Marketing needs more generational research, not less
As advertisers, we should be thinking critically about current Millennial beliefs and behaviours - and what that is now creating in the next generation, writes futurist Tracey Follows
The bashing of generational research has become a trend in recent marketing commentary.
Just as it was fashionable around the turn of this century to eat and repeat anything about this exciting new cohort called ‘Millennials’, now it is fashionable to rubbish the very idea of such a group. Trend agencies double down on their research whilst the commentariat either ignores or reviles it. That’s right, the discourse itself is part of a predictable trend: polarisation.
As usual the truth lies somewhere between two extremes.
But more than that, it is the tendency of marketeers to oversimplify generational issues that has left the more nuanced (and I would argue more interesting) insights about how and why generations behave as they do unexplored and on the innovation battlefield.
Millennials are people interested in nothing but avocados and Airbnb, if we believe many a pen-portrait of this group. Equally, generational naysayers depict them as young and idealistic, something they will grow out of when they graduate to their next life-stage.
All of this is nonsense. All of it is a caricaturing of a group of people who are huge in number and are actually, at the upper level, pushing forty.
The man who coined the term 'Millennial' was of course the historian and economist, Neil Howe. He has described Millennials as communitarians, but also as those who have lost trust in the system.
He writes: "[They] first arrived when Baby-on-Board signs appeared. Child abuse and child safety became hot topics while books teaching virtues and values became best-sellers. Today politicians define adult issues in terms of their effects on children. Hollywood is replacing cinematic child devils with child angels and cable TV and the internet are cordoning off child-friendly havens."
Notice that it is not with technology per se that he describes the world into which Millennials came, but the social attitudes and cultural influences that formed how they were treated by other generations. His description, written in 1997, already hinted at why 20 years later we might be using the word 'snowflakes' so enthusiastically.
The thing is, never does he describe Millennials in isolation - as separate from our understanding of other generations and their traits, beliefs and behaviours.
Anyone who knows anything about Howe and his co-author, William Strauss, knows that they believed one of the reasons foresight into future events and cultural context is so lacking is because present day society has such a linear view of time. Certainly, within media and marketing, aided by the faith in technological advancement, there is a belief that we are moving irreversibly in an upward, forward direction.
What we hear in politics we hear in marketing too: 'progressive' parties become 'progressive' consumers. It is a straight line extrapolation from the past - no bends, no reversals, no counter-trends... just 'onwards and upwards.'
But trends are cyclical, and I fundamentally believe that, like nature, change in our society and culture is too. Trends only describe more of something or less of something, rather than something that is brand new and did not exist before.
Sadly, because academia is so bent on either ignoring our past or completely reinventing it in a way that is unrecognisable to most of us, we are discouraged from looking at the past to help inform the future. As William Faulkner put it: "The past is never dead, it's not even the past." In losing our appreciation of the cyclical nature of change (the impact of the past on the present and on what lies ahead), we have lost our full appreciation of context.
If you want to understand people, to communicate with them and perhaps even persuade them, it is better to spend more time thinking not about your message, but the response that it will create. That was one of the great lessons I learnt from the works of Stephen King.
Just as in advertising, in generational research and foresight we also need to better understand not what a specific generation want, or value, or do - but what response that will create in those that come after. As Strauss, who ran political cabaret, was famous for saying: “Our generation’s punch line is the next generation's set up line."
The Millennial generation is not only heavily influenced by the generation that went before it, but by the other generations that still occupy status in the global order - those who rule us, or who sit as judges of us, or hold academic sway over us. It is the seniors in academia and in politics who are the ones pushing a radical agenda today - the boomers, not the Millennials or generation Y’s or Z’s. Their views and values need to be properly understood too.
Let’s not dismiss Millennials, let us understand them. They are neither angels nor villains but merely a product of the world around them. In understanding them more (not less) we will understand what is likely to happen, or certainly the context for what could happen, in the future.
I will admit that I find Strauss and Howe’s Fourth Turning rather persuasive. I do think that there is something to be said for treating the saeculum as one seasonal cycle of history and that every 20 years or so there is a generational change, or turning, that refreshes the social mood somewhat and strengthens or weakens institutions, creating or destroying what it needs to at the time.
Those familiar with their work will know that in 1997, Strauss and Howe forecast a fourth turning - a crisis that would last about a generation, or twenty years - that would come about in or around 2005. Since then we have awarded the Global Financial Crisis of 2007/8 with that mantle.
We are living through that turbulent fourth turning now, but what’s more interesting is to investigate why Millennials in particular (and all of us more generally) have reacted to the turbulence in the way we have. For it was the undisciplined Boomers who decided not to impose moral restraints on adults but on children, and the non-committal Generations X’s who have let Millennials linger longer in childhood than any generation before.
This is what is manifesting within our time. No-one should be surprised at the emergence of the morality police who monitor what we can and cannot say, or the daily demands of sociable, team-orientated group-lead activism. These are not only Millennial manifestations but manifestations of the responses to generational behaviour that has gone before.
As Howe and Strauss wrote in 1997, Millennials will not rebel but will mobilise for public purpose:
“Where Boomer children came to the conclusion the adult world was culturally deficient but well run, Millennial children will come to the opposite discovery; that adults understand values well enough but don’t know how to apply them to public life. They will reach voting age acutely aware of their own potential power to meet this need. They will organise huge youth rallies and produce vast voter turnouts.
"A new breed of college activists will band together not to resist national leaders but to prod them into taking bolder steps. Starting with the election of 2000, when the first Millennials will vote, anything perceived to be a barrier to their future will provoke heated political argument.”
I don't think we want less generational research but more, and we should start by thinking critically about current Millennial beliefs and behaviour and what it is bringing about in the next generation - a generation of compliant children, discouraged from risk-taking and familiar with safe-spaces.
And we should be asking now how their in-built anxiety will affect the civic lives, and the consumer lives, of us all in the future.
Tracey Follows is the founder of Futuremade and writes on the subject of strategic foresight each month for Mediatel