Quick – what are the first 3 words that come to mind when I say “millennial?” Did you think self-absorbed, impatient, and needy? Maybe you came up with trendy, eager, and savvy. Regardless of your answer, there are clearly some default manners of describing the generation that now makes up the largest proportion of the US workforce, according to Pew Research.
But what if I told you you’ve been thinking about Millennials wrong all along? Oftentimes, we think of people in terms of what they do, instead of why they do it. Do some research on Millennials and you’ll see this same trend- Millennials aren’t buying houses, Millennials aren’t getting married, Millennials aren’t having sex.
This way of thinking is problematic. It assumes that Millennials, as a generation, think and behave the same. It also assumes that those thoughts and behaviors are the same over time. This is what I’m referring to as the “Millennial Trap.” If we shift the thinking, however, away from actions and towards motivations everything begins to look a little different.
The More Things Change the More They Stay the Same
Recently I came across two articles by Forbes and Harvard Business Review that flip the script on current thinking about Millennials and argue that Millennials are more similar to past generations than they are different.
Lauren Gensler of Forbes writes, “The vast majority of Millennials still desire the so-called American Dream, which includes getting married, buying a house and having children.” She goes on to cite some statistics to back up her claim: 88% of Millennials want to buy a home 83% want to get married, and 75% want kids.
At Harvard Business Review, Bruce Pfau supports this same claim. He contends, “a growing body of evidence suggests that employees of all ages are much more alike than different in their attitudes and values at work. To the extent that any gaps do exist, they amount to small differences that have always existed between younger and older workers throughout history and have little to do with the Millennial generation per se.”
If you want a more fun example of this idea, take this quick (and pretty challenging) quiz from BuzzFeed titled Are These Quotes About Millennials Or Another Generation?
With this in mind, a new question arises: if the motivations are the same, why are the actions different?
The Times They Are a Changin’
While the motivations of various generations may not have experienced much change over time, the world and society in which they exist certainly has. Most Millennials grew up in a post-9/11 world. Student debt has spiraled out of control. Technological advancements have increased exponentially. The challenges and environment Millennials face is completely different than that of previous generations.
With new challenges and environments come different reactions and behaviors. Millennials may not be buying houses, but it isn’t because they don’t want to. Increased student loan debt makes such a big purchase more difficult. They aren’t antisocial because they spend so much time on their phone or using technology, they’re just socializing in a different way from past generations. While these are certainly differences between generations at a functional level, the emotional motivations remain constant.
Avoiding the “Millennial Trap”
Earlier we defined the Millennial Trap as twofold: 1) All Millennials do not think and act the same, and 2) Those actions do not stay constant over time. Ignoring either of those ideas causes you to fall victim to the trap. So how can you avoid it?
Let’s start with the first component of the Trap. Classifying all Millennials into one group is risky. Sure, there will be some macro trends that stay fairly consistent across all these groups (which is likely more a function of society than their motivations). Instead, consider breaking down artificial groupings like age and instead consider focusing on motivations.
This is especially useful when doing a consumer segmentation or similar research. Segmenting based on actions or demographics is dangerous. People that look the same or are in the same age bracket don’t all act the same. And even when they do, they could be deciding on that action for entirely different reasons. If I’m buying a Snickers bar as a gift for someone, and you’re buying one as a reward for yourself, we’re both performing the same action for very different reasons.
To avoid the second piece of the Millennial Trap, it is important to stay current on societal trends, new technology, and general shifts in culture. In addition to staying in touch with those macro trends, understanding how various groups of people (not generations, but rather groups of people defined by their motivations) react and navigate various shifts in society can help you make better decisions.
Avoiding the Millennial Trap isn’t easy. It requires you to ignore all the noise you hear about Millennials, as a generation, being different. It requires you to understand deeper motivations for actions rather than just measure the actions themselves. But if you can do that, you’ll be able to make decisions grounded in a more holistic understanding of human behavior that will lead to better, more impactful results.
Have questions? Want to discuss more? Comment below or feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.