The Millennials Are Not Who You Think They Are
Young adults aged 21 to 36, those born between 1980 and 1995, make up what has been labeled the “millennial” generation. This group is distinguished by being the first generation to reach adulthood in the 21st century.
It is also a generation that, perhaps for the very first time in a long time, has come of age with very different expectations and values than previous generations. So for those with companies interested either in marketing to millennials or hiring them, or for those government entities planning policy to support them properly, assuming they’re “just like you” is a very bad idea.
What Has Shaped Their Values and Expectations
It would be hard to underestimate the importance of so many of the different experiences this generation has had, at least when compared to previous generations.
On the technology front, millennials are the first generation to go through high school and beyond with access to the Internet just being a part of life. In the late 1990s through the early 2000s, the Internet was all about companies like America Online and dial-up services. After that it shifted to wireless connectivity and the rise of social media through multiple incarnations, from Myspace in the early days to Facebook’s meteoric rise later on.
Online shopping became not just acceptable but the best place to go for many things. It became a major reason why bricks-and-mortar bookstores like Borders closed and Barnes & Noble cut back. It is also a major reason why companies like Walmart and many other mall stores suffered financial losses after decades of past successes while Amazon, which started as just an online bookseller, has broadened into the biggest online retail giant in almost every category.
The conversion of music – and now even books and movies – from tangible things like CDS, paper-bound books and DVDS to on-demand digital downloads has transformed the publication industry. Even the concept of “ownership” has changed, with streaming services having overtaken the digital download business as the way of proceeding.
In all of those cases this has created a generation with instant gratification as part of the way it operates. If millennials want a new book, movie or song, they can download or stream it – now. If they want to buy something, they just go online and order it.
The lack of a tangible form for the products many purchase today has also had the unusual side effect of disconnecting people from the prior bonds earlier generations may have had with the items. The album or book covers of the past are primarily online marketing tools rather than something one ever actually sees in person. Few of this millennial generation have stacks of past CDS or vinyl-pressed albums to dust off and play. Even fewer have collections of printed books of any kind, and the “book rooms” or dens the previous generation may have grown up with are non-existent. The idea of just sitting and browsing a book from older times or flipping through the pages of a reference book is long gone.
This also extends to photos, which during this generation also shifted from tangible form to digital, with
the company that created the mass-market for photography, Eastman Kodak, filing for bankruptcy during this period. Polaroid, a once-strong company that specialized in that media’s form of instant gratification, also almost went out of business and is now in very different industries.
If millennials want to share the most intimate moments of their lives – happy or sad, serious or reflective – they just go online to instantly share them. They look for instant feedback in the form of comments and/or likes. Social media has become so all-encompassing that several sources credit it and the smartphone’s rise as a major reason behind lower drug use in current teenagers than in past generations.
Further, although the smartphone itself made its first big move with the presence of the Blackberry and its integrated contacts, calendar and phone system in a portable package, then later with the iphone and its many Android competitors, the millennial generation was more impacted by the idea that telephone communication could be easily conducted from anywhere. The previous generation, likely represented by many of those reading this, instead grew up when telephone communications were most likely wired wall-connected systems in a home or office or pay phones, which are now nearly obsolete in most parts of the modern world. If millennials want to talk with someone, they just need to lift the phone from their pocket and call or text – right now. There is no need to wait.
Beyond those many different points of contact with the above radically shifting technologies, the fundamental one of the Internet has made other major changes in millennials’ lives. These include the following:
All kinds of media, including news, are available now 24-7 on demand and are often even directly pushed out via an individual’s computer or smartphone. There is no such thing as waiting for the evening news to happen.
The increased connectivity of everyone, everywhere, has brought with it the increased anxiety of having to always stay connected with others. Statistics of a few years ago showed that people were checking their Facebook messages as much as 60 times in an hour, especially among this new young adult generation. One has to stay connected or risk missing something – or at least that is how it feels.
With the rise of Google and its much-vaunted pagerank algorithm for prioritizing search, and via crowd-authored free online encyclopedias such as Wikipedia, as well as through many online media sources of oth- er kinds, millennials have spent their adulthood with relatively free access to information on a scale previously unimaginable. Such access has virtually destroyed the markets for things like encyclopedias and, to a lesser extent, dictionaries.
