This article was previously published in Fast Company.
There is an endless fascination with Millennials–today’s “it” generation raised on Bagel Bites and gigabytes; a sax-playing, vote-rocking Bill Clinton; and the anxiety-inducing realities of a post-9/11 world.
Despite the seemingly endless supply of articles and discussions about Millennials, the truth is that, like any generation, they are more than the sum of their stereotypes: creative, hyper connected, lazy, narcissistic.
For brands and advertisers, moving past the simplistic generalizations, embracing the misconceptions, and identifying with Millennials as unique individuals is essential for making strong connections that resonate with a generation whose purchasing power is growing and whose attention span is shrinking.
To better understand how brands can connect with this group, we decided to dig deeper into the lives of Millennials and put some popular notions about them to the test to identify how they may or may not differ from preceding generations. Working with Google Consumer Surveys, we studied just over 1,000 consumers in the U.S. and the U.K., split evenly between Millennials and non-Millennials. What we found surprised us:
MYTH 1: MILLENNIALS HAVE A WHOLE NEW VALUE SYSTEM.
Marketers often talk about Millennials as if they are fundamentally different from their elders. We asked non-Millennials: What is important to you now versus what was important to you 20 years ago? We also asked the Millennials: What is important to you now versus what will be important to you in 20 years? When it comes to what really matters in life, both groups expressed similar values: Millennials and non-Millennials overwhelming valued relationships with friends and family above anything else.
Underneath the cultural perceptions, media hype, and pervasive stereotypes, we observed remarkably similar aspirations and values across age groups.
MYTH 2: MILLENNIALS ARE SPOILED AND LAZY.
Regardless of age, we found that everyone is united in a disparaging view of the Millennial generation. It’s no surprise that more than 40% of non-Millennials describe Millennials negatively. Views of Millennials by Gen X, Boomers, and Silents are particularly harsh, favoring words like “lazy,” “spoiled,” “selfish,” “entitled,” and “techies.” What surprised us is that, Millennials, too, are as hard on themselves as older generations are on them, with 25% characterizing their generation negatively. Some of the most common words Millennials used to describe themselves were “technology,” “lazy,” “entitled,” “connected,” and “impatient.” They are acutely aware of–and have bought into–how they are typically personified.
MYTH 3: MILLENNIALS ARE MORE INTERESTED IN WORKING TO LIVE THAN PURSUING MEANINGFUL EMPLOYMENT.
Our research showed that career fulfillment is important for everyone, regardless of age. If they had to choose, the majority of all age groups would pick a fulfilling job over one that made more money or promised security. Millennials were more likely than older generations to prioritize compensation over job security, while non-Millennials were more likely to prioritize the reverse.
MYTH 4: MILLENNIALS VALUE STAYING CONNECTED THROUGH THEIR DEVICES AND SOCIAL MEDIA MORE THAN OTHER GENERATIONS.
Both Millennials and non-Millennials used “technology” as one of the key terms to describe this generation. When asked what they would be willing to give up for a week in exchange for staying plugged into their digital worlds, both Millennials and non-Millenials overwhelmingly were not willing to part with basic comforts like heat/AC, paychecks, food, and cars/public transportation to stay connected. However, Millennials were slightly more likely to give up bathing for a week in order to maintain access to their digital and social networks. Gross, guys.
MYTH 5: MILLENNIALS ARE OVEREXPOSED AND BROADCAST TOO MUCH OF THEMSELVES THROUGH SOCIAL MEDIA.
Young or old, our respondents agreed that social media does not show the “real” me. The majority of Millennials and older generations maintain some boundaries when it comes to social media. About half of Millennials and over three quarters of non-Millennials keep the majority of their “real” selves private. Nearly half of non-Millennials and one-fifth of Millennials said that none of their real selves was reflected in social media. So while they may love “selfies,” Millennials draw clear distinctions between their “real” self and their social media personas.
So what can brands and advertisers take away from these debunked myths? Employ values-based–rather than generationally-based–marketing communications. Try some irony and self-deprecating humor on for size by intentionally parodying classic Millennial and “hipster” stereotypes (it works for Portlandia!). Most importantly, collaborate with Millennials–not as a demographic but as real people–to build relationships and relevant marketing programs that demonstrate a deep understanding of who they are and who they’re not.