What's a millennial?


What do Mark Zuckerburg, Jessica Alba and Evan Spiegel have in common? They’ve all led projects, born out of passion that grew into billion dollar businesses. In other words, they’re all millennials.

And they’re not alone. Pete Cashmore, Michelle Phan, ‘PewDiePie’ and just about any Kardashian. These world-famous game changers were all born at a similar time. And they all have similar traits. But what is a millennial? What makes them different? And, most importantly for marketers, how do we connect with them?

We’ve looked at what some smart people say and here’s the highlights.

What’s a Millennial?

First things first, let’s establish that the whole idea of accurately pinpointing the attitudinal characteristics of a generation makes as much sense as segmenting the sea. There’s hot bits, and cold bits, deep bits and shallows, but it’s impossible to identify where one bit starts and another ends. That said, millennial characteristics are easy to identify and there’s a fair bit of science behind it.

The term Millennial was first coined in 1987 to describe a group of kids who would graduate school in and around the year 2000. These days it’s pretty much anyone born in the 80s or 90s. Early on it was just an idea. But fast forward to 2013 and the early millennials were making a serious impact on the world.

That’s when Joel Stein wrote a brilliant article for Time Magazine that explored the good, bad and world-changing potential of what he described as the ‘Me Generation’. He started with “lazy, entitled, selfish and shallow” and landed on “the greatest generation of optimistic entrepreneurs” with plenty of evidence to back up both sides. If you’ve got ten minutes, it’s a brilliant read.

What makes Millennials different?

Cohort theory is built on the idea that people are influenced by the world they grow up in. Millennials grew up with the internet. Not only does this make them more tech-saavy than any previous generation, but it also opens the door to new ideas, new connections and smart new ways of doing things.

But that’s not all. In the book ‘Generation Me’, psychologist Jean Twenge talks to a world where many people found things pretty easy. Economies were growing, technology was exploding and the idea that anything was possible genuinely seemed probable. Phrases like "Be yourself," "Believe in yourself" and “You can do anything” were peppered around like catnip to these fast-growing, affirmation-loving, tech-smart kids.

Not only that, but millennials were the first generation in a long time who really had nothing to fear. The last of the world’s global conflicts were history lessons and it wasn’t until 2001 and September 11 that millennials (with money) had anything serious to worry about. A few years later the world actually changed and the money dried up.

The Global Financial Crisis hit just as the early millennials were heading out to work. This too would have had an impact. The banking institutions that everyone trusted had suddenly imploded. If you’re already of a mind to question authority that’s all you need to flip the status quo and do things differently.

One of those things is boundaries between work and life. While baby boomers were always keen to keep public and private lives in completely separate circles, millennials have grown up in a world of reality TV and Facebook where everything is public. So a millennial life is one big circle of "Me".

Twenge and others argue that this formative landscape of technology, opportunity and positivity is what gives us a generation of self-believing, authority-questioning, optimistic but narcissistic, fickle and fad-happy millennials.

Thinking millennial? Think mindset. 

The term Millennial isn’t a statement of age, it’s a state of mind. It’s a collective noun for a set of values in a new generation who aren’t afraid to challenge the status quo and shake things up. They believe in influence over power, autonomy over authority and authenticity over hype.

But most important of all, Millennials believe in themselves. And while that may come across as narcissism, they don’t see it that way. They genuinely believe that anyone with a smart idea can pitch up and change the world.

And when you look at some of the early success: the Facebook, the Snapchat, the world’s youngest female Prime Minister… maybe they have a point.

That’s what I reckon, what do you think?

Michael Goldthorpe