Ben Huh is the founder and CEO of The Cheezburger Network.
The Millennial Generation (commonly defined as those born in the 1980’s and mid-1990’s) make up 27 percent of the US population and outnumber the Baby Boomers. Already, their economic clout is massive, and is projected to eclipse their parents’ generation in 2018. Brands are either desperate or salivating, depending on their current market positioning.
Yet, understanding an entire generation is admittedly a guessing game and a pseudo-science. How do you define a generation anyway? Brands, employers, social scientists are desperate to understand how to sell, hire, motivate and engage this group.
Despite what should be a careful and steady observation of a huge demographic, the early summary of Millennials have been condescending and often offensive. They have been labeled “lazy,” “have a work ethic problem,” “entitled,” “self-centered,” to name a few. There have been some positive attributes described, but the establishment clearly doesn’t like Millennials.
It turns out, predicting the decline of civilization at the hands of the young is a pastime of the old.
“Our youth now love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for their elders and love chatter in place of exercise; they no longer rise when elders enter the room; they contradict their parents, chatter before company; gobble up their food and tyrannize their teachers.”
If you have bashed Millennials in the past, I’d like to ask you to please stop.
If you are a Millennial, please don’t believe in all the negative stuff you read about your generation.
If the idea of generalizing more than a quarter of the population (and 36 percent of the US workforce today) into a handful of pithy qualities rub you the wrong way, I am with you.
Even our advertising customers who deal with buying ads on our site on a daily basis are Millennials. We’ve had a lot of experience working with them and for them.
It’s been tough for me to see Millennials bashed and vilified in the press and sometimes by Millennials themselves. What’s more surprising is that when I visit companies who want our help in reaching this massive demographic get it wrong. Even they start with the assumption of these negative attributes.
Good luck selling, motivating, and engaging people you don’t like or respect.
So what can we do to fix the conversation about Millennials?
See the similarities before the differences
Forget the narrow, headline-grabbing descriptions you read about them. Start treating them as complex, interesting human beings with similar needs and aspirations as you. The conversation won’t go anywhere if you aren’t empathetic.
Accept that our interpretation of them is wrong
I can already see the tide changing. It appears that much of our understanding about Millennials have been wrong. It’s not the data that was wrong, but often the interpretation. This misunderstanding affects both the positive and negative attributes of Millennials.
Individual life events affect us more than the year we were born
We truly need to recognize that a single 22-year-old isn’t experiencing the same life stage as a married 22-year-old with a kid. They will have different needs, just as everyone else did when they went through life-changing events.
Accept their historical context
Life-altering events like the recessions, the rise of the Internet and the social web, huge increases in college tuition, will change how they see and interact with the world around them. Imagine yourself in their shoes and how you’d be altered by those events too.
Focus on their strengths
No one likes to be defined by their weaknesses, yet that’s what older generations tend to do with the next generation. Remember the Gen X discussions? If you want to enable your customers and inspire your employees, focus on what they can do, not what they’re bad at.
Generations are defined by their environment and the previous generations have done a pretty poor job of it so far with two recessions, increasing college costs, negative stereotypes, etc. In the near future, as Millennials rise to leadership roles, management and fill the gaps left behind by retiring Baby Boomers, they will find strength in their different upbringing.
After all, this is a generation that came of age with the Internet, comfortable in ambiguity and managed through two big recessions and know the value of flexibility and making ends meet. Throughout all the tough times, they kept their sense of humor and desire to give back.
We’re going to be alright in the hands of the Millennials – as long as we stop measuring them through the lens of generations past.