Recently I attended a presentation that many of us have probably seen in some form by now: “Marketing to Millennials.” The Millennial was described as an entirely new breed, sprung from the forehead of Facebook: innately social, tech-savvy, confident. This was reinforced by a stock photo of a young guy with a messenger bag, fiddling with his iPhone while standing astride a single-speed bike.
“Generations,” concurs Pew Research, “have personalities.” If this is true, Millennials lucked into some desirable traits. The other generations in the presentation I saw were defined against the sterling Millennial standard as progressively grumpier and more technophobic by age: Generation X? Cautious. Boomers? Suspicious. The Silent Generation (silent to whom?) of course downright curmudgeonly, rattling their analog canes defiantly at the 21st Century digital tsunami.
The considerably technical audience watching this presentation, mostly people over 35, seemed unimpressed (or perhaps just ‘cautious?’). Had I the innate Millennial characteristic of confidence, I might have brought up Clay Shirky’s Cognitive Surplus, in which he argues that generational labels are a form of fundamental attribution error. “The conceptual appeal of these labels is enormous,” he writes, “but the idea’s explanatory value is almost worthless, a kind of astrology for decades instead of months.”
Shirky uses the example of Generation X – “labeled slackers in the parlance of the time,” who appeared to have a poor work ethic when entering the job force in the late 80’s, but in reality were only reacting to the recession caused by the market crash of 1987, and its resulting lack of meaningful work opportunities (remember the McJob?).
“At the moment of their earliest adulthood,” Shirky writes, “Gen Xers were entering an economy that was inimical to ambition, and they behaved accordingly. Then, fairly suddenly, the economy started rewarding ambition, and the supposedly core psychological attributes of these young people simply vanished, to be replaced by an almost opposite set of attributes” – founding companies, joining startups, working around the clock.
In other words, patterns in a generation’s behavior are not indicative of collective personality, but merely a reaction to circumstance. Those who came of age in the digital era share everything online simply because they can, not by dint of their innate social savviness. If you’re over 35, do you have any doubt you’d have been texting constantly at age 16 if you’d had the choice?
What Shirky’s take means for marketing is that the construct of “Millennial” is just a label for the current moment, another way of saying “youth.” Today’s digital natives may well find themselves recast as quaint pilgrims of the internet age in slideshows of the future. In the words of the late ‘Silent Generation’ writer John Updike, “the kids keep coming, they keep crowding you up.”