The Millennial Con Trick

11 Jun 2018  |  John Lowery 
The Millennial Con Trick

John Lowery shares evidence that shows how 'Millennials' is not a meaningful marketing segment

A few months back, writing in Marketing Week, Professor Mark Ritson urged those attending a meeting during which a consultant mentions the word ‘Millennials’, to stand up and write on the nearest whiteboard the word, ‘WANK’. And then walk out of the room.

So, as a consultant myself and given that the word ‘Millennials’ is going to appear several times below, I expect the audience for this opinion piece to dwindle but please stay with me because I have new evidence to embolden you to underline the word ‘WANK’ before you turn on your heels.

If this segment, which seems originally to have been dubbed Generation Y, is to have any utility for marketing folk it needs to have a sufficient degree of consistency in its attitudes and behaviours to allow for the development of strategy. And it’s in the search for consistency that things start to get a little disconcerting.

Millennials, Generation Y, Echo Boomers, etc. (there seem to be as many monikers as there are consultancies) are variously said to have arrived on planet Earth anywhere between the early 80s and the early 2000s. Which means we’re talking about 16 million people in the UK, born over a 20-year period.

To put that in context:

In 1982, you could still buy an Austin Allegro made by British Leyland. In 2002, British Leyland no longer existed.

In 1982 Vangelis’ Chariots of Fire was number one in the charts. In 2002 Eminem occupied the same spot with Lose Yourself. (If you believe in that sort of thing, imagine the different experiences in the womb.)

In 1982, Margaret Thatcher was PM and her son got lost in the Sahara Desert. By 2002, Tony Blair was PM and Mark Thatcher, sadly some might say, had been found.

In 1982, everyone’s telephone in the UK had a curly wire coming out of the end of it and fewer than 5 people had heard of the internet. By 2002, mobile penetration was over 75% and household internet penetration was 56%.

How can people born into two such different worlds be automatically expected to hold consistent values and behave similarly?

Well, as my friends at UM London have helped me show, even focusing on a bullseye of what might be called Millennials is no guarantee of finding enhanced consistency over other methods.

To prove the point, we took an initial look at some of the TGI lifestyle statements that might be associated with Millennials and then we zoomed in on the responses from a three-year cohort born in the early 90s.

Here is the agreement level to the statement ‘Real Men Don’t Cry’ amongst 26 to 28 year olds.

Around 16% of them agree that ‘Real men don’t cry’ and 64% disagree. (The remainder sit in the middle.)

Some reasonable consistency there but then we isolated another 3-year cohort from the 70s (aged 46-48) and lumped them and the ‘Millennials’ together. Next, we pulled out only those from the two cohorts who were socio-economic grade AB, to see if we could unite them more successfully. And...

There’s more consistency for two age cohorts split by 20 years, sharing the same social grade, than there is within one age cohort that doesn’t.

Another example: ‘It’s important that a company acts ethically’.

Again, social grade can be seen to unite the two cohorts more successfully.

Another: ‘I enjoy eating foreign food’

I’m sure you’ve got the point now but one last exhibit: ‘I prefer not to shop in High Street chains’.

Importantly, what I’m not saying is that socio-economic grade is a panacea. Nor am I saying that age cohorts are irrelevant in the development and execution of strategy, of course they are.

What I am saying, however, is that the whole concept of Millennials as a discrete and consistent group is a con; a con conceived of by consultants. (Present company excluded, obviously.)

The genesis of this con lies some years back when a consultant dubbed a specific age cohort ‘Generation Y’.

Then another consultant came up with ‘Generation Z’.

At which point everyone panicked.

"What the hell do we do now? What are we going to call the next lot? I mean, 'Generation A' sounds really shit, doesn't it?"

Of course, those who panicked most were the consultants who’d pinned their colours to the mast of ‘Generation Y’.

"Double shit. We've been out-alphabetised."

And then, in a workshop at Home House or the like, some bright spark stood up and declared, "Let's dump this alphabet thing and go for dates instead. We'll call them...Millennials."

Utter genius”, said the relieved and appreciative work-shoppers.

But that doesn’t really explain the reason for the panic and subsequent relief. This, however, does…

Once the cohort had been dubbed ‘Millennials’ they could then be wrapped in a kind of mystique by the consultant who’d coined the name.

They did this because talking about any other kind of segmentation, for example good old socio-economics or household income or gender (Heaven forfend that might actually be more useful!) or psychographics, is something any old fool – like me - can do standing on their head.

They did this because they could then claim to unlock the mysteries of the so-called Millennials.

And they did this because that allowed them to charge premiums to pedal a noxious combination of old-rope drizzled in snake oil and slow baked in bullshit.

With the acrid whiff of that in my nostrils and having used the ‘M’ word quite enough, I shall walk out of this opinion piece and leave the whiteboard (the comments section below) for people to write what they will; maybe even the ‘W’ word.


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AdamOliver, Title, Company on 5 Jul 2018
“This kind of article could have been written about any oversized cohort such as baby boomers. This kind of audience slicing reminds me of horoscopes.”
DraytonBird, Founder, Drayton Bird Associates on 19 Jun 2018
“"Times change; People don't" - John Caples”
MarekTobota, owner, Data Tribe on 19 Jun 2018
“Birlliant - generation glasses are not new culture glasses https://blog.antropologia2-0.com/en/generation-glasses-are-not-new-culture-glasses/”
ChristaBadenhorst, Marketing & business development, About Branding on 17 Jun 2018
“Great article. Cant agree more. My husband and I are both early 50s and display more than our fair share of Millenial traits. Could it be because we made a move from corporate to entrepeneur. Or that we moved from inland to coast. Our posessions have been halved by choice and if there is Wifi we can do business. Our ultimate retirement plan is a campervan. Millenial -smenial. I know more 50+ millenials than 20+ ers...”
SteveOwen, Intern, EMC on 16 Jun 2018
“A generation thinks and acts differently than the previous one? Amazing, never heard of that.”
gordoneuchler, head of planning, bbdo düsseldorf on 11 Jun 2018
“this is the kind of fine-tuned analysis that turns data into something actionable. rather than amassing them.”

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