Such access has made it easier than ever for millennials to do their own research on many things without any need to go to a library. Many universities, such as the University of Southern California as one notable pioneer in this area, now digitize so many things for free access to their student and faculty population (including peer-reviewed journals, textbooks and handouts from professors) that the still-ever-present and often-majestic (in size at least) libraries are rarely visited any longer.
The downside of such access is that, as a now-famous article published a few years ago from The Atlantic, entitled “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” explained so well, having that access is distorting us all – and in particular the millennials – more than we can imagine.
One way it has hit is in the way people read, which now consists – for news or non-fiction items at least – of “skimming” as the norm rather than the rarity. Long-form articles, once very common in news magazines and social commentary publications, are now far harder to find. Online publications now specialize in this kind of short-form journalism, but even print newspapers have reformulated their own formats to have short article summaries of the news around the country and the world. This is also behind the rapid growth of publications like USA Today, which are colorful and compartmentalized into short and easily digested articles.
Another way the online tools have affected readers is in how they function.
As one example of this, Google’s page-rank technique, invented while its founders were at Stanford University, ranks search results based on – for most of them anyway – the relative popularity of the various answers. That popularity was originally measured just by looking for search results that had the most hyperlinks “linking back” to the specific results from other sources. A second measure is to rank which of the various results presented in an initial search are clicked on. This is what several search engines also use (and what Google does to some extent as well, though its algorithms have now become well-protected to avoid people trying to game the system and increase their own search rankings). In effect, such ranks are what are referred to as “self-referential,” meaning that the most popular answers almost always reach the top of search results.
Popularity of an answer is never the best way to find the best information on a topic, but modern search engines work against that. Instead of picking information that has been qualified as the most valuable, original or accurate, it simply puts the most popular ones at the top. The more important ones are often very difficult to uncover.
Another problem rests with so-called crowdsourced information sources such as Wikipedia. They are modern marvels, covering topics on all sorts of things, from history to science and even free online medical guidance, with master editors and writers working every day to keep the accuracy of the content as high as possible. Being crowdsourced, however, makes them at risk for error (because the individual making the changes can make a mistake or have bad data), used as publicity vehicles rather than authoritative data (such as for celebrities seeking coverage in these media) or even deliberately sabotaged (something that often comes up during political campaigns, although most people are not aware of it at the time).
Even with the reach of the Internet in theory providing access well beyond the boundaries achievable in earlier times, the nature of how the data is accessed, ranked and sorted in all of the above ways has the additional unfortunate result that many millennials have begun to see these sources as authoritative in their nature. This is far from true and is why many actually believe the rise of the Internet has actually made people older than 40 more productive in their searches than those in their 20s. The reason why is that these older individuals were educated at a time when checking multiple sources and digging beyond the surface were critical in looking for good information. Those younger do not have such experiences and often accept the search results and online data sources as authoritative on their own.
Business and Employment
Two generations ago it was the norm for American workers to work at a single company most of their lives. For millennials that time has shortened considerably.
Behind that shortening are several issues that are important.
Millennials have grown up in an era of multiple global financial crises, mass layoffs and business bubbles – all of which have done much to shake any belief in the staying power of any company as a long-term place to work. The most recent of these financial crises was the 2008 mess that almost brought the global financial lending system to a halt and that was the direct result of corruption and incompetence in the “too big to fail” banking industry and the so-called even more corrupt and incompetent regulators in government who were supposed to protect everyone.
The times during which the millennials were growing up and becoming adults also included the spectacular bubble era of the 2000-2001 period, known as the “dot.com crash.” It was in this time that companies like pets.com went online to sell pet food and other pet products, raised millions of dollars to set up their businesses and then crashed spectacularly when the world realized there was not a single unique thing about these enterprises. Once again, the part about the crash that matters was less the individual companies themselves and far more about the greed of those who created and backed them, including banks and venture capital organizations who felt that anything with a “dot.com” in its name certainly had a major chance of a big payout soon.
