Let's face it, on some level most of us resent generalizations of the characteristics of an entire generation, especially when it is our generation that is being generalized. I'll certainly admit that I resent the definition of my age group as a near technology-illiterate bunch, especially given that I often challenge the younger ones around me to check out advances in technology.
But the truth is, those generalizations can be extremely helpful, especially when trying to provide a service to a subset of the populace. I mean, how can you hope to appeal to them, if you don't understand how they [generally] think. And while quite different in nature, establishing buyer personas (an extremely important marketing practice) is all about thoughtful, informed generalizations.
The Pew Research Center has published some excellent research on adult millennials. Anyone who has a product or service today that isn't planning on extinction between now and the time millennials are senior citizens should pay close attention to the differences this demographic represents. And if your buyer personas include any significant percentage of millennials today, you should pay EXTREME attention to these differences, because they will represent massive buying power. And this generation knows how to wield that power. But it's not necessarily smooth sailing for millennials, or those who wish to serve them.
A Bit About Millennials
- Millennials, typically identified as those born between 1980 and 2000.
- They have grown up in a world of dizzyingly rapid change, giving them very different perspectives, priorities, and expectations.
- They are slow to leave home, and quick to return.
- They have been slow to drive, and quick to “go mobile.”
- According to Pew, they are “relatively unattached to organized politics and religion, linked by social media, burdened by debt, distrustful of people, in no rush to marry.”
- But fortunately, somehow, they are still “optimistic about the future.”
Some of the characteristics listed above are going to present opportunities for failure. I offer the following five things that could cause millennials (as a distinct class) to fail, and those that wish to sell to them to miss the mark:
- Failure to Trust — Skepticism can be a healthy thing, but a failure to trust others has consequences. It can lead to the destruction of relationships, both professionally and personally. And that can mean the loss of family, friends, and jobs. Businesses that want to do business with or hire millennials need to realize how important establishing trust is.
- Failure to Distinguish Education From Learning — Millennials have been suckered into high debt levels because they have bought the line that to succeed you need to have college degrees, and that only the most elite (and expensive) schools will do. While I am an avid believer in education, some of the best education takes place outside of colleges and universities. Lifelong learning is critical, but lifelong “higher ed” can be crippling to one’s personal growth and business opportunities. Millennials would be well served to make LEARNING and personal GROWTH their priority, rather than formal education. Businesses that want to appeal to this group should give them lots of opportunities and tools to learn and thrive, and encouragement to grow.
- Failure to Give of Themselves — Marriage and religion have long been the undergirding structures that support a healthy realization that “the world doesn’t revolve around you,” thus, the loss of these institutions is one that will likely bear enormous consequences in their personal and business lives. I believe that most of us eventually realize that we are a poor substitute for God, and that self-love is a poor substitute for life-long, caring relationships. Companies like Ashley Madison may financially succeed by tearing down historically respected principles, but ultimately they will fail, as will the relationships of those who participate in them. Those in business should set the bar high for millennials, support the family, and encourage millennials to better themselves by giving them opportunities to serve others—and offer them products and services that serve a higher purpose.
- Lack of Meaningful Engagement — Politics is always a hotbed of disagreement. But it is also that disagreement that has the potential to improve our communities, states, and nation. It is when our ability to have open and honest debate is cut off (by a corrupt process, political correctness, or negligent press) that politics becomes the thing that most of us have come to despise. Millennials that engage in the political process with respect and level heads will benefit from it immensely, and those who sit on the sidelines not only have little right to criticize, but have little hope of seeing a better tomorrow. Companies that would like to serve millennials should encourage them to participate in the political discussion without trying to force their points of view on them. And they should listen to millennials, and learn what drives them to passionate debate.
- Tearing Down vs. Building Up — Social media can be a power for good or ill, and millennials largely carry the burden of deciding which it will be in their lives and in our world. Michelle Killebrew, who leads customer-centered marketing strategy for Social Business at IBM, believes that “social technology is helping us be more human, rather than less, as many fear.” I think she's right, and millennials play a big role in making sure that's true. There is little doubt that when social media is used to tear down, it works! Imagine where we will go when as much energy is expended on building up, encouraging one another, and inventing ways to improve our lives and the lives of those around the globe. Businesses that commit to transparency and integrity have little to fear from the millennials and much to gain, if they also provide a great product or service, and an amazing customer experience that treats the individual as the precious commodity that it is.
It's gratifying to hear that research shows millennials are optimistic about the future. So what could possibly cause millennials to fail? Primarily millennials. But I am hopeful and encouraged by their enormous potential and the opportunities that exist for them that transcend any generation before them. The rest of us (non-millennials) can and should commit ourselves and our businesses to encouraging, supporting, inspiring and empowering them to succeed (then get out of their way).