Stop the Millennial Madness: Why This Generation Isn’t as Mysterious as You Think

Demographics can be valuable to marketers and business owners but the obsession with Millennials as either saviour or sinner can actually stagnate your growth and blind you to new opportunities.

the madness of millennials in business

9 min. read

If I hear the word “Millennial” one more time, I’m going to lose my Gen X mind.

Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against Millennials as people. It’s the marketing and media industries’ obsession with them that I find annoying.

If you’re consuming business or marketing news, you can’t escape reading or hearing the word ‘Millennial’ multiple times a day. It might lead you to think they’re the only demographic with a dollar to spend, a job to find, or a life worth living.

You might also think they’re lazy, entitled, and lack loyalty to their employers.

They’re either out to destroy your business by being a terrible employee, or they’re going to make you super rich if only you could unlock 'The Secret to Marketing to Millennials’.

I’m here to remind you that Millennials are simply humans like the rest of us. And your business will be much better off if you stop both fearing, or revering them.

A cohort is not a monolith

As a marketer, I understand the value of psychographics and cohorts to better understand customers and inform business strategy. Because you’re dealing with large numbers of people, often generations, you have to generalize values, needs, wants, objections, and challenges to bring them into focus.

And while I agree there are experiences and attitudes shared by particular generations within particular cultures, sometimes generalizations can make us forget that these are individual people, and we end up viewing groups like they are an immovable monolith, singular in formation and purpose.

Uluru, the largest monolith in the world, not a customer cohort
One to grow on: This is NOT a customer cohort but Uluru, the largest monolith in the world.

This kind of vast stereotyping strips away the unique human characteristics of people and makes it easier for others to disregard, condescend, and discriminate. Without putting too fine a point on it, this is how prejudice works.

And if you blindly blame everything on one large, generalized group, saying things like, “I can’t keep good employees because Millennials are job hoppers”, you might be missing out on learning something valuable about yourself.

Like perhaps there are ways you could be a better, more engaged employer, or that maybe they weren’t a good fit for your company to start with, or remembering what you were like trying to establish your own career in an economy where the single lifelong job is all but extinct.

Oh, and by the way, that’s a total myth about Millennials being job hoppers.

Millennials are not job hoppers and actually stay with their first job 3-6 years vs. Gen X at 1 year or less

So be careful you don’t end up using broad generalizations as a crutch to keep from improving how you do business.

You were once a Millennial, too

I’m guessing that most people reading this article are either Millennials themselves, or you’re from Generation X, like me. There may even be a few Baby Boomers out there.

While there are indeed differences in the ways each generation grew up and the context of the world as we came of age, there are actually a lot of similarities. And those similarities lie in the way that some older people traditionally describe younger people.

Like how it’s said that Millennials can’t handle authority and don’t like to be told what to do.

Isn’t that what older people always say about younger people who don’t do what they want them to?

Who likes to be told what to do? Especially when we were younger, but I also don’t know a lot of Boomers out there who like taking orders, either (shout out to my mom and dad).

Baby Boomers were famous for their disregard of authority with the protests of the 60’s and the counterculture movement. Baby Boomers were all about breaking the rules.

And apparently all of us Gen Xers are highly cynical, have a disdain for authority, and hate being micromanaged. Plus we smell like teen spirit.

I’m sure I don’t have to remind you of even one example of the hundreds of outstanding entrepreneurs, artists, and scientists over the years who thumbed their noses at convention to blaze a new trail in their field. Everyone’s favourite startup buzzword, ‘disruption’ is all about turning your back on the status quo, on the authority.

So before you let your attitude toward people be shaped by negative stereotypes, maybe look in the mirror. And look again to see how the reverse image might actually be something positive.

One more thing: Millennials are actually more willing to defer to their superiors in the workplace than Baby Boomers or Gen Xers.

Deference to Authority. Percentage who agree or strongly agree with the statement: Employees should do what their manager tells them even when they can't see the reason for it. Baby Boomers 30%, Gen Xers 30%, Millennials 41%

Millennials make me feel like a Gen X slacker

I never really identified with the slacker title associated with Generation X, but I understood why it might seem like that’s who some of us were.

When a lot of us were coming of age in the 80’s and 90’s we didn’t know quite what we were going to do with our lives given the global economic, political, and environmental situation at that time.