Besides these events is that this era included many equally spectacular business corruption cases. Among those was the Madoff scandal, in which billions of dollars were supposedly invested in valuable investment vehicles but with the truth being that most of it was just pocketed by the principals. A second was the Enron energy company scandal, which demonstrated to the public both the fraudulent nature of many big businesses (in defrauding their clients and investors while hiding the real truth of the “house of cards” nature of their own finances) and the callousness of those companies toward their customers. For those that heard the recordings, for example, who can forget the secretly recorded conversations in an Enron conference room when the executives there openly laughed about how badly they were hurting those poor suckers in California who needed electricity?
Also, there were the too-many-to-count situations in which the most senior executives in a company were guilty of incompetence in running their businesses, paid way too much money for that incompetence and then given “golden parachutes” when they were eventually let go from their companies – payoffs that often ran in the tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars. All of this left the impression of the executives, like Nero in the old story of Rome, “fiddling while Rome burned,” with all that mattered being that they had their paydays.
All of this has had the effect of millennials realizing the truth of the current situation in business: that companies do not really care about their employees in the long term and value them differently. In the comic strip Dilbert, which satirizes modern business, Catbert, the head of human resources in the company
depicted there, once said that he resented that anyone might think he thought employees were of little value. After all, he said, the stock always goes up when we lay them off, right?
Millennials also know the truth about who cares about their careers too – and that list, from their perspective, does not include the leaders of the businesses they work within. Yes, there may be that wonderful thing called “career planning,” which happens within their companies. But those plans are sidelined quickly in favor of what is more expeditious at that moment: whether to meet a quarterly bottom line, bolster the stock or help with a bonus.
Besides the jaded nature toward the economy and business, millennials are also having to deal with two other very different issues that shape the idea of what a career is.
The first of these issues is what many have referred to as the “elimination of the middle class,” in North America in particular and to varying degrees in the rest of the world. Two generations ago, some of the best-paying jobs in this continent were in highly skilled manufacturing jobs such as automotive assembly and electronics production. Those jobs are long gone. To be sure, some of them may have moved overseas to Asia and south of the U.S. border, where wages are lower. But the facts bear out that many of these jobs have vanished because of increased automation. And with that death of the middle class came an understanding at a gut level by the millennials that many of the jobs that once supported North America might not be here in the future.
The second issue is the realization that what drives business is changing so rapidly that almost any skill being used for employment could be rendered of little value rather quickly. This shows up in the form of industry disruptors of all kinds. Digital electronics, for example, is rapidly being supplanted by agile software technologies that can render them far less important other than as structural building blocks for which to run the software. In the television industry, broadcast television and all of its programming first had to deal with the assault of cable and its many varieties. Today, streaming television, represented by companies such as Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Studios, has cut deeply into those markets. And even the business process outsourcing (or “call center”) industries, which rely heavily on the warm human voices of workers from around the world helping with customer support and debt collection, are quickly moving to automated systems using artificial intelligence. With all of this as the backdrop, millennials have learned the following:
• Their employers are far more concerned about their own financial wealth than anything regarding the long-term career prospects for their employees.
• There is no financial security in any given business, not now anyway. A disruptive business trend, a corrupt financial entity behind the scenes or even a global financial crash could bring any job to an end rapidly.
• There is no such thing as a career any longer. For many, the skills that might have helped pay the bills one day need to be replaced by new ones very quickly. This does not mean millennials cannot be employed for their lifetimes. Instead it means that they must be far more agile than before in learning new things to remain employed. It also means they must have less of an attachment to any given job of a previously-hoped-for career path to succeed long term.
Attitudes Toward Government
The millennial era has also had a tremendous impact on how this generation perceives government.
This is the period many have labeled as the destruction of respect for the presidency of the United States. It actually started long before these times, with the reasons for the lack of respect going back to the very beginnings of the United States, including sex scandals, incompetence, corruption and more.
