Who Is A Millennial? Why Do Marketers Need a Label?

Population_Map_USA_McCrindle_Research-2In their October report, “The Millennial Muddle: How Stereotyping Students Became an Industry”, the Chronicle of Higher Education provides this scathing assessment of the ‘experts’ that have sprung up to discuss Gen Y:

Everyone in higher education has pondered “the Millennials,” people born between 1982 and 2004 or thereabouts (the years themselves are a subject of debate). Ever since the term went prime time about a decade ago, a zillion words have been written about who Millennials are, how they think, and why they always _______________. In short, Millennials talk is contagious. Those who have shaped the nation’s understanding of young people are not nearly as famous as their subjects, however. That’s a shame, for these experts are colorful characters in their own right. Some are scholars, and some aren’t. Many can recall watching the Beatles on a black-and-white television, and some grew up just before Barney the purple dinosaur arrived. Most can entertain an audience, though a few prefer to comb through statistics….They are products of their time. In an era when the wants of young consumers have become a fixation for colleges and businesses alike, these unlikely entrepreneurs have fed a world with a bottomless craving for labels.

Unfortunately, it is true there is no agreement on precisely where to draw the line between Millennials and Gen X, and even less agreement on when the Millennial generation ends.

Gen Y’er, Blake Sunshine, has a special tab on her blog, “The Perrennial Millennial” to deal with the issue, but concludes the answer is fuzzy, somewhere beginning around 1980. Even Wikipedia concedes, “there are no precise dates for when the Millennial generation starts and ends.”

Many experts when making presentations about Millennials feel compelled to begin by defining what is meant by the label, which is itself an indication the term is fuzzy. (The same is true of presentations about ‘brands’, but that is a subject for another day!)  For the record, here how a few of the leading thinkers define Gen Y:

  • Don Tapscott, author, “Grown Up Digital“: 1977-1997
  • Kit Yarrow & Jayne McConnell, authors, “Gen BuY“: 1978-2000
  • Morley Winograd & Michael Hais: authors, “Millennial Makeover“: 1982-2003

Suzanne Kart features a cool infographic today by McCrindle Research on her blog, GenXpert (click on the graphic to enlarge). I love the way this defines the generations and provides some key statistics for each – size, life expectancy at birth, age at marriage and first child, % of work force. The real take away here is that demographics matter and each generation leaves a distinct footprint. Whether the cut off between Gen X and Gen Y is 1978 or 1980 is really beside the point — there will always be gray transition years. In the end, what matters is how an individual identifies themselves.

Gen Y is famously averse to labels of any kind, and especially the label ‘Gen Y’. They consider it ‘stereotyping’. As individuality and choice are core values for young adults today, this aversion is understandable.

Yet marketers need ways to group people. Gender and age are generally the first of many prioritizing cuts, because they known to be associated with real differences in attitudes, lifestyle, media consumpton and consumer behavior. Generational segmentation takes this profiling one step further, but is by no means the only, or final step, in any target audience definition.  Other factors such as category use, income, and lifestage, that take into account Gen Y’s wonderful diversity are also critical. (See “Gen Y to Marketers: All Millennials Are Not the Same“)

A generational portrait, such as the one I paint in the presentation below, is useful because it provides ‘color’. It can bring a target alive to those who are trying to influence it to do something – to watch, to buy, to donate, to vote, to volunteer, to read. Relevance is the most critical part of any communication. Understanding generational values increases the chance you will say something relevant, or at least say it in a relevant way.

Smart marketers are waking up to the fact that people under age thirty are a ‘Blue Ocean’ opportunity today and a critical target of the future. They are recognizing that Millennials have some distinctive characteristics that are good place to start in developing meaningful products, services and communications.