My boyfriend (and fellow Gen Xer) was so affected as a kid by all the talk of the cold war and threat of nuclear annihilation, he was convinced he would never live to be 30. From that kind of perspective, you can see how life choices and attitudes might differ from other generations.

I never really knew exactly what I wanted to do as a career. I majored in Spanish in university (and that was after playing around in English and Sociology), had vague ideas about teaching, or journalism, or social work, but I was never very focused on any particular path.

I was 30 before I discovered marketing and communications and how my skills and love of writing could be used toward a career with a real paycheque. I finally found my fit.

Fifteen years later, with the exception of one Baby Boomer, I work with all Millennials. My co-workers range in age from mid 20’s to mid 30’s and they impress me everyday.

Mainly I am amazed they knew early on what they wanted to do and went after it. They are professionally skilled designers, developers, marketers, and support specialists who all have good jobs in their chosen fields.

What was I doing when I was 26?

Flailing about, whining that I didn’t know what to do with my life, working as a receptionist for a bunch of companies I didn’t respect, and writing bad poetry. (Note: no slams to amazing receptionists everywhere but I knew that wasn’t my personal destiny.)

I certainly did not have a going-somewhere job like my Proposify co-workers do, nor did I have any clue how to get there. More impressively, this isn’t even their first career job. They all came to Proposify with previous experience and industry knowledge.

Most startup founders I know are Millennials, Proposify’s co-founder, Kyle, included. Turns out Millennials are creating businesses at twice the rate compared to Baby Boomers and Gen Xers.

Number of Businesses Started: Millennials 8, Boomers 4. Age at First Bustiness Started: Millennials 27, Boomers 35

And I have a lot of Millennial friends who are kicking ass and taking names by doing new, determined things with their lives and contributing to their communities at the same age that I was when I taped a huge banner on the wall over my bed that said, “Life is an illusion”, as a way to escape the heartache and pressures of being a grownup.

So those “lazy” Millennials? I admire their drive, I enjoy learning from them, and I’m excited to know I’ll be able to say “I knew them when...”

Meanwhile, I’ll just be over here working on my career time machine and listening to Beck.

Don’t be an old geezer

The fastest way to identify yourself as an out of touch, behind-the-times dinosaur is to diss the up and coming generation.

Their music, their language, what’s important to them, their technology. If you automatically revert to a “kids these days” attitude when faced with something new or different from your own experiences, you’ll miss out on an opportunity to grow, and you will be officially labeled a curmudgeonly square.

That doesn’t mean you have to like everything new that comes up, but you can’t categorically dismiss it all. Generations need to collaborate  - experience and knowledge meets fresh ideas and an appetite for risk.

I’m surprised when I hear Gen Xers and Baby Boomers, especially entrepreneurs, complain about their perceived notions of Millennials, as if they were a bothersome band of misfits that can never be tamed.

I’m surprised because I think every generation’s purpose is to rebel a bit against the previous generation, and to go boldly forward. I think this because I’ve experienced it myself. Like every generation before.

If the people writing off Millennials with a huff got down off their proverbial high horses (who made YOU the standard setter?) and remembered how they felt just a few short years ago when they were trying to carve their own new path in life, they might just finally unlock “The Secret to Marketing to/Working with/Hiring/Keeping/Understanding Millennials’.

The real fountain of youth? Don’t alienate yourself from new generations or accept stereotypes that create an us vs. them situation.

Stay open to new ideas, new perspectives, and to the possibility that maybe it’s you who needs to change, not them.

Life beyond the Millennial

I know that Millennials are the generation that is currently coming of age, populating the workforce, and shaping much of consumer behaviour. There are also A LOT of them, roughly 87 million in the US alone, which can justify some of the attention being paid to them.

But they aren’t the only people with that dollar to spend, job to find, or life worth living.

It’s important to your business to diversify your understanding of human beings, not accept generalizations at face value, and to develop understanding, acceptance, and respect for people, regardless of when they were born.

Don’t get caught up in the hype of one demographic. Don’t dismiss the diversity within that demographic.

Instead of focusing on the things that separate you from other humans, search for the places you connect.

That’s where success lies.

Stop the Millennial Madness: Why This Generation Isn’t as Mysterious as You Think

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