Cost of Entry
For all the hand-wringing about the Millennial tendency to over-share and self-aggrandize online, one thing is clear: They've grown accustomed to great online tools that seamlessly organize or connect their lives.
That's why the experience of buying a home can be so jarring for them. It's a badly-organized legacy system where key players can't really collaborate in a way that makes sense or feels right. There's a dozen or more people involved in a home-buying transaction -- including real estate agents, loan officers, inspectors, insurance agents and more -- yet the actual experience often plays out like a particularly convoluted game of telephone (with the best real estate agent and loan officers working double-time compensate for crossed signals and missed connections).
Great design streamlines, clarifies and delights -- and the most complex or chaotic experiences need it most of all. But here's the rub: For Millennials, design is not a differentiator - it's a cost of entry. Every startup looking to re-imagine broken industries, whether it's housing or healthcare, has one thing in common: well-designed online experiences. And every established giant within that same system tends to be plagued by the reverse (ever tried to open a savings account online with a major national bank?).
2. Flexibility Is King
If the American dream used to be about stability (and therefore security), the Millennial dream, both due to financial circumstance and preference, seems to value flexibility (and therefore freedom).
This goes a long way to explain why many industries that used to rely on the appeal of ownership are increasingly focused on access. Why buy a car when you can easily share one? Why pay for a vacation home when you can swap one? Why buy a handbag when you can rent one?
And yet consider how badly designed the mortgage industry is designed to deal with such a mentality. Mortgages, at their core, haven't fundamentally changed in thirty years. Even so-called innovations -- say, interest-only or adjustable rate mortgages -- still fail to account for the manner in which Millennial sociological patterns are vastly different from that of their parents.
The irony of most mortgage products is that they are an attempt to sell a long-term product without being willing to take the long-term view on a potential customer relationship whose life circumstances (and therefore financial stability) will naturally ebb and flow without necessarily spelling ultimate financial disaster. Not to mention they lack the willingness to deal with the natural ebb and flow of the market (the value of my house goes down, but my mortgage doesn't adjust in parallel).
Most juggernaut industries struggle to connect with Millennials because they were designed to appeal to their parents (or grandparents). Consider this from the health-care industry: Millennials make up 22% of the population, but account for 38% of the uninsured in America. As healthcare reform sweeps across the nation, there continues to be a huge opportunity to start a forward-looking, long-term conversation -- and relationship -- with this group. Imagine insurance that was profoundly bespoke, flexible and easily adjustable as their life progresses? One that customers could easily monitor and adjust over time, like they might an investment portfolio or a social network? One that is linked to and informed by online health records, literally operating as their comprehensive healthcare command central, and able to self-optimize as it follows them around for life, not just from job to job? That's the bar for appealing to Millennials, right there.
3. Front End Is Most Important
Funny enough, a great deal of innovation dies when trying to tackle the root of the problem. Sounds counter-intuitive, but some of the biggest opportunities to connect with Millennials often lie in knowing when to surrender. Many organizations have been on a mission to create reform in the financial industry, but the good news is we don't need to tackle it all. Most industries are most broken at the front end, where the service interacts with the customer.
In many cases, this new breed of organization (many of which are run by Millennials) is growing a "smarter skin" over a rather worn-out body -- and it works. They're all cleverly circumventing dated systems designed by or for their parents without wasting time or money trying to fundamentally change those systems.
Bottom line? Millennials are everything we claim they are: egotistical and altruistic, debt-ridden and money-savvy, entitled and undeniably driven. Just like any generation.
The truth is we simply don't need a tidy definition in order to be inspired by them. Millennials are the personification of a larger macro shift relevant to all of us: impatience with the irrelevant, intolerance for the unwieldy and a proclivity towards circumvention. These are the true hallmarks of Millennials -- and a great roadmap for any future innovation.