Millennial Nowism and the Science of Storytelling

It’s 2018 and the importance of good storytelling is finally established.  Hallelujah!  But why, exactly, are stories so important when it comes to consumer insights?

Jonathan Hartstone

Vice President, Insights & Strategy Lead at C Space

Jonathan brings over 15 years’ experience decoding human motivations, perceptions and behavior for the worlds biggest brands. His last 8 years have been spent at C Space, where he has played an integral role evolving the company into the world’s first Customer Agency. Jonathan is the Practice Lead of C Space New York.

Well, for starters, stories are a lot more interesting than random lists of findings. I mean, right? And while some people think that obsessing over the story gets in the way of the facts, I think they’re wrong. In fact, for me, telling a story means taking full responsibility for the significance of the data. It means saying, “why this data is relevant? What caused the findings to be so and what effect they will have on our business or our world?” All of this insight extends, not just from findings, but from story.

I was recently asked to write an article about Millennials and money. Long before I knew what the story would look like, I knew what it wouldn’t look like. I could close my eyes and write the fragmented list of findings, so generically framed and based on such small points of statistical difference that they  cancel each other out: Millennials are hardworking, Millennials are lazy, Millennials are altruistic, Millennials are selfish, Millennials don’t buy houses, Millennials do buy houses. What I wanted to do was to tell an actual story.

In the world of random findings, data points which contradict each other exist in a zero-sum world. If one of those findings is true, then the other one must be false. But in the story world, contradictions are lighthouses for a-ha’s. Is it possible that both findings are true? And if so, how is that possible?

How is it possible that Millennials would say it’s important to save, but still not save. Or why Millennials would expect to have more money later if they didn’t save money today. And why hadn’t a recession resulted in a generation of penny-pinchers?

In the end, the a-ha moment didn’t come from a closed data point, I found it in an expression: YOLO – you only live once. Expressions, particularly generational expressions, are cultural artifacts. They can point us to the most pressing values and tensions of the day. “YOLO” isn’t a Millennial war-cry at random. It is, in essence, the codification of an important generational belief that “yeah, you may not have the money to justify doing this or that, but you only live once, so go for it.”

“It turns out that having a good time now is more important to most Millennials than roughing it now for something better in the future.”

If the choice appears to be either/or, Millennials are going to seize the day. The truth is, most Millennials spend more than they should, and wait for their income to catch up with their lifestyle. The presumption is that it will, but there’s a looming fear that it won’t.

In a word, the zeitgeist of the Millennial era is “Nowism.” The “so what” part is that businesses can best appeal to Millennial adults by providing products and services that a) embrace and advance the positive qualities of Nowism and/or b) safeguard against the potential blind-spots and pitfalls of Nowism.

This is the difference between collecting dots and connecting dots. With findings alone, we know that Millennials are confident, optimistic, caring and that they like experiences. A fair start, but we could equally be describing my Nana. It’s only when we connect these dots together through a story that we begin to define a generation with actionable implications.

No matter how you slice it, the business of consumer insights will always be a distinctly human endeavor – stories written by people about people. This is not only good and proper science, it is the essence of human history. Technology enables us to collect more dots than ever before, but the dots will never tell their own story. In the same vein, businesses that neglect their own human underpinnings are the first ones to write themselves out of history. While businesses that embrace their humanity – that thrive on stories – are the ones who infallibly write its next chapter.

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