These scandals started long ago, going back to the days when both Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy had mistresses on the side and the press just looked the other way. The Watergate mess, in which President Richard Nixon was eventually forced out of office and many things that went well beyond the original Watergate scandal were happening, showed how a president could use the power at his or her disposal for the most awful of intents, including incompetence in the administrations of Presidents Gerald Ford, whose “Whip Inflation Now” campaign was a catastrophic failure that bankrupted millions, and Jimmy Carter, who managed the Iranian captive crisis with a unique ineptness. President Ronald Reagan, with his now-legendary foray into international meddling, known as the “Iran-contra Affair” (in which weapons were traded to the Contras in Central America to help with the Iranian crisis), lied to the public about the country’s involvement in that mess and seemed incapable of extricating the country from it.
Those were bad enough, but it is the public nature of the recent scandals that shattered all ability of American citizens to maintain any respect for the country’s leadership. The sex scandals of President Bill Clinton in the 1990s, with his now-famous line about intern Monica Lewinsky, in which he said “I did not have sex with that woman,” almost forced him out of office via impeachment. He went on to manage several incompetent efforts into international warfare in places like Kosovo, all of which ended in disaster.
In the next administration, President George W. Bush and his Machiavellian Vice-president Dick Cheney, who together could have used the horrible events of September 11 as a way of uniting the citizenry behind it, failed miserably on so many levels. They led the United States into a war against Iraq based on lies about the presence of “weapons of mass destruction.” In the process, they also took what had been a U.S. government surplus into the biggest deficit in the history of the United States, passed laws that allowed for the biggest growth of greedy financial institutions ever and drove millions again into bankruptcy across the country. This president-vp alliance also single-handedly undermined the political stability of all of the Middle East, putting in place the birthplace of terrorism, which is even now playing out in the damage it is causing around the world.
President Barack Obama, who to many may have seemed more morally grounded, led the country even further into global war and unleashed the power of unmanned drones illegally across the world, going after victims the United States often pursued with no coordination with its allies. He also, even after the 2008 global financial crisis that almost plunged the United States into a depression, hired the cronies of the financial industry that had created the mess to fill the Cabinet-level positions responsible for its oversight. The result was that not one single financial executive involved in leading the country into the mess was ever sent to jail or even subjected to significant fines.
And now, of course, the country has Trump. His list of illegal acts, corruption and measures of incompetence is well beyond the scope of this article. It may simply suffice that even those who had backed him in the past are quickly realizing how damaging his presence is, with much of that damage coming from the person that he is and how publicly he is mangling the job of the presidency.
What comes from all of this for the millennial generation is unfortunately far more than just a jaded view of the presidency. This is a generation that knows unequivocally that, when they look at the president, they see him, like the emperor in the children’s tale, as “having no clothes.” The president is seen as far worse than “just a person,” which in itself would be a major step down from past beliefs in the president as a sort of combination political leader, model of what many might look up to and individual who is smarter than many of us in making decisions. The new image of the president is of someone fatally flawed; lacking in vision; corrupt via money, political patronage or more; and with a total lack of moral underpinning for his or her actions. The latest incarnation of that president is also a laughing stock around the world for the craziest things he says and does and a person who lies with the ease most people have in just breathing.
If that whole vision sounds harsh, imagine the current U.S. president being called upon in a time of crisis to call to the American people in a national address to “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country,” as President Kennedy did almost 60 years ago. The current president would never make it past the first line without the audience breaking out in laughter because they know the main reason he is in this role is precisely to do just that: to find out what the country can do for him.
The millennial generation, of course, did grow up with the kind of leadership image President Kennedy had. This generation unfortunately knows all too well not just that all of the presidents they have seen are humans with major flaws but that they are corrupt, incompetent and liars. How These Experiences Compare to Other Groups Those older than the millennial group have also been through much of the same experiences. Unlike the millennials, though, their experiences are in contrast with earlier experiences of similar things. For the millennials, on the other hand, this is what they grew up with and it has had a far more significant influence on these individuals.
As one of those millennials once put it to this writer in talking about the rise of the Internet, “Your generation grew up with television and cable as things that were just ‘there,’ like radio was for your parents when growing up. For ‘us’ [the millennial generation], the Internet just ‘is.’ We do not remember a time when it was not always there.” How All of This Affects Millennials With all of the above having helped shape how millennials have developed their values and ways of living, the next question comes: How precisely have these issues affected the adults who make up this group?
