End of an era — there’s something iffy about millennials
There's something iffy about millennials
The word, that is. It’s ubiquitous. It covers those aged 18-34 (just over 75 million people all around the globe in 2015) - and somehow posits that they’re homogenous. It’s a term for people variously described as delusional, self-centred, tolerant, ethical, ambitious, lazy, opportunistic, unhappy…yet living in the moment. James Thompson, one of Diageo’s senior marketing and innovation leads, has ranted righteously on the poverty of thinking he hears about the subject. For Fiona Wilson, Asia Bureau Chief for Monocle, the word itself is so facile as to be off limits.
The sheer amount of cultural noise around the term prompted us at Flamingo Tokyo to take a look not only at what ‘Millennial’ really means, but also the strengths and weaknesses of the thought system behind it: epochal sociology. As researchers, marketers and advertisers, we have a need to group consumers in order to study, understand and target them. In doing so, we try to determine who is the most attractive target group to tailor the product, message and approach to. In grouping consumers, we are looking for cohorts who exhibit like consumption behaviours -- individuals who share consumption preferences, attitudes and behaviours. We have collectively assumed that grouping individuals by age was the most effective, robust (and easiest) means of achieving this objective. There is an undeniable logic to the idea that the social, cultural, political and economic circumstances within which you are born, grow up and come to maturity will have a significant influence on your world view and values. A Pew poll indicated that 18-29 year old South Koreans four times more likely to be gay-friendly than the over 50s
But are there better ways?
First, let’s go back
The language of generational cohorts really takes off, as far as the marketing community is concerned, post WW2. The birth spike we now refer to as the Baby Boom produced a whole group of young people of growing affluence and, apparently, different values from their parents who lived through the war. But epochalism starts earlier than that: some time after the French revolution European thought begins to discard the idea of the weight and influence of history. The future becomes liberated from the past and there is a new tendency to treat the present moment as an ‘age’ to be studied in itself. “It is the simultaneous ‘opening’ of the future, the ‘closing’ of the past and the ‘shortening’ of the present that mark the beginning of modern epochalisms.” (Fran Osrecki, ‘Constructing Epochs’, Cultural Sociology 2015, Vol. )
Return to the second half of the 20th century. After the Boomers, we get Gen X, technically those born between the early 60s to the early 80s. Billy Idol had a punk band called Generation X in 1976, but it only got traction as epochal copy with Douglas Coupland’s 1991 novel. In Generation X Goes Global, Professor Christine Henseler summarizes it as "a worldview based on change, on the need to combat corruption, dictatorships, abuse, AIDS, a generation in search of human dignity and individual freedom, the need for stability, love, tolerance, and human rights for all". Not that unlike our friends the millennials? “Gen Y” with perhaps more cynicism and less confidence?
There was at least some meaning in the choice of name for Gen X. ‘X’ stood for an unknown variable, the resistance to being defined, and to some extent the rebellion of the punk era. ‘Y’ seemed to be…well, the next letter in the alphabet? By the same logic there is now an attempt to delineate Gen Z… which everybody seems too tired to really take much of an interest in. Perhaps the impossibility of defining a generation without a retrospective gaze is taking its toll on cultural commentary.
So enough carping about the existing models, which we can say are flawed, but useful. Let’s get more constructive on new thinking for segmentation models. Apart from the flabbiness of the term millennial, why do we have this growing sense that epochal groupings are inadequate?
Well, first of all, the idea is predicated on people being influenced by contextual events. But consider how the idea of ‘life context’ has changed since the 1950s. Through digital and social media we experience other peoples’ ‘life contexts’ all the time (be that stories and images from their lives, or the media they are consuming and sharing). We jump on planes fairly regularly too, and are expected to keep doing so: ongoing 4% air traffic annual growth is a widespread prediction.
So if we’re not exactly living in the Global Village (remember that, Gen X?), we’re certainly much more likely to inhabit a matrixed set of cultural and social influences than ever before, with influences from the past, as well as the present, from other people’s lives and conversations, and from different geographical environments. Life journey is displacing life stage. Thus, it is increasingly true that “age is a poor proxy for behaviour” (Kim Walker, Silver Group).
So if we begin to think that age must take a diminished role in how we group people, what do we have in its stead?
We can begin by segmenting people more usefully by life values or life strategies
If we can find consumers who share like goals, they will likely exhibit similar purchase behaviours and, therefore, be a coherent consumer target. And if this broad-brush segmentation is more about what brands are likely to be in their consideration set, then it also dovetails quite nicely with some of the thinking around conversion at point of purchase, such as Phil Barden’s “net goal value” idea in ‘Decoded’.
Let’s look at an example of similar life strategies across disparate age groups. In Japan we’ve recently been thinking about why, and how, the affluent, active over 60s are under- or mis-represented in the world of marketing and brands. Japan actually does better than most markets on this score and with good reason: 1 in 3 people is over 60 and they hold around 75% of the personal wealth. The more we looked at this group of people, the more we began to see similarities with our friend, the millennial. How so?
Well, in different ways, both groups are ‘post-work’. For the seniors this is literally true. They are mainly working part-time or retired, with good pensions and assets, and investing in friendships, creative hobbies, health and travel. Younger Japanese are ‘post-work’ in a different sense. They’re facing a world in which long term employment is either unavailable, uncertain, or unaspirational. They too invest in friendships, creative hobbies, health and travel. Both groups sit outside that segment of a Japanese citizen’s life when they are – or used to be - expected to sacrifice themselves for family, company, country. Two generations apart, but arguably with more in common in terms of goals than the parental generation that sits between them.
So what are some of the new parameters by which we might re-think segmentation?
It is beyond the scope of this article to come to a definitive answer, but how about, for starters:
Power: Monolithic vs Plural
The extent to which centralized, fixed authority systems – nation, state, church, gender – fix your identity and associated goals, versus a more pluralistic, self-defined diverse system of life paths.
Time: Deferrers vs Gratifiers
Length of timeline for self-satisfaction, realization, pleasure.
Change: Roots vs Possibilities
Community, familiarity, relationships and ‘what we have’ vs the future, creativity, new connections.
Technology: Unengaged vs Embedded
Unengaged could be those who remain tech-illiterate through lack of opportunity, or those who actively reject screen time, smartphones and whatever succeeds them. Thinking such as Susan Greenfield’s on how heavy technology use erodes some skills and values, and develops others, is still in its infancy, but has been linked with everything from attention deficit disorder and status anxiety, through to enhanced creativity and visual literacy.
Much of this article has been written in the dominant discourse of the last 70 years in sociology, namely social determinism. That is, the idea that social interactions and constructs (education, parenting, customs and expectations, consumed cultural output) are alone responsible for individual development and behaviour.
We are slowly beginning to understand its counterpart, genetic determinism, and how the two interact. Matt Ridley’s excellent ‘Genome’ makes the compelling and slightly disturbing assertion that the nine months you spend in the womb have a greater influence on your intelligence as an adult…than anything that happens after you come out.
So what could a future segmentation model look like that goes beyond 20 year age cohorts and running through the alphabet again from A to Z?
Let’s start with life strategies or value clusters, liberated from epochalism, and combined with a better understanding of how DNA also sets the course, regardless of what music we listened to when we were 19.
- Article by Chris Francis and Deanna Elstrom