Tuesday, May 14, 2013

The “millennial generation” is a red herring

“Generation Y, also referred to as Millennials, and Generation Z represent those individuals born in the late 1970s or the early 1980s to the early 2000s.”

This quote, from a recent blog post by prominent author Brian Solis, stopped me in my tracks.

I’m not quite sure when the “millennial” generation oozed backwards to eat up my demographic, but I am quite certain that I spent most of my life as a Gen X-er. A latch-key kid.

Reading further into Brian’s post, his statements about Millenials reinforce that I don’t belong. I’m certainly not a digital native.

In fact, I distinctly remember going to my friend’s house in Grade 12 so that we could use “e-mail.” They were one of about 10 families in town that had the internet. I remember learning to code HTML before you could use background images. That’s right, kids, once upon a time every website was black text on a grey background.

Wikipedia (What? If I’m a millennial, then Wikipedia is an authoritative source.) backs me up, saying that—at least in Canada—it’s “common … to represent Gen Xers using the date ranges 1961-1981”.

But this isn’t really a post about the differences between “Millenials” and “Gen X-ers”. There’s nothing wrong with Millenials, and there’s nothing superior about being born in the 1970’s.

This is a rant, in the Rick Mercer oeuvre.

Use your critical thinking skills

Demographic studies bring forth my most contrary tendencies. They’re nothing more than a stereotype with a data-generated veneer of authority to it. Grandiose statements that attempt to paint entire swaths of the population with one matte stroke of the brush.

I believe in critical thinking skills. Especially where blanket statements are concerned.

Take one example from Brian’s post. He says, “we [the Gen X old geezers] complain about privacy in social networks. They’ve [millenials] mastered it.”

First, I question the appropriateness of the term “mastered.” There’s a difference between being comfortable with something and understanding the repercussions. Young people do stupid things. I did, you did, they are. And events like Rehteah Parson’s suicide after a photo of her being sexually assaulted went viral at her school and the vigilante firestorm on Reddit after the Boston marathon bombings that brought a flood of harassing comments to the Facebook pages of young people falsely accused of being terrorists belie the idea that somehow social media is magically without danger for those under the age of 25 (or wherever the cutoff is these days) because they’re digital natives.

Second, not all young people are sharing every element of their lives online. Why? Because they think it’s a bad idea, or because they’re too busy doing non-computer things, or a million other reasons. Just like every other generation they’re a multi-faceted bunch.

Those differences are far more interesting to me than similarities, because individuals are more interesting than demographics.

I don’t mean to pick on Brian Solis. He seems like a smart guy, and I find his blog interesting (why would I be reading it otherwise?). But he’s not alone—far from it—in making these generalizations about a massive part of our population, and whether they’re complimentary ones or not, these generalizations reinforce a false “us vs. them” dichotomy that fails to help either “side.”

Demographic stereotypes are not good marketing

Under the guise of marketing research, these stereotypes gain a sort of authority, because they appear to be rooted in data.

Want to know how to market to a person younger than you? Try talking to them.

Forget what folks say about kids being more comfortable online than with in-person conversations. (I’d rather talk to someone online, too. It’s called being an introvert.) Young people are perfectly capable of carrying on a conversation, and just like other people, if you show interest they’ll respond.

Data is fun. But so is astrology.

Data is fascinating. I love it. And yes, there’s data out there about demographics. Some of it’s good data. But the saying is true: there are lies, damned lies, and statistics.

Don’t trust them.

Question them.

The first clue that generational demographics should be approached with caution is that the cut-off dates for generations aren’t consistent. They differ from author to author, country to country, and change over time. I used to be a “Gen Xer” and now, at least according to Brian Solis, I’m a “Millenial.”

As with everything you read, use your critical thinking skills, and when someone tells you that complicated things are simple, ask yourself what assumptions they’re making. Then ask yourself if you agree with those assumptions.

Besides, the more things change, the more they stay the same (how’s that for a blanket statement?). Relationships still matter. Not every kid in a class has the same interests, or learns the same way, or wants the same things. Old folks will probably continue to have a narrative that starts “kids nowadays…” and the kids will keep rolling their eyes.

And guess what, marketers? You’re pissing off the Millenials with all these blanket statements. That’s not good marketing.

Now it’s your turn to rant: What do you think about the generational narratives?