To help assess this, fortunately there are two major
surveys that were conducted recently and can shine quite a bit of light on this: Canadian Millennial Social Values Study, conducted by the Environics Institute
The Deloitte Millennial Survey 2017, conducted by Deloitte The first of these was focused primarily on social values and on Canadians in particular. The second was more global in scale, incorporating comments from almost 8,000 millennials located in 30 different countries. Both are very current, with the Deloitte study carried out in September 2016 and the Environics research between July 6 and August 31, 2016.
The reports themselves are very thorough and worthy of a complete read. For this article, though, the following highlights illustrate some of the more-significant trends revealed.
• Optimism is in general quite low for developed countries such as the United States and Canada. Only 34% of millennials felt good about the economy, and only 25% felt good about the political landscape they reside within. The economy and the world are both seen as unstable and at significant risk. (Source: Deloitte)
• Sensing future instability in the economy, the millennial generation is showing that it is a bit more loyal to employers than in recent times. With employment at risk, it appears safer to “hunker down” and live with the challenges of the current job. (Source: Deloitte)
• Perhaps surprisingly, millennials are more upbeat about business behavior in general than in the past. Companies are perceived as behaving “in an ethical manner” at a rate of 65% in this current survey versus 52% who felt the same way two years ago. The same companies are “committed to improving society” at a rate of 62% now versus 53% two years ago. (Source: Deloitte)
• Despite the above, though, millennials apparently perceive the improvement in behavior as perhaps more window dressing than might initially be obvious. An even 50% felt companies “have no ambition beyond wanting to make money.” (Source: Deloitte)
• Millennials see their role with respect to accountability as being in the social arenas. Fifty-nine percent believe they have a great deal of accountability for “protecting the environ- ment” and “social equality.” They have far less accountability with respect to the “behavior and action of large businesses” (at 39%) and in the direction of the country (at 40%). (Source: Deloitte). This supports a possible link with the long-term impact of past bad behavior on behalf of both government and business as well as the current disconnect in the values held by those institutions.
• Millennials see “digital literacy” and their mastery of social media and the Internet as a unique defining quality of their generation, with 27% selecting it. The next-closest characteristic noted in that survey was the millennials’ self-assessed nature of being more “open-minded” and more “accepting” than others, at 7%. (Source: Environics)
• The future for millennials is fuzzy, at least from an economic perspective. Only 33% feel they are better off economically than their parents were when they were the same age, and only 49% feel they might end up better off than their parents at their parents’ current age. (Source: Environics)
• The number one fear for Canadian millennials in achieving their work/career goals is the “weak economy” and its associated “lack of jobs,” with 41% of those surveyed reporting that. (Source: Environics)
These major metrics support that what millennials have been through has shaped them in a number of distinctive ways:
• They worry about the economy, in many ways probably more than previous generations.
• They worry even more about the political instability in the world, probably with some reasonable justification.
• They distrust government and business, though they do see business at least as trying to “play the part” of the good guy.
• Though they see government and business as doing very bad things in the world and on their home turf, they do not feel that accountable to fix it. That suggests a significant disconnect as to how they may show up as citizens.
• They feel far more accountable to doing something about the environment and social causes. This is the way they will show up as activists.
• They see their connection to digital technology and the Internet as a major driver both of who they are and what can make them uniquely capable in a changing world.
What this means for the rest of us rests very much in which ways we may interact with these groups.
For business and government, it means there is a long way to go to ever convince this generation that it cares about their well-being or their values.
Considering that this is the generation that will eventually lead the world, it also suggests that millennials, more than many past generations, may choose to “opt out” of the traditional kinds of businesses and instead move toward businesses with a major social responsibility reason for existing in the first place. Millennials may also be far more likely than any generation in recent history to not want anything to do with government.
The world, however, needs this generation’s skills, care for social causes and the environment and ability to harness technology to help with it all. So those developing business ideas around millennials or ways to engage them in government concerns should listen carefully to their ideas, what matters to them and how they became who they are because they are definitely a very different generation than any before.