Turning to my good old friend - the dictionary – I found that a millennial is “a person born in the 1980s or 1990s”. That’s it. A simple demographic. But why do so many young people recoil in horror at the thought of being considered a millennial? I’ll tell you why.
What did I do?
I assessed social media data from 2013 and 2018, using a comparative linguistics tool to identify differences in the way people talk about millennials online and how the conversation has changed in the past 5 years. This tool explored significant differences in word choices, topics and emotions. I then used rigorous qualitative analysis to navigate through the vast amounts of data, unpicking emerging themes in more detail.
What did my analysis of millions of online conversations teach me?
Back in 2013, the word ‘millennial’ was mostly used to describe ’20 somethings’. Although the conversation was mostly negative, it was primarily age-focussed. Millennials were portrayed as childish and immature, though too incompetent to harm anyone besides themselves. But millennials are not seen as harmless anymore. Today, millennials are seen to be damaging the very fabric of society, ruining elements of established culture and poisoning the political landscape with their liberal views. They are basically like Thanos, ruthlessly killing brands, products and industries with the snap of their fingers. According to the media, millennials are terrible, terrible people.
Judging by how millennials engage with the topic themselves on social media, they are clearly rejecting the label. I have identified 3 key ways they are combatting these stereotypes:
Defensive – “Are you for real? Stop treating millennials like they're aliens from another world.”
Distancing through sarcasm – “I'd high five you for that sick burn, but obviously as a millennial my hands are full of avocados, gym memberships and liberal attitudes.”
Redirecting blame - “…we can't even afford a sandwich from Pret with the way your generation 'pay' us.”
Why do millennials reject the label?
In order to investigate further, I ran an online survey amongst 300 individuals born in the 80s and 90s, and discovered that only 46% would consider themselves a millennial. Although it confirmed my hypothesis, it was a perplexing discovery. It is just a simple demographic question, right? How difficult can it be to know if you are born in the 1980s or 1990s? As you can probably guess by now, the term millennial has become something much more complex.
The term millennial is now used as a standalone tool to describe an entire generation. But stereotyping is bad, isn’t it? Every time a generalisation slips through, we give ourselves a mental slap – hissing ‘you’re better than this’. Though our modern society is actively trying to steer away from stereotyping, it is something that has existed for a very long time. In fact, stereotyping could be the difference between life and death back in the day – being the quickest way to identify if someone was friend or a foe. Tajfel (1979) proposed that people divide the world into ‘them’ and ‘us’ based on the process of social categorisation. To boost our self-esteem we can either enhance the status of our own in-group, but also through discriminating and holding prejudice views against other groups.
Building on this, I created a model to categorise stereotypes in more detail. It helps to illustrate the complexity of attributes that exist within the concept of social categorisation.
I found that most stereotypes tend to have a dominant category (e.g. ‘female’ is primarily associated with demographics and ‘liberal’ with values). However, these are not always exclusive. Someone can show their religion by wearing a particular piece of clothing, or have a particular accent because of their background or culture. I also discovered that these categories can be split into two groups, interior and exterior, based on the main origin of the stereotype. Is it a reflection of what is on the inside or is it grounded on what can be seen or heard on the outside?
This framework can be used to explain what has happened to the millennial stereotype. Back in 2013, the term millennial was mainly associated with age by the broader population, and the dominant category it belonged to was ‘demographics’. The definition “a person born in the 1980s or 1990s” made sense back then. However, this has shifted and negativity in the media has tainted the term throughout the years. It is no longer primarily associated with age but with a mix of different behaviours and actions. Millennials are now seen as “liberal”, “entitled” and “careless spenders”. These predominantly negative associations with the millennial term no longer resonate with those supposedly within that age group.
What are the key learnings for marketers?
Question what you ‘know’ about millennials – does this mirror reality?
The conversation about millennials is generally negative and many reject the label. Don’t risk alienating consumers (or respondents) by calling them millennials.
The millennial label has evolved from being primarily based on age to something more complex, involving multiple attributes. Be cautious if using millennials as a marketing tool - look at similarities with other age groups or segments within the age group, rather than broad generalisations.